Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World

Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation 
by Nicholas Terpstra 
Cambridge University Press 353pp £23.99

The movement and plight of people compelled to leave their own countries and to seek asylum overseas is ever present in our television broadcasts and newspaper headlines. Casualties of the wars and conflicts that beset our troubled world, refug-ees are a symbol of global instability and the subject of urgent domestic and international attention and policy-making. In this stimulating, wide-ranging study, Nicholas Terpstra seeks to investigate the early modern origins of exile as a mass phenomenon and simultaneously to offer an alternative interpretation of the European Reformation. Central to this vision is the idea that, from the 15th century onwards, governments and communities became increasingly preoccupied with ideas of purity, contagion and purgation. This manifested itself in a wide range of initiatives to control, repress and eliminate contaminating ‘others’. Starting  with the forcible expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, it drove a series of official initiatives to cut off the diseased limbs of the corpus christianum (the medieval Christian world) that continued well beyond 1700. These acts of radical surgery were accompanied by countless decisions taken by individuals to migrate voluntarily, a process that Terpstra terms ‘expelling the self’. Stretching beyond the mutually antagonistic groups of Christians that have dominated accounts of the period, he ably (if  a little unevenly) integrates the adherents of Islam and Judaism into his analysis.

Taking the body as its organising metaphor, Terpstra’s book begins by describing how European Christians defined themselves and their relationship with God, together with the growing threat that heretics, witches and other deviants presented to its health and integrity. It then turns to dissect the various discourses and practices of discipline and exclusion that gathered pace, alongside state formation, in the 16th and 17th centuries: the impulse for separation from the world embodied in late medieval monastic observantine movements; the containment of female religious in enclosed religious houses and of potentially dangerous marginal groups in ghettoes, institutions and hospitals; the prosecution of deviants and criminals by the Catholic Inquisition and Protestant ecclesiastical tribunals; and the purgation of those whose presence was deemed to be intolerable. Chapter three examines the experience of exile from the perspective of selected individuals and the destinations to which refugees typically fled. Eschewing a thorough investigation of the competing theologies that underpinned these developments, chapter four assesses ideas about rites of initiation, such as baptism and circumcision, divine presence in the guise of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the authority of the scriptures through which God spoke to human beings. Building fruitfully upon Terpstra’s earlier research, its later sections also explore charity as a particular variety of boundary marking and of purificatory discipline. The final chapter is concerned with the mental and physical world, which this refugee Reformation brought into being; with the cultural processes of identity formation and confessionalisation; and with the empowering myths and narratives that gave the experience of exile significance and meaning. This latter discussion might usefully have been placed earlier in the book. It remains unclear why so many refugees were able to overcome the widespread worry that flight was ‘an unjustified surrender and abandonment’ of the ideal of Christian community which they held dear.

Untrammelled by footnotes, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World is a fluent and imaginative introduction to the Reformation era that will inspire students and surely find an enduring place on university reading lists. It is an original synthesis that should also foster debate among senior scholars. Terpstra’s self-conscious emphasis less on the ‘positive legacies’ of the Reformation than its darker dimensions contrasts strikingly with the stress on tolerance and peaceful coexistence that has emerged in recent work by Benjamin Kaplan and others. He notes but does not wholly explain the paradox that these tendencies emerged in tandem. Inflected by the themes of exclusion and repressive authoritarianism, the picture he paints has much in common with R.I. Moore’s influential The Formation of a Persecuting Society (1987). It is also more than faintly reminiscent of the sinister story of punitive discipline and coercion told by Michel Foucault. The repressive programmes on which Terpstra focuses are likewise driven from the top rather than the bottom and they leave little room for the agency of individual people. The religious outlook and practice of the majority is described as lacking much intellectual substance and as operating on the level of a ‘more basic animism’. 

Despite his determination to give exile a ‘human face’, we seldom hear the voices of those who chose this route and at times they are rather eclipsed from view. Purgation is arguably the more dominant theme and the claim that refugees shaped not only the cities and settlements to which they went, but also the Reformation itself, in profound and culturally creative ways, might have been more fully developed. So, too, might the suggestion made in the book’s final pages, where Terpstra provocatively rejects the traditional tendency to date the Reformation from Luther’s protest against indulgences in 1517 as a ‘Northern European conceit’ and asserts that starting with the earlier initiatives of European Christians to expel the Jewish and Muslim ‘Other’ gives ‘a more acute view of the roots of some modern global realities’.  While not all the threads of this ambitious overview are successfully woven together, it certainly injects important new insights and sets some fresh agendas for our discussion of religious change in early modern Europe. Terpstra’s concluding call for an ‘expanded conversation’ in which younger transnational scholars will challenge inherited assumptions about the Reformation and expand its chronological and geographical parameters can only be applauded.

Alexandra Walsham is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge.

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