In the first half of the 16th century, Western Europe experienced a wide range of social, artistic and geographically political changes that created conflict within the Holy Roman Empire. This conflict is called the Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that gave birth to Protestantism and Catholic reform throughout Europe. "It is fair to regard the Reformation as revolutionary, for it shattered the unity of the Christian church, which had for the previous one thousand years provided the cultural and organizational foundation of the Western Civilization" (Strayer 1995: 35). The faith the church proclaimed had provided the essential questions of life for everyone from poor peasants to rich nobles. These questions were about to be challenged.
The oldest of the Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church has a very long history in Germany and remains one of the largest religions in the German speaking world. In Austria for example, 98% of the population professes to be Roman Catholic. Catholicism is a more ritualistic, traditional form of Christianity than most other denominations. The German people's first loyalty was usually to their families and then, perhaps, to their parish church. Local communities such as villages or neighborhoods or even entire towns also demanded loyalties. Yet Europe also had its share of large territorial states, especially in the north. The Protestant Reformation was acted out initially against the background of rising territorial monarchies. Northern monarchs attempted to assert more and more of their authority against the power of their feudal nobility. Instead of relying on feudal charges for the bulk of their military power, Renaissance princes employed mercenaries in increasing numbers. Royal bureaucracies and legal systems also expanded. Not just content with expanding their royal rights within their states, European monarchs struggled with each other for economic and political advantages.