The Counter-Reformation Patchwork
Eamon Duffy on a wide-ranging new work on the Catholic Reformation in Europe and beyong.
The Counter-Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World
by A.B. Wright
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982)
The appearance of a new survey of the Counter-Reformation is an event to be welcomed. Teachers at sixth-form and undergraduate level can currently send their pupils to five basic works in English, none of them entirely satisfactory for the purpose. Kidd's hoary survey has long been out of date and was always lacking in sympathetic comprehension. Janelle's work, also showing its age, is pious in tone and partisan in its treatment. Dickens' admirable illustrated volume is too brief, and confines itself to the sixteenth century, thereby begging a host of questions. Delumeau's exciting re-interpretation requires more familiarity with the subject than beginners can possess, and is heavily orientated towards France. He advances, moreover, a theory of discontinuity in the Counter-Reformation which fails to do justice to the realities of even reformed Catholicism in the early modern period, and which incorporates a negative attitude towards medieval Catholicism, lacking in sympathy for the power and richness of the corporate Christianity of the late middle ages. Finally, Outram Evenett's masterpiece, the finest of the five, is too brief, too concentrated, and too specific to serve as a general introduction.
Dr Wright's book is aimed at 'interested readers new to the subject'. It is enormously wide-ranging, touching on every aspect of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, from Habsburg advances in Transylvania to episcopal independence after Trent. The temporal scope of the work is also huge, stretching from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. The book reflects recent interpretation of both Protestant and Catholic reforms as part of an 'Augustinian' revolution in Christian awareness, predating the Reformation, and embodying what has been described as the battle between 'carnival and lent'. In this battle a new puritanism, both Catholic and Protestant – individualist, moral, geared to the religious book and ecclesiastical discipline triumphed over the communal seasonal observances of popular Catholicism, with its anarchic plethora of local saints and apparently magical observances. Dr Wright goes some way with this view, though he is at pains to point out the differences between Catholic and Protestant reforming approaches, seeing Catholic reform as a more complete attempt to capture a Patristic, mainly Augustinian Christianity. Ii he rarely offers any startlingly new interpretation, his book fairly crackles with illuminating comparisons culled from an enviable acquaintance with the secondary literature as well as his own research. The book is perhaps best on the social and political limitations of concerted, centralised reforms. He has some illuminating remarks, for example, on the Milanese conditions which made Carlo Borromeo at once the embodiment of post Tridentine ideals for the episcopate and a quintessentially Ambrosian, Milanese, figure. Dr Wright's Counter-Reformation is very far from the Papal monolith of some accounts. It is rather a brightly coloured patchwork, a complex of social, political and religious forces and counter-forces, as often hindering as helping each other.
Wright's account mirrors this complexity, and it is here that the book's greatest weakness lies. One cannot read more than a couple of pages of this bonk without happening on good things – an illuminating anecdote, the weighed assessment of some particular debate – but the work as a whole is clogged with detail, much of it obscuring rather than advancing the argument. A typical paragraph begins with relic collecting in Philip II's Spain, moves, via the quest for manuscripts for Laudian Oxford, through the cult of St Carlo in Poland, to Franco: Habsburg rivalry in the Valtelline, leaving at least one reader bewildered. Illuminating juxtaposition of examples from widely different contexts too readily degenerates into relentless torrent of unrelated facts, and the effect is often that of a random transcript of a rather rowdy undergraduate seminar. The scheme adopted for the notes does nothing to improve matters. The footnotes refer almost exclusively to manuscript material in Spanish and Italian archives, and are useless to any but the specialist researcher. The annotated bibliographies to each chapter, detailed and interesting as they are, are not keyed at all to the text, and it is impossible to locate the appropriate reading on a given topic without ploughing through the whole bibliography. Anyone in search of further reading on Cardinal Pole, for example, will have to search the bibliography to chapter one 'The Counter-Reformation and Augustinian Europe' and that to chapter six, 'Catholic Reform and Augustinianism'. In neither place will he find reference to the fundamental articles on Pole by Rex Pogson.
Emphatically, then, not a book for beginners, and a work marred by the author's failure to exclude. Equally emphatically, a book which contains much fresh material and helpful commentary, and with much light to offer the reader with a firm grasp of the background. But we shall need to hang on to the other five.
Eamon Duffy is a university lecturer in ecclesiastical history at Cambridge and editor of Challoner and his Church (1981)
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