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Thursday, May 22, 2014

“The Reformation: A History”, by Diarmaid MacCulloch


792 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670032969

In many ways, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s account is a useful, thorough guide to the Reformation, which starts in the aftermath of the Hussite controversy, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the rise of Humanism and the reconquest of Spain, and which ends with the Glorious Revolution, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and with the beginning of the Enlightenment. MacCulloch is careful to remind the reader to take seriously the religious passions of the period and avoid the enormous condescension of the secular present, for this was a period where both Catholics and Protestants emphasized the absolute need for faith in Jesus as well as the need for moral behavior and increased discipline. In the battle of faith over works, Protestants emphasized the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Romans, while Catholic emphasized the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle of James; whereas Catholics only had the Eucharist once a year, the Scottish Calvinists emphasized a more rational devotion, such that parishioners could now expect to take it twice; instead of obeying the Pope, Protestants emphasized their new ecclesiastical hierarchies.

For these differences and many others, people were slaughtered en masse, from Drogheda to Magdeburg.

MacCulloch’s main virtue is thoroughness: this is a history of the Reformation that covers almost all of Western Christianity. Not merely do Britain, France, the Netherlands, and what is now Germany all play their parts, but we also get special sections on the surprisingly cosmopolitan culture of late 16th Century Poland, the Protestant redoubt that was then Transylvania, as well as accounts of the Counter-Reformation in Italy and Spain. We even get the short and unhappy history of an attempt to turn Moldova Protestant, as well as colonial efforts in Virginia, Japan, Latin American and the Philippines (Indeed, of all the countries of Western Christianity, only Slovakia, Slovenia and Finland do not make an appearance). Moreover, MacCulloch also makes clear that this was also a period of religious reform on the Catholic side. Just as the pre-1517 period was not one of religious decadence, there were new orders, new forms of discipline, new cultural forms, new theologies after the Council of Trent. In 1580, Poland, France, Bohemia, Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, and Belgium were all balanced between Protestantism and Catholicism; a century later they were all clearly Catholic. A third point in MacCulloch’s favor is an amusing style and a fine eye for detail. Many people would not know that the Spanish Inquisition was one of the more level-headed groups during the witch-hunt panics, a response, MacCulloch suggests, of their long experience with paranoia. After a lucid and amusing description of medieval Aristotelian theories of transubstantiation, MacCulloch notes the irony that thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for rejecting an idea of a man who had never heard of Jesus. Later, we will see Protestants rejecting early cures for malaria and syphilis because Catholics were the first to come up with them. Many people are aware of Luther’s hostility towards Jews, but MacCulloch notes that Erasmus could be equally venomous against them.

Having said that, this history is not definitive. The Gaelic culture of Scotland was easily absorbed into Protestantism, while the Gaelic culture of Ireland was almost completely hostile. By 1650 Catholics were tiny minorities in both England and Scotland; meanwhile, in the Netherlands a sizeable minority were (and still are) Catholic, while what is now Belgium was mostly Catholic. Why? There is no systematic explanation of why one area was Catholic and another Protestant. We only get partial explanations, such as the argument that since the cult of purgatory had never developed as far in the South, Luther’s polemics against it had much less effect. There is little discussion of what the population as a whole thought about the reformation. The Revisionist argument that the British population was underwhelmed by the Reformation for several decades is never really confronted. What did Europeans actually know about their Christian faith? Whether one uses Keith Thomas, Gerald Strauss, Christopher Haigh or Geoffrey Parker the results are not encouraging. MacCulloch emphasizes the Ottoman threat, many discussions of possible turning points and alternate endings, a discussion of the witch-hunts, and two chapters on sex and gender, even though the changes there were relatively modest. By contrast, there is little discussion of the economic causes or effects of the Reformation. In that way, it is very much a monograph of our time.

Much of the book consists of sympathetic discussions of Protestant and Catholic theology, while there is no appearance in the index of El Greco, Montaigne, Spenser, Rembrandt or Milton. In his discussion of theology, there is a certain bias for Reformed theologians over their Lutheran and Catholic rivals. Certainly Augustine is treated as if he were holy scripture, while the modern critical consensus that Jesus opposed divorce absolutely goes unmentioned. Instead, there is the patently incorrect claim that Britain has the most restrictive divorce laws in Europe.

In our secular world, we tend to view the political history of the past in secular terms (or at least in terms where religion is relegated to being merely one factor among many). MacCulloch quite rightly makes it clear that, while many factors contributed, for example, to the 30 Years’ War, in the end it was all about religion. This is a wonderful book that will illuminate and clarify history for anyone diligent enough to really read it.

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