Different Takes on the Reformation

Eamon Duffy scans contemporary historical takes on the Reformation.

Duffy’s own work changed how we look at the Reformation by pointing out that though national governments and the elites turned Protestant fairly quickly, a deep study of archaeology, letters, and folk practices shows that the common people held onto Catholic religious practices for decades after they had supposedly become Protestant.

Carlos Eire points out that there was in fact no one “Reformation”, but several “Reformations”: the Lutheran Reformation, about four Calvinist Reformations, two English Reformations (the Anglican and the Puritan) and the Catholic “Counter-Reformation”. None were monolithic movements but were full of internal conflicts.

Jean Delumeau says we should see both the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation as a “Christianization”, during which Europe was purged of semi-pagan practices and finally, after a millennium, fully Christianized.

John Bossy argues the opposite, that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation represent a de-Christianization of Europe. In Medieval Europe there was no “Christianity”, as an ideology, but only the church, the community of believers. The ideal of the church – rarely attained – was to create peace: the religious orders created oasises of peace, the church imposed limits on warfare, the sacraments created kinship across tribal lines. The Renaissance and the Reformations created “Christianity”, which was not a community but a set of instructions, and which relied not on symbolic actions, but on rules, formal institutions, and written instructions.  (I’ve argued something similar myself.)

It is widely agreed that the Reformation was the cause of the secularization of Europe: religion ceased to be the glue holding society together, and came to be seen as the cause of conflict rather than unity. Brad Gergory argues that the effects of the Reformations were on the whole negative because it turned the pursuit of wealth into the main goal of society. Eire for his part argues it created a strict separation of the material and spiritual realms, though this is hard to square with the intense mysticism of Catholicism in the 17th and 18th centuries, or Protestant Pietism and the Protestant fascination with witchcraft and Satanism around the same time.


  1. I’m with Catholic historians on this one; the *reformation* was a power grab. Pure and simple. It caught on in certain parts of Europe where they had a different sense of tribal order. Mediterranean societies from Greeks to Romans and all their descendants were (still are) at ease with a hierarchical social order. There’s an underlying belief that society functions more smoothly if the people who “know best” are in charge. This does extend to central and eastern Europe. Just consider how long Mrs. Merkel has been in charge…

    1. I am actually less harsh on the Reformation; yes, it was a power grab by the nobles and by the activists, but the mentality of Europe was changing to a modern one, so the church as an organic community didn’t make sense anymore, it had to be understood as a doctrine and a bureaucracy. The nations states were going to take over, sooner or later, because the feudal order was making less and less sense.

      1. In the 1600’s? Hmmmm. I dunno. I know Mazamet was razed to the ground by the Catholics because of the Protestant influence of the Duke of Toulouse. Even today the town is divided in two sections. Separate everything. Parks, markets, the lot.

      2. Don’t mess with Catholics.
        But seriously, the modern mentality which was starting to take hold even earlier in the 15th and 16th centuries has a hard time understanding an organic community. The modern impulse is to abstract and rationalize, and I am of the opinion that the Reformation was an attempt to rationalize Christianity, to “modernize” it, even if they would not have used that word. Or as I argue in the post I linked to, they replaced the Church with Christianity.

      3. Have you ever met a profoundly stupid atheist? I mean bone deep. To my chagrin, they exist: https://godlesscranium.com/2016/11/08/why-islamophobia-is-inaccurate
        When I was 16 I was invited to dinner by the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina-Poggio Mirteto for my birthday at the Meridien. Let’s say most discussions have been down hill from there.

      4. I’ll stay out of that one, thanks.

        I did some non-profit work in my 20s and met with a few American Bishops. They tend to be very gregarious and practical, but not much on book learning. My impression is that bishops in Europe are much better educated.

      5. It depends on the country. Spain had a tendency of choosing clergy based on politics. Not an excellent idea. In the post dictatorship period things have improved especially regarding the interest in the arts.

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