Reading History: The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

Brendan Bradshaw reveals the persuasive yet contrasting arguments within recent literature on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

'Curiouser and curiouser': contemplating present trends in the historiography of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation one may feel inclined to resort to Alice in Wonderland language. We have all been encouraged to think of the religious history of the sixteenth century in terms of a revolt by reformers against an inert Church establishment, and of a consequent confrontation between two opposing religious traditions: Roman Catholicism, representing the heritage of the medieval Church, and, therefore, orthodox and traditional; and Protestantism, representing the rejection of the medieval Church in favour of a purer scripturally-based religion, and in that sense heterodox and radical. It is precisely this adversarial model of interpretation that current trends in the historiography threaten to undermine. Instead they encourage us to think of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation as two sides of the same coin or, to be more precise, as parallel rather than conflicting movements, developing in symbiosis, conditioned and moulded by the same set of historical circumstances and displaying similar ideological enthusiasms and concerns.

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