Viking, $34.95, 750 pp.
In 2000, Andrew Pettegree, director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute in Scotland, rightly remarked that scholarship on the Reformation has “expanded, geographically and thematically” to such an extent that “it is almost impossible for one individual scholar to do it justice.” Almost impossible, but maybe not quite. In The Reformation, British scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of an award-winning biography of Thomas Cranmer (1996) among other books, has far transcended his specialty in English Reformation history and produced an extraordinarily wide-ranging and detailed account of the transformations of Western Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. MacCulloch marshals vast erudition in a simultaneously synthetic and analytical narrative, and The Reformation is a remarkable achievement by any measure.
The book has three parts: the first two comprise a narrative of religion and politics from about 1490 into the seventeenth century, whereas the final part is a thematic treatment of various social and cultural effects of the Reformation. Part I, “A Common Culture,” lays out the basic institutions, practices, and beliefs of the late medieval church, discusses forces for change in the decades leading up to 1517, and traces the Reformation from its earliest beginnings in Augustinian theology and Luther’s formation through the final phase of the Council of Trent (1561-63) and the...