The End of the World (as We Knew It) Mark Greengrass Writes an Informed and Engaging Account of the Disintegration of Christendom's Universalism

By Altschuler, Glenn | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 28, 2014 | Go to article overview

The End of the World (as We Knew It) Mark Greengrass Writes an Informed and Engaging Account of the Disintegration of Christendom's Universalism


Altschuler, Glenn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"CHRISTENDOM DESTROYED: EUROPE 1517-1648"

BY MARK GREENGRASS

VIKING ($45)

"God Almighty has a quarrel lately with all mankind, and given reins to the ill spirit to compass the whole earth," James Howell, a Welsh clergyman, proclaimed in 1645; "for within these twelve years the strangest revolutions and horridest things have happened, not only in Europe but all the world over, that have befallen mankind, I dare boldly say, since Adam fell ."

The upheaval, according to Mark Greengrass, an emeritus professor of early modern history at the University of Sheffield, shook the foundation of Christendom, and the cultural, social, and political institutions and habits of thought which sustained it.

In "Christendom Destroyed: 1517-1648," a volume in the Penguin History of Europe series, he provides an immensely well-informed, informative and engaging account of the disintegration of "Christendom's universalism" (the myth the Middle Ages had created about itself).

Emphasizing that the destruction of Christendom did not mean the collapse of Christianity, Mr. Greengrass claims that by the middle of the 17th century, Europe became a "Paradise lost," less a project than "a geographical projection," on which dynastic states, perennially at war with one another, sometimes in the name of Catholicism or Protestantism, could be represented.

Impressive in its scope, Mr. Greengrass' book examines a wide array of "dissolvents" of Christendom, including the changing demography of Europe; popular uprisings; Martin Luther's challenge to the Roman Catholic Church; the role of money in giving states the resources to engage in conflict with one another; the transformation of chivalry into a make-believe code of aristocratic behavior; the challenge of Islam; and unsuccessful efforts to convert the natives of North and South America to Christianity.

With the emergence of print culture, and the proliferation of atlases, diction-aries, bibliographies, encyclopedias, and religious and political pamphlets, Mr. Greengrass points out, knowledge became a public commodity and not a church commodity.

John Calvin's advice that human beings adopt "a learned ignorance" on matters in which God had chosen not share His knowledge, was increasingly ignored.

Naturalists wondered how Noah's Ark could accommodate all existing species. And Copernicus and Galileo maintained that the earth went around the sun. As citizens "knew" more and more, and faith became separated from reason, "facts" became what experiments could prove. …

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