Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Early Modern World, 1450–1650

by carlos m. n. eire
yale, 920 pages, $40

Next year marks the fifth centenary of one of the few precisely datable historical events that can be said to have changed the world forever. In 1517, an unknown German professor from an undistinguished new university protested against the sordid trade in religious benefits known as “indulgences,” which were then being peddled around Germany to fund grandiose plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther’s protest initially took the form of a public challenge to an academic debate on a swathe of theological niceties. But this was the first age of print, and Luther was a publicist of genius. His list of topics for debate, in the form of Ninety-Five Theses, was printed as a broadsheet (though the legend that he nailed them to a church door is, sadly, probably untrue). The theses nonetheless became the world’s most improbable bestseller. What might have been a technical academic exercise in a Wittenberg lecture hall rapidly escalated into a fundamental questioning of the theological underpinning of Western Christianity. In its wake, Europe divided, roughly north and south, and the peoples of Europe were pitched into a series of murderous ideological wars in which tens of thousands died, and during which the religious, cultural, and political map of Europe was redrawn. We are all still living with the consequences.

This religious and cultural earthquake has traditionally been known as the Reformation, a loaded term with which Catholics have never been comfortable. To dub these transformations as a Reformation implies that something that had gone radically wrong was put right, that a good form of Christianity replaced a bad one. The fact that the term has traditionally been capitalized and used in the singular also poses a problem. The new religious identities and communities which emerged from these conflicts—Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and the more radical groupings often lumped together under the name “Anabaptist”—did indeed share some beliefs and attitudes in common. They all prioritized the written Word of God in the Bible over traditional Church teaching and discipline, and they all vehemently rejected the papacy and the allegedly materialistic religious system which the papacy headed. But they were divided among themselves—often lethally—on almost everything else. Within a single generation of Luther’s protest, “Protestants” were excommunicating, fighting, and persecuting each other, as well as the common Catholic enemy, and many were calling for a reform of the Reformation.

Even the timescale traditionally assumed has now been challenged. In the older and mainly Protestant historiography, the overthrow of Catholicism almost everywhere in Northeastern Europe, and its replacement by “reformed” versions of Christianity, was seen as a swift process. Since medieval Catholicism was believed to have been corrupt, decadent, priest-ridden, and therefore unpopular with the laity, it was taken for granted that it could have offered little resistance to the reformers’ message. And so histories of the Reformation were conventionally histories of events in the early and middle sixteenth century. Only recently has the notion of a “long reformation” gained currency. Studies of the problems that Protestant officialdom encountered in uprooting deeply entrenched popular beliefs, practices, and loyalties, and in inculcating new beliefs and disciplines, have brought home the realization that after the first energies of “reformation” had passed, consolidating new religious identities at the grassroots level was almost everywhere a difficult and painful process, stretching over decades and even centuries. This realization requires a drastic rethinking, still very much in process, of much that was taken for granted in the older accounts. Some of that rethinking has been done under the rubric of the history of “confessionalization,” a term used to denote the deployment of religion to create or reinforce social and political identities. But this approach has brought its own problems, tending as it does to reduce religion to an instrument of social control and political manipulation.

Against the background of these shifts in historical understanding, an avalanche of biographies of Luther and histories of the religious revolution he launched has begun ahead of next year’s quincentenary. Few of them will rival the sheer scale and ambition of Carlos Eire’s new survey. Eire is one of America’s most distinguished historians of early modern religion, and his absorption of the newer historiography is proclaimed in the fact that his book is entitled Reformations, in the plural. His book “accepts the concept of multiple Reformations wholeheartedly,” and seeks to deepen the concept by paying equal attention “to all the different movements and churches that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stressing their interrelatedness.” The ambition to present a synoptic account of the multiple sixteenth-century movements for religious “reform,” Catholic and Protestant, has led some historians to search for a single interpretative framework for the reform impulse, to suggest that fundamental similarities underlay sixteenth-century religious reform wherever it occurred. So, the French Catholic historian Jean Delumeau proposed that we should understand both the emergence of Protestantism and the transformation of Catholicism after Trent as twin aspects of a process of “Christianization.” On this account, both Catholic and Protestant reformers labored to replace the inherited half-pagan folk religion of late medieval Europe with something more authentically Christian, focused on the person of Christ rather than often legendary saints, prioritizing orthodox catechesis and preaching over quasi-magical ritual, and imposing religious and moral discipline on a reluctant populace.

Rejecting the negative judgments implicit in Delumeau’s notion of “Christianization,” the English historian John Bossy, himself by upbringing and education a Catholic, offered a rather less benign overarching analysis of the Catholic and Protestant reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The central contention of Bossy’s short but scintillating Christianity in the West was that medieval Christianity had been fundamentally concerned with the creation and maintenance of peace in a violent world. “Christianity” in medieval Europe denoted neither an ideology nor an institution, but a community of believers whose religious ideal—constantly aspired to if seldom attained—was peace and mutual love. The sacraments and sacramentals of the medieval Church were not half-pagan magic, but instruments of the “social miracle,” rituals designed to defuse hostility and create extended networks of fraternity, spiritual “kith and kin,” by reconciling enemies and consolidating the community in charity.

But in the Renaissance era, and even more so in the Reformation period which followed, reliance on symbol and image gave way to the privileging of the printed or spoken word. Peace remained a fundamental Christian aspiration, but ritual and sacrament gave way to persuasion and instruction as the means to achieve it. A newly professional breed of intellectuals and activists—the “new clerks”—arose, who understood Christianity not as a community sustained by ritual acts, but as a teaching enforced by institutional structures. The framework of moral teaching shifted away from the medieval preoccupation with the seven deadly sins, which had been understood as wrong because they were antisocial. Sin was malignancy toward other people. It was replaced, Bossy thought, by a preoccupation with obedience to the Ten Commandments, whose transgression was understood in the first place as an affront to God. Creedal orthodoxy replaced Communitas as a supreme virtue, Christianity became a system of beliefs and moral behaviors. By 1700, “the Christian world was full of religions, objectives and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.” And above that multiplicity loomed “a shadowy abstraction, the Christian religion.”

Both Delumeau and Bossy feature in Eire’s bibliography, but he has little sympathy with these attempts at an overarching morphology of “Reformation.” For him, what characterizes the religious transformations of the sixteenth century, and their out-workings in the seventeenth, is not a single unifying energy, good or bad, but their variety and multiple incompatibilities. The occasion of his book is the upcoming Luther anniversary, and he does justice to Luther’s unique role in triggering the collapse of the medieval religious synthesis. But he is keen to emphasize that Luther was just one, if the first, of the agents of the dramatic upheavals of the period, and in the long term, by no means the most important. Zwingli, a former humanist whose abandonment of medieval Catholic orthodoxy predated Luther’s, gets extended treatment, as does Calvin, who built on Zwingli’s initiatives to create the disciplined structures and alliances with civic society which would become the normative form of Protestantism. So, too, do the leaders of the more radical, apocalyptic, or rationalizing alternatives to Catholicism and to what became “mainstream” Protestantism. Eire does not give much away in his personal assessment of Luther, though alongside a meticulous analysis of the theology we get ample quotation illustrating Luther’s disconcerting penchant for scatological insult and a preoccupation with excreta aimed indiscriminately at Catholics and the devil.

Eire’s final chapter on the great Reformer is headed “Luther the reactionary” and deals with Luther’s violent repudiation of the apocalyptic radicalism of former disciples like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, and especially with the Wittenbergers’ savage reaction to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. The libertarian rhetoric of Luther’s reformation pamphlets, with their insistence on the freedom and dignity of every Christian and their onslaught on ecclesiastical corruption and established religious authority, certainly fueled and probably helped trigger the peasant uprising. But Luther’s fear of anarchy and horrified determination to distance himself from the rebels elicited some of his least appealing writing: “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab . . . remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog. . . . Stab, smite, slay, whoever can.” He never retreated from this position. Years later, he would tell admiring disciples, “It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants . . . for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is on my head. But I throw the responsibility on our Lord God, who instructed me to give this order.” Eire rejects a long and shrill tradition of hostile Catholic historiography that blamed Luther for unleashing not only religious but also moral and political chaos on the German nation, but Doctor Martin does not emerge well from this unblinking account of Luther the polemicist.

Among the greatest merits of Eire’s survey are its remarkable clarity in expounding difficult theological ideas and complex political changes, its calm comprehensiveness, and its sober judgments, expressed with an unemphatic evenhandedness. Eire first made his mark as a historian in 1989 with The War Against the Idols, a study of Reformation iconoclasm and the theology that underlay it. His ease with difficult theological concepts, not least his immersion in the thought of Erasmus and the long line of thinkers and activists who took Erasmus’s ideas in a more radical direction, is evident throughout his account of the early Reformation. Though Eire recognizes and explains the political and practical considerations that often drove religious change, he insists on the centrality of theology in any explanation of the power and appeal of the Reformation. His analysis of Luther’s complicated and often inconsistent theological development is a model of lucid exposition. Eire has an eye for the telling quotation, and he punctuates his narrative with lists designed to help the reader through the tangle of intellectual complexities—the five key influences on Luther’s early theological development, the five core beliefs underlying the apparently endless variations of the so-called “radical reformation,” the four indicators of the religious dimension of early modern violence, and so on. His adeptness with this sort of exposition is especially on display in his chapter on the “left wing” of the Reformation, the dissident radicals who rejected any alliance between the “world”—and hence the state—and the Church, on the grounds that Christian faith was above everything else a personal religious choice for the individual. One can see generations of students turning to Eire to guide them through a particularly difficult essay assignment.

Another notable feature of Eire’s survey is the space he allocates to the Catholic Reformation. Often confined to one or two chapters in older histories, the internal reform of the Catholic Church after 1550 is allocated six chapters here, amounting to 150 pages against the 230 devoted to the rise of the many forms of Protestantism. Though he starts this section with a chapter entitled “Facing the Challenge,” and recognizes the realities encoded in the older designation “Counter-Reformation,” Eire treats the internal transformations of early modern Catholicism, and its missionary outreach east and west, as expressions of “reformation” in their own right, and not mere reactions to Protestantism. This emphasis is of course neither unique nor new. The debate about how Catholic reform should be characterized is an old one, but the extended attention given here to the multiple energies of early modern Catholicism is welcome. An especially valuable feature is Eire’s alertness to changing attitudes toward the supernatural and the miraculous in the period, and the significance of such shifts for understanding the parting of ways between Catholics and Protestants. So, some of the most absorbing sections of the book deal with the place of miracles and mysticism in post-Tridentine Catholicism, with the role of demonology and witchcraft in the new landscapes of belief in seventeenth century Europe, and a fascinating—and hair-raising—treatment of the importance of hell in Baroque religious culture.

While Eire recognizes the power of popular religion, by and large his book is stronger on the religion of elites than of the common people. Pilgrimage is of course mentioned, but apart from a valuable section on the Mexican shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it is not much discussed or explored. Similarly, despite his emphasis on the importance of the supernaturalized culture of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, there is relatively little exploration of the actual texture of popular religious practice.

Though he provides a vivid account of Pascal and Jansenism to illustrate the divisions within seventeenth century French Catholicism and emphasizes the violent opposition encountered by Catholic reformers like Charles Borromeo and John of the Cross, Eire’s treatment of the divisions within Catholic reform in general is less vividly realized than his treatment of the corresponding tensions with Protestantism, though Catholic reform could be every bit as fiercely contested and divided. Eire never mentions, for example, the so-called “Spirituali,” the remarkable group of reform-minded Italian Catholics, which included Michelangelo and was loosely associated with the Englishman, Cardinal Reginald Pole, while he was governor of the Papal Legation of Viterbo in the 1530s and 1540s. This group became suspect as it inclined dangerously towards the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The group patronized outstanding preachers like Bernard Ochino and Peter Martyr Vermigli who later seceded to Protestantism, and was responsible for the distribution of tens of thousands of copies of the notorious tract Beneficio di Cristo, written by a Cassinese protégé of Pole’s, and which incorporated without acknowledgment swathes from the first version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Some of Pole’s closest associates in this group, including his friend Cardinal Giovanni Morone, would be arrested and imprisoned in the 1550s on suspicion of heresy by the fanatical Carafa pope, Paul IV. Carafa tried unsuccessfully to recall Pole himself from his crucial role as Archbishop of Canterbury and papal legate in Mary Tudor’s England, in order to burn him. Released on Carafa’s death, Morone would go on to become a dominant figure in the final sessions of the Council of Trent, and some of the reform measures Pole devised for England, including the establishment of seminaries, found their way via Morone into the Council’s proceedings. But Morone doesn’t even make it into the index of this book, and it would be hard to gather from Eire’s account that the Council itself was at times a cock-pit for contested conceptions of Catholic reform, disagreements which would persist and issue, among other places, in the quarrels over Jansenism.

In any survey on this scale, however distinguished, specialist readers are bound to find something to criticize: All the same, it seems to this British historian that the least satisfactory sections of Eire’s book are quite certainly those dealing with England. The main contentions of his account of the English Reformation could have been written thirty years ago, embodying as it does many of the familiar tropes of an older historiography. This is clearest in in his portrayal of the Elizabethan settlement as a deliberate via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, an interpretation which has been the target of much of the best writing about the period for more than twenty years. In this account, Puritans feature essentially as dissidents whose leaders tended towards separation. But most recent writing on Puritanism has followed the late Patrick Collinson, unquestioned expert in Puritan studies, in seeing Puritanism as part of the mainstream of the Elizabethan church, which was more decidedly Protestant than Eire contends.

What does Eire think was the outcome of two centuries of Reformations? War, of course, the division of Europe into more or less self-contained Catholic and Protestant camps, intractable ideological confrontation, and the growth of skepticism and doubt in the face of sometimes murderously self-confident orthodoxies, whether Catholic or Protestant. “By 1648,” he writes, “it had become all too clear to far too many Westerners that religion was no longer a social glue binding civilization together, but rather something corrosive and explosive which in the long run would have to be circumvented, perhaps even ignored.” Eire is cautious in offering judgments about the distinctive outcome of the Protestant reformations. Here he differs strikingly from another distinguished American Catholic historian of early modern religion, Brad Gregory. Gregory, like Eire, is an authority on the radical reformation, and author of Salvation at Stake, the best study of Reformation martyrdom, Catholic and Protestant. In his brilliant but controversial recent study of the consequences of the Reformation, The Unintended Reformation, Gregory has no doubt that its outcomes were, on balance, negative. The principal of sola scriptura and the rejection of the Church’s teaching authority in the end, he thinks, led to a “market of values” in which all certainties dissolved. The abolition of the vowed religious life of monks and nuns removed a powerful institutional witness to Christian ambivalence about material prosperity, and opened the door to the acquisitive society. By contrast, the intractability of post-Reformation religious disagreements contributed to the emergence of societies which found their rationale in purely materialistic concerns such as the protection of property and the contractual guarantee of the rights of the individual. In the pioneering early modern secular states, notably the Dutch Republic, Gregory argues, men and women decided to stop killing each other over what seemed hopelessly irresolvable religious differences, and went shopping instead. In the long run, because there were no universally accepted norms for truth, religion became a private matter, and this privatization became one of the building blocks of Enlightenment social theory. “It does me no injury,” declared Thomas Jefferson, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Here, Gregory thinks, lies the origin of a rootless modern “hyperpluralism,” in which there is no objective basis for shared value, and in which good and bad become matters of arbitrary personal preference, or, as Gregory expresses it, “whatever.”

Eire shies away from overarching assessments of this kind, preferring “to allow the past to be understood on its own terms, free from teleological trajectories or presentist agenda.” All the same, his conclusions, though expressed more restrainedly, seem not so very different. Eire sees the Protestant revolutions as having brought about an underlying set of “paradigm shifts,” similar to those Gregory identifies. Protestantism “desacralized” the world by accepting an essentially binary division of reality into spirit and matter. That division was expressed in Reformation iconoclasm and the rejection of the notion that material objects—the bread and wine of the Mass, relics, images—could be vehicles of spiritual reality. The Reformation, Eire suggests, restricted the supernatural “to heaven and the ancient past.” It thereby changed “the very essence of the Christian religion as it had been lived for the previous 1,500 years.” By outlawing prayer for the dead and denying that the saints could pray for us, the Reformation “stripped religion of mediation and intimacy . . . with the dead,” transforming it into “something strictly for the living, . . . more pragmatically focused on this world.” The result was the emergence of two “very different kinds of Christianity, and of two worldviews within Western culture.” And it was this fragmentation, inaugurated by contested reformations, that gradually turned religion “into a private concern rather than a public one.” Western Christendom “ceased to exist,” leaving Christians in their various camps “warily keeping an eye on one another and on the rising tide of unbelief and materialism.”

It is hard to dissent from the detail of all this. Yet one may well feel that whether in Gregory’s stark dissection of the leading ideas of Protestantism as the unwitting corrosive which dissolved the moral and religious coherence of Christendom, or in Eire’s more hesitant and nuanced analysis, there is something left unsaid. The principle of sola scriptura and Protestantism’s consequent inability to arrive at workable criteria to determine Christian orthodoxy certainly contributed to the breakdown of Christendom and the emergence of a secular society. But so too did the repressive authoritarianism of post-Tridentine Catholicism, the emergence of a Catholic ecclesiology inimical to true communitas by its overemphasis on clerical power and centralized authority, and the acceptance into Catholic theology, philosophy, and anthropology of a dualistic Cartesianism every bit as inimical to the medieval intellectual and moral synthesis (if such a thing can be said to have existed) as anything that emerged from Wittenberg or Geneva. Nonetheless, Eire’s majestically comprehensive survey leaves no doubt about the enduring consequences, for good and ill, of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. His readers will decide for themselves whether there is much to cheer about in 2017.

Eamon Duffy is professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow and former president of Magdalene College.