Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe

By Barnes, Robin B. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe


Barnes, Robin B., The Catholic Historical Review


Early Modern European Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe. Edited by Helen Parish and William G. Naphy. (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 2002. Pp. x, 239. $24.95.)

This collection of nine essays purports to offer a discussion of "superstition," both as a historiographical concept and as a matter of religious debate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While one might presume such a loaded term to be a historiographical dead horse, Parish and Naphy warn against its lingering power. Unfortunately, their introduction confuses as much as it clarifies; they fail to supply solid conceptual background such as one might gain from Dieter Harmening's Superstitio. Moreover, the essays gathered here have no common theme beyond a concern with Reformation issues; they do not meaningfully explore the scope and significance of this general concept among early modern thinkers and polemicists. Basic questions regarding links between Reformation attacks on "superstition" and emerging Enlightenment attitudes remain unraised. Hence despite scattered points of value, the volume as a whole is disappointing.

Bridget Heal's essay on the Virgin Mary in Protestant Nuremberg shows that beneath apparent continuity, a genuine reform of Marian devotion occurred. Characterizing such shifts in understanding as "word games," the editors come close to misrepresenting Real's perspective. Jason Nye discusses efforts by Catholic reformers of Rottweil to build a sense of Catholic identity by highlighting differences between traditional sacramental and devotional practices and those of Protestants. Maria Craciun argues that the ill-fated Jesuit mission to Transylvania was "militantly restorationist" rather than genuinely reformist. Both Nye and Craciun find Catholic reformers who preferred to denounce Protestantism as heresy rather than as superstition, a conscious perversion of truth rather than ignorant idolatry, but the editors muddy this distinction by maintaining that "heresy" was for Catholics "'superstition' . . . in the broadest sense." Eric Nelson argues that the "Jesuit legend," the dark image of a conspiratorial order threatening all Christendom, was created by both Catholics and Protestants. For Protestants, however, the threat had apocalyptic implications, while for Catholic critics it was mainly political and social. Are we meant to conclude that Protestant versions were more "superstitious?"

Where "superstition" is a synonym for "myth," Protestant prophecy offers easy targets. Ute Lotz-Heumann finds increasingly explicit references to Archbishop James Ussher's presumed special prophetic gifts in the generation following his death (1656), and finds that such imagery "could be used to heighten Protestant national identity in times of crisis" (p. …

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