Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
This book may well be called a "saga in theology." It takes us across Europe, from religious centers such as Geneva and Wittenberg via the great kingdoms and Empires of Henry VIII, Francois I and Charles V, to seemingly unlikely places such as Emden in East Friesland, there to visit the reformation attempts of the resolute regent, Anna of Oldenburg. In true saga-mode, it also keeps the story going along a time-span of more than two centuries. Finally, like any good family saga, it introduces us to a large cast of characters, ranging from heroes to villains, although, it has to be admitted, hardly a character is presented as all good or all bad. Among the great reformators—the likes of Luther, Melanchton, Zwingli— only Jean Calvin does not really come across as a likeable fellow—and even in his case, respect and admiration are not wholly missing. Even more than these crucial protagonists of every history of the Reformation, the lesser-known characters impress by their honesty, bravery and commitment. So, when reading this book, watch out for Katharina Schutz, Balthasar Hubmaier, Melchior Hoffmann or Michael Servetus, who was executed on Calvin's instigation in 1553 after he had dared to criticize the great man during a visit to Geneva [pp. 244-45).
Like many a good saga, this story of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century reformations sets out from a superficially stable and calm situation, with undercurrents of change and upheaval lurking below the surface. In the late fifteenth century, Europe was defined by a common culture—the world of Catholicism. Far from uniform, this world was united by a common understanding based on two pillars, namely papal primacy in religious questions and the celebration of Holy Mass. First cracks in the pillars are observable—papal primacy was challenged by a broadly based conciliarist movement; English Lollards and Bohemian Hussites developed their own ideas on the mass; inside Catholicism, we find tensions between friars and secular clergy, both appealing for the support and the funding of the same kinds of audience. Yet despite charges of corruption against the papal court in Rome and some of the pontiffs themselves, the Church came across as being in acceptable and satisfying shape. In general, MacCulloch argues, the Church met the needs of the average Christian who was offered the prospect of salvation and eternal life by amassing good works during his earthly lifetime.
But then—eruption: the optimistic late-medieval attitude was severely shaken by Luther's return to the pessimistic theology of the early-Christian bishop Augustine of Hippo. The human being is worthless, good works are without value, salvation can only be hoped for by faith and by the grace of God. Theology entered a period of self-doubting contortions: Will it be possible to provide a scripture-based path to salvation? Can Jesus really be present at the Eucharist? Does the Bible allow the display of pictures in churches?
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many possible answers to these questions were worked out, the unity of the Christian world was broken, different strands of reforming theology developed. Unapologetically, MacCulloch treats his readers to complex theological discussions:
This, then, is a book that restores the theological dimension to the history of the reformation era, and it succeeds brilliantly. Its outstanding achievement is to take the reader along the twists and turns of theological concepts across Europe. In the process, it unearths the surprising crosscurrents of thought which often made the same idea emerge unexpectedly at opposing poles of the theological and political divides. Reforming ideas even found their way into the papal court, right into the ranks of the cardinals, only to flounder when their most prominent advocate, Cardinal Reginald Pole, failed to be elected pope in 1550 [pp. 236-37).
From the common culture described at the start we do not simply end up with a clear-cut Catholic-Protestant divide. Even worse, by the end of Part I, unbridgeable gaps have opened up inside the Protestant camp, with the Lutheran-Reformed division only the most deep-seated and most prominent. Part II presents the irretrievable loss of the common culture of Christianity. From 1570 onwards, the divides hardened and perpetuated. Carefully, the author sets out the different variants of Protestant creed, taking the reader all over Europe in the process.
Slowly a Lutheran consensus emerged in many German territories and Scandinavia, although Luther's positions were altered by his co-worker Melanchton after the master's death. Geneva and Zurich became the centres for Reformed thought, but they never managed to prevent significant local alterations of Reformed thinking in other places. Particularly instructive are the author's forays into territories that refused to follow a clear-cut path of reformation. The English turmoils are given special attention, and MacCulloch deserves praise for the generous space he accords to the relatively tolerant approaches worked out in the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania—the biggest single territory in Europe at the time. He does not even forget the short-lived attempt at reformation in Moldavia by the "despot" Jakob Heraklides who forged what was, after all, "Europe's first official alliance between Protestantism and the civil power" [(p. 266].
MacCulloch significantly widens the scope of the term "reformation" by inviting the reader into the "Catholic Heartlands," Italy and Spain. Paradoxically, it was only because of the emergence of Protestantism that we can speak of a Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, Roman Catholicism was markedly different from pre-Reformation Catholicism. The Counter-Reformation itself was a conscious effort of reformation, in altering the structure and teachings of the Catholic Church after the onslaught of criticism by its enemies and by a critical tradition from the late middle-ages. The Council of Trent, which met on and off between 1545 and 1563, offered the blueprint for the reforming exercises of Catholic monarchs. As is wellknown from the Spanish example, this went along with fierce repression of opposition, but as MacCulloch underlines, Catholicism also truly managed to find its way into the hearts and minds of the people, even in the American and Asian colonies of the great Catholic powers.
In many territories of the Empire and in France, however, the Roman Church failed to establish the Trent model. Clergy in the Empire often was loath to accept celibacy, pointing to the happily married protestant minister next door. In France, the Gallican tradition encouraged independence from Rome, although this did nothing to make developments more peaceful than in other countries. The whole of part II thus offers a detailed and subtle discussion of different versions of reforming Christianity emerging from the mid-fifteenth European experience up to the founding of the colonies at the American East Coast.
The story of the reformation ends with the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War when the malleable situation stabilised into a colourful pattern of religious divides on the European map. The third part of the book supports the argument for an end to the reformation about 1700 by looking at everyday religious life and mentalities in Europe over the whole of the reformation period. Reformation ideas had become entrenched by the late seventeenth century; pre-reformation ideas on the role of marriage and the family in life had undergone significant changes in the wake of the religious turmoil. In the religious sphere, the paradoxical situation of different conflicting "truths" had resulted in marked religious divides, but at the same time in the emergence of ideas of toleration that facilitated the very coexistence of conflicting regimes of truth.
This, then, is much more than a book about "the" “Reformation” as a singular event; it offers a survey of a process of "reformations" that went on both inside and outside the Catholic Church and took many different forms in different countries, theological debates and areas of life. The daunting task reformers of all persuasions faced jumps out from the experience of one Portuguese Archbishop who, when visiting a community in his diocese, was greeted by blithe chanting: "Blessed be the Holy Trinity and His sister the Virgin Mary" [p. 400]. It took decades to mould the mass of the people into more clearly separated "confessions," at the same time, this "success" did much to destroy the wealth of local variants of religion that had blossomed in former times.
In presenting the often-paradoxical theological developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the sweeping narrative of this book is an outstanding success. It probes right down into the motivations of the people, both in the magisterial and the more popular radical Reformations as well as in Catholicism. In dealing with the political side of the Reformation, the book is somewhat less satisfactory. The events surrounding the famous 1529 Protestation at the Imperial Diet do not really become clear from the very short treatment of this episode. Neither do the different aspects of the Emperor's Interim of 1548. Here MacCulloch hardly mentions one crucial aspect of Charles V's decree, namely the "freeze" in the territorial boundaries of the different religious convictions. Even some of the core theological points of dispute in the era, such as Luther's concept of the "two kingdoms," might have deserved more detailed introduction. Considering the scope of book and subject matter, the reader may also be surprised because of the dominance of English-language titles in the annotations. The author's brief remarks on Protestantism and democracy, for example, would have gained from the inclusion of the excellent study "Reformation und Demokratie" by Immo Meenken (Reformation und Demokratie. Zum politischen Gehalt protestantischer Theologie in England 1570-1660, Stuttgart 1996), the same goes for the Thirty Years' War and the research done by Johannes Burkhardt (Der Dreissigjaehrige Krieg, Frankfurt am Main 199).
Yet all said, such criticism is nothing but petty if levelled against a magisterial study of the quality, wit and scope of MacCulloch's book. Much more than simply an outstanding example of scholarship and erudition, it is also extremely well written, with a sure grasp of illuminating anecdote and funny or bizarre detail. For example, let us pause to meditate on the sorry fate of the giant tortoise of Archbishop William Laud. The animal survived all the vagaries and turmoil of the British revolutions, only to die accidentally at the hand of a gardener in the eighteenth century. From this wealth of details, themes such as salvation, debates on the Eucharist or the question of iconoclasm emerge again and again to invest the book with a clearly exposed and lucid argument on the path of the Rreformation. As a result, this story manages to both teach and entertain its reader. What more is there to be said about a work of serious and subtle scholarship?