Friday, January 13, 2017

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 --1650

The title is what first caught my eye when I browsed the new books shelf at my library. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire. It is arresting because of the pluralized form of the word: reformation. Normally we think of the great disruptions that rocked the religious world of early modern Europe as all falling under the rubric of “The Reformation” a label that encompasses the great discontent of a nascent Protestant movement against the perceived corruption and moral laxity of the Catholic Church. This book by Carlos M. N. Eire seeks to complicate the picture and does an excellent job at that.

The years covered span 1450 to 1650, a sizable chunk of time with a lot going on. For the most part the setting is Europe though the new world (North America) and the Middle East are discussed tangentially. There are four main sections to the book each a logical step in the historical development of the era. We begin with a section on the pre-reformation time of the late middle ages, a time of growing unhappiness and overall disgruntlement with the status quo. The next section is simply titled Protestants and covers the religious revolution brought on by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. The proceeding section is titled Catholics and covers the reaction of that camp to the movements of the Protestants (a period often referred to as the counter-reformation). Lastly a section called Consequences fills out the picture of these tumultuous two hundred years.  As I said the outline is logical and it makes the rather lengthy treatise (the book runs to about 760 pages) flow a little quicker.

The simplicity of the outline is, however, misleading---in a good way. What Eire does is demonstrate the dynamics of influence ebbing and flowing between all of the participants in this historical drama. For example, at one point Eire talks about the Deists and their rational-religious movement and how the Protestants and Catholics both reacted to them in similar ways with similar critiques. The inclusion of such disparate players on the political stage with the usual participants (Protestants and Catholics) makes for a fuller account of the era. Another example of the dynamics of influence is the inclusion by the author of critiques of geographic place. The reformation was viewed differently and reaction to the events of this time played out differently depending on where one was on the continent, that is to say, the energy of the epoch diffused differently depending on where one lived. The Scots were restless in one way the Spaniards in another. I appreciate how the author shows the different actions and reactions to all that was happening at the time. I like that the picture of the time is muddied.

This is essentially the great merit of this work, it demonstrates how complicated the era was. Most accounts of the Reformation simplify the narrative to Protestants vs Catholics. But Eire shows how there were smaller reformations occurring even within these two larger camps. There were reactions to various renditions of the Protestant theological outlook happening within the Protestant communities that did as much to divide them as to unite them. Similarly, the Catholic Church was having to deal with many different and often competing catholicisms (if I can use that word). For example, heresy flirting mystics did battle with theologians who insisted on their form of orthodoxy. Add to this interesting Catholic-political-theological cocktail the explosion of new religious orders, with the Jesuit order being one conspicuous example, and you have a recipe for fascinating political history; fascinating because it’s messy.

All of it, the nuances in theological debates, the new religious orders, the rational and atheistic reactions to the ongoing religious strife, the shifting alliances, makes for enjoyable and informative reading. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in religious ideas, high stakes political debate and conflict and, generally, a love of European history.

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