Media Briefings

Adopting A New Religion: What Drove the Expansion of Protestantism in Sixteenth Century Germany

  • Published Date: May 2012

During the sixteenth century, territories closer to Wittenberg, the town where Martin Luther taught and from which the Reformation spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire, were more likely to adopt Protestantism than territories further away.

That is the central finding of research by Professor Davide Cantoni, which sheds new light on the importance of geography in the adoption of social phenomena and other kinds of institutional change.

But his study, published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal, shows that it was not the cost of spreading information that hindered the geographical expansion of Protestantism. Reformation treatises were rapidly available and widely read in cities all over Europe only few years after Luther’s first protests.

Rather, it was the risks connected with formal adoption of the Reformation. Rulers of Protestant territories were potentially threatened by the military intervention of Catholic troops. This risk was substantially decreased if a neighbouring territory also embraced Protestantism and would thus offer support in case of conflict.

Since the territory including Wittenberg was the first to commit to Protestantism, its adjacent and therefore closer territories were more likely to adopt the Reformation as well, explaining why Protestant places were more likely to be close to Wittenberg (see figure below). This phenomenon was more marked for smaller territories, which were arguably less likely to succeed on their own in a military conflict.

Data about the adoption of Protestantism in territories and cities support this thesis. As soon as the legal status of Protestant territories in the Holy Roman Empire was recognised by all authorities (after the Peace of Augsburg in 1555) and the implicit threat of military intervention ceased to exist, distance from Wittenberg no longer explains territories’ denominational choices.

Do local governments learn from neighbouring regions when considering whether and how to implement a new reform, for example, in their educational systems? What was the role of news about successful uprisings in neighbouring countries in the recent ‘Arab spring’ or during the wave of democratisation in Eastern Europe after 1989?

This research on the spread of Protestantism during the sixteenth century can shed light on these questions about the significance of spatial patterns.

The analysis of spatial patterns of conversion to Protestantism shows that availability of information per se was not a limiting factor. What played a major role instead was news about the threats connected with the decision to embrace a new social phenomenon, in this case a new religion.

These results imply that information about different policies, institutions or other innovations alone does not guarantee their diffusion. Threats associated with implementing new concepts can hinder their expansion and lead to countries’ choices being dependent on the decisions of their neighbours, especially if the existence of bordering adopters reduces the risks for a country itself.

The author concludes: ‘If one wants to encourage the adoption of an institutional change, one should thus not concentrate on the diffusion of information, but on overcoming possible threats associated with its implementation.’


Notes for editors: ‘Adopting a New Religion: The Case of Protestantism in 16th Century Germany’ by Davide Cantoni is published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.

Davide Cantoni is a professor of economics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

For further information: contact Davide Cantoni on +49 89 2180 6260 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: