The Social History of the Reformation: Recent Trends and Future Agendas

By Holt, Mack P. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Social History of the Reformation: Recent Trends and Future Agendas


Holt, Mack P., Journal of Social History


The advent of social history in the 1960s and 1970s as a methodologically new and innovative way to study the past significantly altered our understanding of many different areas of history. One of the fields most affected by social history has been the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As recently as 1976, however, it was still possible to ask if there even was such a thing as a social history of the Reformation, as the late Bob Scribner wondered aloud in print. (1) While he was convinced there was, he was puzzled why Reformation historians had remained until then so much more resistant to social history than practitioners in most other fields. (2) It did not take long, though, before it became clear that social historians of the Reformation were already beginning to rewrite the accepted narratives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (3) No longer were scholars solely interested in the official and prescribed religious doctrines of the established churches and their religious leaders, as lay religious practices seemed to offer new and in some cases alternative readings of the Reformation. Moreover, no longer were social historians prepared to accept the teleological and simplistic interpretations of earlier periods, which stressed that the Protestant Reformation offered up more modern and forward looking religions to replace a superstitious and outdated religion. With an emphasis on religious practices and the social relationships imbedded in those practices, social historians of the Reformation shifted attention away from older questions of why men such as Luther and Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church or questions about the doctrinal differences that most separated Protestants and Catholics. In their place social historians of the Reformation began to explore more socially infused questions such as who made the Reformation. That is, which social groups or cohorts--by estate, class, sex, occupation, family, etc.--actively sought to promote or to sustain the new religious movements, where, when and why? These questions also led to others, such as to whose benefit and to whose detriment did the Reformation serve> (4) A whole host of new studies soon emerged to answer Bob Scribner's early query in the affirmative: there clearly was a social history of the Reformation after all.

My purpose in this article is to summarize some of the most significant findings of social historians of the Reformation in the last twenty years or so, as well as to offer some thoughts on future areas of research. I make no attempt to be comprehensive here, so I cannot possibly mention every single contribution. What I shall try to do in the limited space afforded me is to indicate how the larger interpretations and narratives of the Reformation have changed or been revised as a result of the scholarship of social historians. I see several significant areas where social historians have made a difference, and I shall briefly describe the contributions of each of these: lay piety, or what some call popular religion; rituals; gender, marriage, and the family; confessionalization, a term coined by some German historians to describe the dual process of social disciplining and state-building; and finally, the transmission of ideas through print, images, and education. Along the way, I shall suggest what appear to me to be the most fruitful avenues of research for social historians of the Reformation in the future.

The earliest attempts to think of the Reformation in social rather than theological or doctrinal terms tended to be German, and they were built upon either the class-based paradigm established by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century or upon the ideas of two German sociologists at the turn of the twentieth century, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. Since Tom Brady has already surveyed the historical literature of the 1960s and 1970s, I shall do no more than summarize it here. …

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