The Reformation

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 explosive growth of Calvinism in France and the Low Countries in the 1560s.

Three features of MacCulloch’s exposition are particularly impressive. First, much better than most historians, he integrates theology and religion with political events and institutions. Second, he narrates the emergence of radical Protestantism, including the German Peasants’ War of 1524-25, the varieties of Anabaptism, and also anti-Trinitarian, rationalizing Protestants, in relationship to the emergence of the magisterial Protestantism associated with major reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldreich Zwingli, and John Calvin. And third, he devotes attention to Roman Catholicism alongside and in relationship to Protestantism, although Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism (including the Church of England) receive the most attention. According to MacCulloch, “The end of the 1560s marked a watershed in the Reformation,” when the early years of the Dutch Revolt, the Northern Rebellion in England (1569), Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth I (1570), and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Huguenots by Catholics (1572) made the ruptures between Catholics and Protestants irreparable. This marks the chronological pivot in MacCulloch’s account.

Part II, “Europe Divided, 1570-1619,” continues the narrative in this age of confessionalization with a geographical subdivision among “Protestant Heartlands” in the north (much of Germany, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, and the Dutch Republic), “Catholic Heartlands” in the south (Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Catholic overseas missions), and the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in central Europe broadly defined (the Holy Roman Empire, Transylvania, and France). As in Part I, MacCulloch’s geographical reach extends to lands in Eastern Europe in which Latin and Orthodox Christians coexisted, a commendable expansion of the more exclusively Western focus of most Reformation histories.

The culmination of unresolved religio-political tensions was the Thirty Years’ War, to which MacCulloch devotes a brief chapter, as he does to England in the seventeenth century, including a discussion of early Anglican, Pilgrim, Puritan, and Quaker settlers along the coast of North America. Part III, titled “Patterns of Life,” addresses matters such as apocalypticism, worship, witches, the family, gender, sexuality, and moral regulation across confessional divides. Exhaustion as a result of religious wars, the agonizing and uneven growth of tolerance, the influence on religious dogmatism of certain strands of humanist thought and natural philosophy, as well as skeptical criticism and rational assertion in the early Enlightenment-all point “to an end to the Reformation around 1700.”

One may wonder for whom in an American readership this massive work is intended. Although well and often wittily written, the text runs to nearly seven hundred pages of relatively small print, and there are countless names, places, and dates from more than a dozen countries. The text is too detailed and sophisticated to serve as an introduction for general readers unacquainted with the subject, and too lengthy to be assigned as a college textbook. But there can be little question of the work’s accomplishment, including its geographical reach, comparative acumen, integration of religion and politics, and analysis of social and cultural change. Still, underneath the whole lies a modified version of a quite traditional tale. When one steps back from the many trees to survey the forest, MacCulloch tells a story about the way in which the heterogeneous Protestant Reformation not only challenged and affected, but in his view intellectually and morally superseded the Roman Church, eventually paving the way for a European culture which, by the end of the seventeenth century, was more pluralistic, self-critical, tolerant, and rational-in short, more “modern.” Despite MacCulloch’s disdain for the Augustinian anthropology and predestination at the heart of Protestant theology (“bleak and extreme” with “a terrible logic”), his book is a subtle and highly learned exposition of the values of the Protestant Reformation versus the Catholic “Counter-Reformation.”

MacCulloch uses the term “Counter-Reformation” to refer in general to Roman Catholicism, rather than tailoring his terminology to the particular subject matter at hand (early modern Catholicism, Catholic Reformation, Catholic Reform). To be sure, “Counter-Reformation” is the best term in many contexts (explicit opposition to Protestantism, or political and military efforts to undo the Reformation), but its use as a synonym for Catholicism reflects a tendency to construe Roman Catholicism as an “Anti-Reformation” (the original meaning of the German term, Gegenreformation). The term is doubly misplaced, for example, in a section titled “The Counter-Reformation as World Mission.” Catholic missionary activity in the New World preceded the Reformation, as MacCulloch himself discusses, and even after it began, Catholic missionaries sought not to reverse the Reformation but rather to convert non-Christians who had nothing to do with Protestantism. Beyond terminology, one would never know from MacCulloch’s work that at least fifty-seven different Catholic authors wrote works against Luther between 1517 and 1525. Consequently, the reader gets the (mistaken) impression that those loyal to Rome, such as John Fisher, Thomas More, or Johann Eck, had no arguments with which to confront the reformers, and that their only recourse was to repressive power. The comparisons between Protestants and Catholics drawn in the third part of the book concentrate overwhelmingly on the former: a section titled “Telling out the Word,” for example, which is devoted to Bibles, preaching, catechizing, devotional reading, and sacred music, says nothing about Catholic preaching, even though it was no less important than among Protestants. MacCulloch further claims that in the wake of Protestant catechetical efforts, “Roman Catholics followed suit,” even though catechisms and catechetical instruction preceded the Reformation. He devotes all of one sentence to the literally thousands of titles of Catholic devotional literature in the era. He is silent on Catholic sacred music despite its efflorescence. And he is content to note that “Roman Catholics remained highly suspicious of lay use of the vernacular Bible,” without exploring their rationale.

In short, MacCulloch’s treatment of Catholics is much less satisfactory and less sympathetic than his depiction of Protestants. When he writes, for example, that “the Roman Catholic Church’s first major schism since the Reformation” occurred at the end of the seventeenth century when Dutch Jansenist Catholic clergy consecrated their own bishop in defiance of Rome, the reader is left puzzled about where they came from. For in his earlier discussion of “Protestant victory” in the Dutch Revolt, MacCulloch neglects even to mention that large numbers of men and women in the northern Netherlands had remained Catholic, although their existence (they were “much more numerous than in England”) receives passing mention in one sentence in the midst of several paragraphs about English Catholic recusants.

An enormously ambitious book, precisely because it seeks to do so much, is bound to draw criticisms of various kinds. In its own way, that is a tribute of a very high order. Whatever its shortcomings, MacCulloch’s achievement is remarkable, and demonstrates that notwithstanding the vitality and volume of Reformation scholarship in recent decades, an individual scholar can indeed render the whole in impressive fashion. 

Published in the 2004-05-21 issue: 

Brad S. Gregory is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press).

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