Charity, Peace, Vitriol and War

Front cover of Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.
Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Carlos M.N. Eire
Yale University Press 
920pp £25

Carlos Eire’s massive, ambitious new survey navigates the rollercoaster of the Reformation period with all the drama and verve of the age itself, using these developments as a lens through which to understand early modern Europe as a whole.

Eire is refreshingly candid – and accurate – in his assumption regarding the importance of religion and ideas to all other aspects of early modern life: political, economic, social, cultural. But he is also careful to note that these factors were necessarily interrelated and dependent upon each other. A second key assumption is evident in the title, Reformations, which notes the plurality of reforming impulses from multiple quarters and in manifold directions. A third, overarching assumption is that westerners cannot begin to comprehend who they are now without first understanding the changes of the Reformation era.

This behemoth of a tome is divided into four parts that, as Eire notes, could be four separate volumes: the late medieval context, Protestants, Catholics and the consequences of religious discord. Each part is introduced by a wonderful vignette of Rome, the centre of western Christendom, in 1450, 1510, 1564 and 1626, years of significance for our story because of the building plans for, and progress of, the new St Peter’s Basilica. The dramatis personae of the Reformations found much to love or loathe in Rome, and St Peter’s was the epicentre of all that was right or wrong in the world. Eire uses vignettes like these and other episodes from the period to good effect. He can take, for example, the beheading of the Calvinist Niklaus Krell in Lutheran Saxony in 1601 and situate it in the context of efforts to enforce religious orthodoxy to the exclusion of any dissent. As Eire reminds us, ‘orthodoxy requires exclusion, even punishment’. Combined with such illustrative and memorable episodes are hundreds of well-chosen and similarly striking quotations from fathers of the Reformations and more peripheral figures alike. Unsurprisingly, Martin Luther, whose language was notoriously impulsive and crude, supplies many of the more colourful examples. The book gives novice readers plenty of helpful maps, tables and images (155 in total) and these are welcome additions. (One wonders, though, whether the ebook has these images in colour rather than black and white.) Those readers interested in more detailed information on the delightful examples from primary sources and the scholarly works on the period can find endnotes and suggestions for further reading at the end of the volume, but Eire’s lightness of touch has ensured that the labyrinthine debates among historians have not obscured the main thrust and drama of the broader narrative.

Throughout, Eire has been careful not to engage with the question often asked by non-specialists: whether the Reformations changed the world for the better or the worse. Academic historians probably avoid this question more out of their fear of being labelled partial or unprofessional than they do because they lack an opinion. Here, Eire sidesteps the question by asserting that the very persistence of the question proves the enduring legacy of the Reformations. Over the course of navigating all the transformations of early modern religious culture, despite Eire’s efforts to describe Catholic reforms before and after Luther, the tone of the book occasionally seems a bit positivistic and Protestant. We read about ‘Mary I, Bloody Mary’, for example, ‘Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen’, and Genevan Calvinists who ‘can be seen as reformers of the Reformation and avatars of modernity’. If this impression is accurate, then it may be evidence that even the most conscientious and deliberate of historians still need to be careful when addressing the legacy of the Reformations, which Eire does so well.

David Gehring is Assistant Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of Nottingham.

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