Changing One's Mind: Transformations in Reformation History from a Germanist's Perspective*

By Karant-Nunn, Susan C. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Changing One's Mind: Transformations in Reformation History from a Germanist's Perspective*


Karant-Nunn, Susan C., Renaissance Quarterly


This is a memoir and a reflection; it is not a true bibliographical essay even though I shall give examples of works that establish or exemplify an important trend. (1) Whereas in the past we avoided the use of first-person-singular pronouns, this proceeds from the conviction that historians, as human beings, should not attempt to conceal the personal dimensions of their professional and intellectual experience; and that our students may gain from seeing at least part of our interactions with one another, including tensions over aspects of our lives as scholars. Clearly, not all facets of either colleagues' or my own perceptions and behavior at conferences will appear here. Such a reminiscence would have to be sealed until the deaths of all concerned! (2)

No subfield of history is immune to the currents that flow through our culture and our profession. This truism pertains to the defining of questions, the researching, and the interpreting of Germanophone Reformation history as much as to any other area of our collective past. During the last generation, and indeed gaining ground and speed after World War II, Reformation studies have shifted their purview in significant ways--even though the roots of these alterations may be found before the war, as in the thought and approaches of men like Karl Lamprecht, Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and the longer-lived Norbert Elias. (3) Yet Reformation scholars drew the fullest consequences of their theories beginning in the 1960s. Even then, this was something of a delayed response, the result of a deep, often confessional conservatism characterizing Reformation studies around the world till then. The growing urgency from the 1960s on of currents like social history, subaltern studies, women's and gender studies, ethnographic methods, semiotics, and literary criticism has inevitably affected the intellects of those of us contemplating late medieval and early modern religiosity. The consequences for Reformation history, I would argue, have not been destructive but fruitful. Indeed, the ongoing integration of this field into broader historical frameworks has saved this subject matter from relegation to a periphery populated by a small number of those who serve their denominations with the life of their minds. If previous boundaries have blurred, Reformation history in the Anglophone world now reflects the vigor and diversity of the historical and religious studies professions as a whole. Nevertheless, it would not be accurate to say, as some do, that Renaissance and Reformation studies have given way to a field called early modern European history. Although, as I shall say further on, colleagues have increasingly diverse interests, the Reformation as a movement to rectify perceived wrongs within the Catholic Church and within the religious and cultural life of the people is still itself a subject of energetic investigation; the Reformation has by no means faded from the historical scene.

A major category of colleagues' creative energy, if a smaller proportion of the total, continues to fall within the meticulous reconstruction and/or the imaginative reassessment of the lives of the Reformers. Heiko Oberman's and Martin Brecht's biographies of Luther, Gottfried Seebass's of Hans Hut, and Diarmaid MacCulloch's of Thomas Cranmer will not soon fall into desuetude. (4) It is to be hoped that such portrayals never cease. Likewise, the analysis of both great and lesser Reformers' thought, including the presentation of exacting editions of their writings, continues. Reinhold Friedrich, Berndt Hamm, and Andreas Puchta's recent contribution to the effort to publish the complete correspondence of Martin Bucer is an excellent example, as is the Supplementa calviniana, which provides at last a number of John Calvin's sermons that have survived in manuscript. (5) Erika Rummel presently has in mind to edit the complete correspondence of Wolfgang Capito. (6) The vast undertaking of the Inter Documentation Company (The Netherlands) to make even minor Reformers' works available on microfiche renders great service. …

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