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Reform, Reformations, and the West

The year 1517 is considered one of those historical watersheds—like 1789, 1914, or 1968—at which Western societies took a radical turn away from hitherto prevailing political, economic, cultural, or religious settings. Such shifts, however, never come from nowhere. History’s time-bombs are invariably years in the making.

The Reformation certainly didn’t simply spring from the mind of Martin Luther. But as a historical development, it has been the subject of polemics for 500 years: not just between Catholics and Protestants, but also, over the past century, between historians and sociologists with disparate views on how the modern world emerged. Any serious study of the Reformation’s origins and impact consequently requires a willingness to traverse a veritable minefield of longstanding theological and historiographical arguments. In his comprehensive Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, the Yale historian Carlos M.N. Eire does that and more. The book is likely to become one of the definitive studies of this period.

In his preface, Eire modestly states that he has written “a narrative for beginners and nonspecialists . . . an introduction and a survey.” On one level, that is certainly true. Those unfamiliar with the vast array of topics addressed between the covers of this book do not find themselves suddenly plunged into the more intricate debates that characterize Reformation studies. Yet some of these disputes do inform Eire’s narrative, the most important being those concerning the Reformation’s nature and ends and the ways in which it influenced the West’s transition toward modernity. Eire is careful not to argue that the West became “modern” because of the Reformation. Nonetheless, he does hold that “we cannot begin to comprehend who we are now as Westerners without first understanding the changes wrought by the Reformations of the early modern era.”

As the reader will have noticed, the idea here is that calling the Reformation a monolithic event is misleading. In the first place, “the Reformation” reflects a simple duality between post-1517 Protestant Reformers and Catholics. In this schema, the former saw the events set in motion by Martin Luther as an effort to return to true Christianity after the Church apparently wandered away from the Gospel sometime around the 5th century. By contrast, Catholics, the story goes, regarded the same events as a misguided and downright heretical revolt, to which a “Counter-Reformation” was the only appropriate response.

Eire doesn’t deny that serious theological differences—few of which have been as neatly resolved as many suppose—exploded into open warfare in the early 16th century. Though he is a historian, Eire demonstrates a formidable command of the relevant theological arguments. These range from the nature of justification to questions surrounding free will and the sources of Revelation. These discussions didn’t always fall into a strict Catholic-Protestant dichotomy. There were significant disagreements among Catholics, Eire underscores, to which the reforming Council of Trent was partly a response. Similarly, differences among and between those who rejected Rome persisted and, in many instances, morphed into lasting confessional fractures.

His point is that there were several Reformations, some of which transcended confessional differences in theology and ritual, and all of which were part of broader developments that began before and lasted beyond the 16th century (hence the chronological bracketing of the book’s subtitle, 1450 to 1650). He wants to deepen our understanding of how various reform movements emerged and shaped each other as a process of social development in societies in which religion was, as he says, “the very marrow of all social, economic, political, and cultural exchanges.”

The narrative is divided into four parts: the late medieval period and pre-1517 reform movements; the emergence of Protestantism; the reform of Catholicism; and the effects of the different Reformations into the 17th century. While exploring these areas, Eire maintains a focus on what he calls “the constant two-way exchange through which religion is shaped by its environment and that environment is shaped by religion.” Like others, for example, Eire regards the introduction of the printing press as pivotal. He even goes so far as to insist, “No printing press, no Reformations.” Yet by itself, Eire cautions, this technological leap would have meant nothing without “an argumentative monk in Saxony” and the consequent responses by Catholic apologists such as Johannes Eck.

Eire’s account of how religious questions shaped the political, social, and economic landscape—and vice versa—brings readers’ attention to factors that may have been underplayed in previous accounts. It highlights the great advances in trade and commerce that characterized 15th century Catholic Europe and which drove Europeans to develop even deeper ties with Asia and seek westward routes to the Far East. But the subsequent discovery, exploration, and conquest of the New World not only transformed Europe economically; it also “brought Europeans face-to-face with a whole range of beliefs and practices that forced some of them to think of their own faith in a different context.”

Suddenly, European Christians found themselves questioning a number of hitherto settled assumptions about the world and humanity. Likewise the urbanization of Catholic Europe—encouraged by that same growth in trade, foreign markets, and the productivity and consumption facilitated by the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages—was accompanied, Eire maintains, by an intensification of religiosity. The sheer number and scale of churches constructed in this period is testimony to the emergence of a state of mind, one in which commerce, markets, and deep faith went seamlessly together.

Another contextual factor emphasized by Eire is the advent of the modern nation-state, which preceded 1517 by least a century. As commerce and trade expanded, so did the effort to consolidate state power into relatively self-sufficient legal and political entities. That this occurred is hardly a revelation. Eire, however, spells out the many implications for religion. One was to render redundant the idea and structures of an entity called “Christendom” as there emerged sovereign states “capable of creating [their] own churches, in defiance of Rome.” Henry VIII’s break with Rome would have been much harder without the success of his father, Henry VII, in centralizing political power in England.

All these developments occurred in an environment in which “talk of reform was in the air.” The apparent paradox, writes Eire, is that the medieval church “itself bred corruption and reform simultaneously.” This is a dialectic within Christianity as old the Church itself. Interestingly, Eire establishes that there’s no evidence of corruption being more widespread at the time of Luther than in previous ages. If anything, increased devoutness was the norm. What mattered, however, was the greater perception of corruption, thanks to more widespread literacy and technology, and thus a correspondingly louder emphasis on the need for reform.

Two types of reform movements emerged, thereby establishing a pattern that would replicate itself after 1517. One worked within the theological and institutional settings of the Catholic Church. The other involved rebellion. Significantly, rebellion rarely commenced with a holus bolus rejection of Catholic doctrine and the church hierarchy. That tended to come later. As Eire observes, “the line between reform and rebellion was thin,” not least because “reforming and dissenting were closely intertwined.”

One reason for this had to do with the Renaissance humanist movement that appeared in Italy in the mid-15th century before spreading to the rest of Europe: Ad fontes (“back to the sources”). Whether it was Erasmus of Rotterdam, Francesco Petrarca, Thomas More, or John Fisher, humanists believed that substantial political and social reform involved recovering and studying the great texts of Greece and Rome. History was thus deployed to rework the present.

Within the Church, returning to the sources meant looking back to Latin and Greek Church Fathers as well as fresh studies of Biblical texts. It wasn’t long before debates emerged concerning which sources were more authoritative and how they related to each other. What was Scripture’s relationship to tradition? What weight, if any, should be accorded to the Church Fathers’ views? Herein lie the roots of many post-Reformation fractures in Western Christianity, but also of particular efforts to reform the Church.

Concerning the latter, one of Eire’s especially helpful contributions is his attention to the role of figures such as Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) as forerunners of 16th century Catholic reform movements. Reform for Cardinal Cisneros meant not only embracing the new technologies and integrating the new humanist learning with scholasticism and medieval spirituality. This friar-turned-archbishop’s concept of innovation also included restoring church disciplines rather than loosening them, a commitment that led him to take such measures as “driving more than four hundred monks and their ‘wives’ out of Spain” in the teeth of opposition from elite families close to Queen Isabella.

But precisely because religion was the glue holding together all aspects of European society, Eire points out that all religious reformers were inevitably social, cultural, and political reformers. It was simply impossible to separate these realms from one another. The very fact that theological wrangling was taken, according to Eire, “to new heights in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” thus meant that the subsequent religious fragmentation bled into other spheres of life. Yet, he argues, the ongoing splintering unleashed certain dynamics that helped turn religion into a more private matter, that led to more expansive conceptions of tolerance, and that even created greater space for skepticism.

In his conclusion, Eire presents readers with a provocative question to answer for themselves: What type of value judgment should be attached to the Reformations and their effects? Most historians, as he says, “prefer to avoid” discussions of this nature for after all there is “no going back, no changing what transpired.” Eire points out, however, that this does not absolve us from considering whether or not, on balance, the Reformations were welcome developments. Was the world, and the West more specifically, changed for the better or for the worse?

The answer will partly depend on what one considers most important. Many Christians of different confessions, for instance, will regard the disunity that gradually became formalized in Western Christianity after 1517 as at best regretful or, more likely, a disaster. But even beyond the Christian church, it is surely true that cultures can only stand so much internal fragmentation, including religious fragmentation, before they start to disintegrate. Civilizations that are severely Balkanized along political, religious, or cultural lines will find it hard to resist external challenges from other, often very un-benign forces. The most obvious such force confronting a very fragmented West today is one with a deeply religious character—radical Islamism—to which Western liberalism has proved incapable of generating a coherent, let alone effective, response.

Such contemporary matters, strictly speaking, fall beyond the scope of Carlos Eire’s thorough study. It nevertheless provides us with not only fresh insight into one of Western history’s most consequential periods, but also new ways of comprehending civilizational change. That alone should recommend Reformations to anyone who wants to understand how we in the West became what we are—and what we are not—today.

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