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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 11th, 2004


The Reformation

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The theological, doctrinal, political, and social revolutions that convulsed Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave rise both to a jumble of national and territorial churches independent of Rome and to a vital, often creative, and at times virulent Counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church. This process also engendered the bloodiest war and the ghastliest massacres that the Continent would see until the twentieth century. MacCulloch has taken on this vast subject and produced one of the most magisterial and stylishly written historical works to be published in a decade. The book sparklingly synthesizes scholarship on an astonishing array of subjects, ranging from repentance rituals in Protestant Transylvania to the Jesuits' reactions to what they saw as the "Judaizing deviations" of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to church architecture. Throughout, MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford, explicates complex theological issues with startling lucidity. And his analyses of the lives, personalities, ideas, and struggles of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Philip II, and Ignatius of Loyola are at once sharp and profound (and not infrequently funny). Yet this is far more than an intellectual or institutional history. The Reformation is the great and sanguinary fault line in Europe's history, in part because the divides within Western Christendom soon came to express themselves in the chronic rivalries and dynastic clashes among Europe's states (during the Thirty Years' War as much as 40 percent of the population of the German lands suffered an early death because of the fighting or the concomitant famine and disease), and MacCulloch treats that tricky and often lethal interplay of religion and politics with nuance and care. Although he attends to high politics and theological disputes, his book is also a sophisticated work of social history, focusing on the ways these two centuries of turbulent change affected the daily lives of ordinary people — specifically in popular attitudes toward death, childhood, sexuality, marriage, and the family. MacCulloch's supreme achievement, though, is his appreciation of the foreignness of his subject. The Reformation was a febrile time, in which Europeans, he reminds us, "were prepared to burn and torture each other because they disagreed on whether, or how, bread and wine were transformed into God." In the face of this alien, and to most of his readers absurd, world MacCulloch never exercises what he calls "the condescension of posterity." Rather, he fulfills the most difficult task of the historian: he allows us to understand the past on its own terms, and in so doing he makes us (modern, largely secular readers) see why these were in fact urgent issues to those who killed and were killed over them. This is a lasting work.

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