Magazine article The Spectator

Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700

Magazine article The Spectator

Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700

Article excerpt

Faiths of our fathers REFORMATION: EUROPE'S HousE DIVIDED, 1490-1700 by Diarmid MacCulloch Allen Lane/Penguin, L25, pp. 831, ISBN 0713993707

Diarmaid MacCulloch's enormous new history of the religious battles of 16th- and 17th-century Europe begins with a careful note on terminology. Terminology is important. It is, after all, the winners who name things, and many of the terms historians use to separate out the confusing confessional groupings of the European Reformation began their lives as abuse: Anabaptist, Puritan, Anglican. 'History indeed is good at confounding and confusing labellers,' he observes, but MacCulloch is a more careful labeller than most.

If we pay attention to terminology, we see that MacCulloch's ostentatiously boring title Reformation in fact encodes an elegant joke. In the last two decades, the field of early modern religious history has seen a series of particularly bloody battles: not so much trench warfare as fully mounted cavalry charges. The traditional account of the English Reformation held that late mediaeval Catholicism was a corrupt quagmire of lustful monks, sinister abbeys and mock traditions invented to make money for the Pope. In counter-attack, a gang of historians known as the 'revisionists' argued that Protestantism had been imposed on an unwilling population by Tudor monarchs keen to justify their hold over the Church. This story was told most forcibly in two books of the early 1990s: Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, and Christopher Haigh's English Reformations. MacCulloch only mentions Haigh once, and then to point to an apparent contradiction in Haigh's thought, but this deliberate omission and the revision of the title Reformations to Reformation suggest MacCulloch's position in the ongoing war.

The major weakness with both schools is their tendency towards insularity, to confine their storytelling to what MacCulloch calls 'that strange and self-satisfied kingdom, England'. Reformation relegates the United Kingdom to a side-show in an epic carnival of European revolution. His history stretches from the edges of Europe out to the New World, and back from the 11th-century papal reorganisation forward to the America of George W. Bush.

MacCulloch's gift as a historian is his hospitality: he welcomes all nations into the story. This is not simply good manners. Where Christopher Haigh had found the English Reformation to be not one but many episodes, suggesting that there was no major success for the reformers, MacCulloch argues for a single continent-wide process. His methodology allows him to draw larger conclusions than are available to the national historian.

Scanning across Europe, MacCulloch reminds us that Protestantism was indeed successful: by 1562 there were two million Protestants in France, and from 1570, England and Sweden experienced parallel models of an institutional reformed faith. But it was not exclusively so: by the end of the 17th century, intensive missionary work by the Catholic Jesuits had resulted in 300,000 converts in Japan. Why was the spread of reformed thought successful in Scotland and not Ireland, in northern countries and not southern? MacCulloch highlights two causes. Firstly, what he calls 'wooing the magistrate' - confessional factions which worked within existing monarchic structures tended to ensure their own long-term survival. …

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