Andrew Pettegree re-reads Geoffrey Elton's classic text and considers how the subject has developed in nearly four decades since it was written.
NO TWO GENERATIONS WRITE HISTORY in the same manner. As society changes, so do the preoccupations of scholars, students and those engaged at the coal face of historical investigation. This is not merely a matter of fashion or taste. Different times also offer different opportunities. To compare history writing with only twenty years ago is to realise that we have lived through a time of very rapid change, both in terms of the technology of scholarship and the social and political circumstances that affect history writing more than we sometimes recognise.
In 1998 I was approached by Blackwells to assist in the re-launch of the Fontana History of Europe. The Fontana history has been a staple of school and university courses for thirty years, and the volume covering the Reformation, by Geoffrey Elton, was one of its most successful parts. The plan was to bring the whole series back into print and where the author was deceased, as was the case with Elton, to accompany the original text with a brief afterword by a contemporary scholar.
This was an opportunity hard to resist. It was, first and foremost, a pleasure to be reading Elton again. He was a bravura writer and this was one of his most lively and engaging books: a brilliant, fast-flowing narrative which combines clarity of vision with psychological insight; a true classic. But it was also a classic in that other sense: a book manifestly of an age which is not our own. This was an ideal opportunity to consider how our shared subject had changed in the thirty years since Elton's book.
Elton published Reformation Europe in 1963, one of the first of the new Fontana histories to see the light of day. Its publication helped confirm Elton's reputation as one of England's leading historians. It was enthusiastically received by the first reviewers and has sold steadily ever since. In its way, it was also an important milestone in the writing of the subject, published just as Reformation history was emerging from a confessional straight-jacket which previously impeded its accession into the mainstream of history. In this previous age the history of Protestantism had been almost exclusively written by Protestants, while Catholic history remained largely in the hands of members of the Catholic religious orders. Elton's book symbolised the successful secularisation of the subject. By placing the history of the Reformation in what was in effect a political narrative context, he drew it out of the ghetto of church history and into the mainstream of history courses.
Nevertheless, reading Elton's narrative now is to be very forcibly reminded of how different is Elton's perception of the Reformation world from our own. In this, Elton does not differ from other general histories of that time; it is just that the subject has changed out of all recognition since those times. When Elton wrote, the Reformation world was a much smaller place. Elton presented the great drama of the Reformation through the conflict of two men, Martin Luther and Charles V. Their actions and decisions are central to his narrative; to a very large extent they made the Reformation. Even as a convenient shorthand, this now seems a misleading presentation. It is indeed impossible to ignore the importance of these great personalities, and we can be thankful that an attempt to write Luther out of the Reformation narrative (a fashion that flourished fleetingly in the 1970s) has now been abandoned. About fifteen years ago I reviewed for a publisher the synopsis of a proposed textbook on the Reformation in which Luther made an almost apologetic walk-on
appearance around half-way through the book. This was a distant echo of a current German fashion and perhaps the high-point (or reductio ad absurdum) of the then vogue for social history. …