D. P. King
Europe's Reformations, 1450-1650by James D. Tracy
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Europe's Reformations establishes a new standard for historians of the early modern era. In recent decades, Reformation scholars have dismantled brick by brick the idea that the Middle Ages came to an abrupt end in 1517, with Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses. Prominent historian James D. Tracy is the first scholar to effectively synthesize this new understanding of the profound continuities between medieval Catholic Europe and the multiconfessional sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Tracy illustrates how Reformation-era religious conflicts tilted the balance in church-state relations in favor of the latter, so that the secular power was able to dictate the doctrinal loyalty of its subjects. Religious reform, Catholic as well as Protestant, reinforced the bonds of community, while creating new divisions within towns, villages, neighborhoods, and families. In some areas these tensions were resolved by allowing citizens to profess loyalty both to their separate religious communities and to an overarching body-politic. This kind of society, a product of the Reformations, though not willed by the reformers, was the historical foundation of modern pluralism.
D. P. King
The New York Times Book Review
An interesting, lucid survey of Europe's Reformation . . . provides a stimulating look and reflects Tracy's command of the material. . . . Students and faculty will enjoy this well-written, thoughtful book.
James D. Tracy brings a lifetime of study to a wise and useful survey of the Reformation. He has produced an attractively and sensitively illustrated book.
Tracy is especially skillful in handling complex theological and political developments and gives adequate coverage to social and economic issues. The book includes a fine series of illustrations, a brief coda comparing the European Reformations with other movements of religious reform around the world such as Neo-Confucianism, and a fifteen-page bibliography of works in English.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, University of Notre Dame
Jason P. Coy
D. P. King
In this excellent survey, James Tracy provides a concise and balanced account of what he terms the 'religious revolution of the sixteenth century.' Lively and readable prose. A lucid account of the Reformation's medieval roots; sixteenth-century climax; and often unintended religious, social, and political consequences, Europe's Reformations represents an outstanding introduction for both students and non-specialists.
Justus D. Doenecke
Solidly researched and artfully written, this volume stands as a work of original scholarship. This study could be useful in upper-division and graduate-level courses on Reformation Europe.
A superb volume, both balanced and subtle. Thoroughly researched and well-illustrated, the book draws upon a host of fresh material, particularly in the highly popular field of social history. If one seeks a painless way to access recent scholarship, Europe's Reformations is a fine place to begin.
The scholarship is impressively solid. Tracy's range of knowledge never ceases to amaze, both in regard to the variety of specialized books he has written, and in regard to the background needed to write this kind of synthesis. He imposes a new order on existing information while adding fresh details not seen in other textbooks of the period.
[Tracy] is masterly in absorbing information and masterful in organizing itskeptical of fashion, clear in exposition, fluent in communication, unremittingly scholarly. Europe's Reformations displays in print his efficient, engaging classroom manner.
The book is clearly the culmination of a lifetime of research activity by a well-known and respected scholar. The scholarship is first rate, a tour de force especially when dealing with Erasmus, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli [and] Tracy's coverage of Dutch and Swiss religious history is exquisite.
This is the 'new' history of the Reformation at its best. Tracy skillfully integrates the reconceptualization of Christian belief, critical accompanying developments in the political arena, and profound repercussions within people's everyday lives. It is a lively story, told in elegant language, and strengthened by particularly apt illustrations.
Read an Excerpt
This book has two premises, each of which will be discussed in turn. The first is that we can best understand the historical significance of the Protestant movement by viewing it not as unprecedented, but as the high point in a series of "reformations" that convulsed the Latin or western half of Christendom from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. The second and more general premise is that religious belief is a motive force in history, but only one among many, so that the outcome of a religious movement can never be explained solely on the basis of religion.
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When Martin Luther sent off copies of the Ninety-five Theses to church authorities (31 October 1517), "reformation" was a familiar word. In southern France in the tenth century, the monastery of Cluny spearheaded a reformatio of the Benedictine order based on a return to its original discipline and austerity of life. Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085) launched an effort to reform the church as a whole by attacking the regnant political system of the Holy Roman Empire. Since bishops were chosen from families loyal to the emperor, emperors found it convenient to have these spiritual rulers exercise secular power in their territories as well. In a ceremony known as investiture or "clothing" with the symbols of office, "prince-bishops" received both their spiritual and their temporal authority from the emperor.
This was the arrangement Pope Gregory now denounced as corrupt, demanding that it cease immediately. The emperor,not surprisingly, took a different view. After nearly fifty years, a struggle that convulsed much of Europe ended in compromise: Bishops would still be "invested" by the emperor or his representative as temporal rulers, but they would henceforth be "invested" with spiritual authority by the pope or by other bishops. In retrospect, this acceptance on both sides of a clear distinction between spiritual and secular authority can be seen as a necessary precondition for the much later (and distinctively European) idea of a separation between church and state. At the time, however, neither party was satisfied by the compromise, and tension between the claims of pope and emperor continued. Beginning around 1150, the focal point of conflict shifted to efforts by the emperors to gain control over the populous towns of northern Italy, close to the Papal States, a band of territory stretching from Rome north to the Adriatic Sea. This struggle ended only when Emperor Frederick II, bitterly opposed by several successive popes, died without a legitimate heir (1250).
Meanwhile, a many-sided movement largely under lay leadership sought to reform the church by urging that men of God must imitate the poverty of Christ and his apostles, rather than living in the lavish style favored by popes and prince-bishops. In southeastern France during the twelfth century, a merchant named Peter Waldo, with his followers, sought permission to travel from town to town preaching the gospel, as the apostles had done. But when local bishops were unyielding (canon law provided that only ordained clergymen could preach), they rejected church authority and formed by their preaching a growing underground movement, until royal officials joined with the church in a campaign of suppression. In remote Alpine valleys seldom seen by the king's men, Waldensians survived to welcome the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Other branches of the broad apostolic poverty movement remained within the church. Francis of Assisi in Italy (d. 1226) and Dominic de Guzman in Spain (d. 1221) cast off all trappings of wealth and begged in the streets for their food. Their followers, Franciscans and Dominicans, came to be known as begging brothers, or mendicant friars. They made it their mission to preach to the inhabitants of Europe's now burgeoning cities. But as people flocked to the new mendicant churches, resentment grew among the secular or parish clergy, who defended their spiritual turf with lawsuits and even fisticuffs. Moreover, as the new mendicant orders accumulated property through the donations of pious folk, the Franciscans especially quarreled bitterly among themselves about how strictly the rule of poverty must be observed. To some, it seemed true reform was farther away than ever.
The problems of the papacy in the late Middle Ages brought new demands for reform. When popes resided at Avignon in southern France (1304-1378), the papacy seemed to be under the thumb of the French king. Then came the papal schism from 1378 to 1414, when two factions of cardinals (backed by rival rulers) maintained two lines of claimants to the papal throne, one in Rome, the other at Avignon. To deal with this dilemma, some professors of theology and canon law rejected the idea that the pope alone wielded final authority, arguing that an ecumenical council could depose a wayward pope. Conciliarism, as this doctrine was called, seemed to triumph when the Holy Roman Emperor summoned the bishops of Latin Christendom to the German city of Constance. The Council of Constance (1414-1417) ended the schism, elected a new pope, and proclaimed the right of future councils to govern the church. But hopes for lasting change were again thwarted. The next council bogged down in squabbles between bishops from territories whose rulers were at war. The pope once again became sole head of the church, but by default, since many theologians and canon lawyers north of the Alps still advocated a conciliar doctrine of church authority.
Meanwhile, the Council of Constance had touched off a war by its treatment of a Czech preacher and theology professor named Jan Hus. Hus taught (among other things) that lay people were unjustly deprived of their right to receive in the sacrament of the eucharist, or communion, not just the host (the bread) consecrated by the priest at mass but also the wine, now consumed only by the priest. Hus's appeal to the spiritual dignity of lay people was extremely popular in Prague, notably among fellow Czechs, who chafed under Prague's German-speaking minority's control of the city and the university. Charged with heresy on various points by German professors at the university, Hus accepted a safe-conduct from the council, meaning he could return safely after having been heard. But having determined that some of his opinions were indeed heretical, and that he violated the terms of his safe-conduct by preaching to the populace in Constance, the council had Hus burned at the stake. The reaction in Czech-speaking lands shows the explosive power of two sentiments that will also be visible in the Reformation: (1) lay resentment of clerical privilege and (2) national pride. Czech-speaking priests and nobles led a rebellion against Bohemia's king, forming a new polity backed by a strong citizen army. Over time, the Hussites, or Utraquists, in Bohemia split into competing parties. One reconciled with the papacy, retaining the right for lay people to receive the consecrated wine. But a more radical faction survived, like the Alpine Waldensians, to greet the new dawn proclaimed by Protestant Reformers.
Martin Luther's instant and enormous popularity easily matches the enthusiasm for Hus in Bohemia a century earlier. Luther was not a martyr, unlike Hus, but the printing press made him virtually an overnight sensation all across the German-speaking lands of central and eastern Europe (see Chapter 4). But if the failure of reform efforts in earlier centuries proved to many that Luther's Reformation was necessary, it proved to others that the Catholic Church must once and for all reform itself. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556, would have preferred to see Luther burned as a heretic, like Hus. But Charles had little control over the German heartland of his empire, where authority rested with local rulers such as Luther's prince and protector, the elector of Saxony. Beginning in the 1520s, a growing number among the empire's many cities and territories declared exclusively for the Reformation, forcing stubborn Catholics to choose between conformity or exile and placing in doubt the very survival of Catholicism in Germany. After many false starts, the pope; Charles V; and the emperor's great rival, the king of France, set aside their quarrels long enough to permit convening a desperately needed ecumenical council. Meeting at intervals over a period of years, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) clarified Catholic doctrine on points challenged by the Reformers and laid the groundwork for creating a better-educated and better-disciplined parish clergy to compete with the new Protestant pastorate.
Meanwhile, a different kind of Catholic reform was already underway in Spain and Italy, through the emergence of new religious orders, in particular the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, founded by a Basque nobleman, Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556), and the Capuchins, begun as a reform movement among the Franciscan friars. As Jesuits and Capuchins labored to regain for Catholicism territories that had largely been lost to Protestantism, their zeal imparted a new sense of hope to dispirited Catholics in Germany. When preaching alone failed to achieve the objective, Jesuits counseled ardent Catholic rulers on a judicious use of princely power to make stubborn Protestants choose between conformity and exile.
Was the Catholic resurgence that began around 1550 an attempt to roll back the advance of Protestantism, or an outgrowth of new forms of Catholic spirituality? Clearly, it was both a "Counter-Reformation" and a "Catholic Reformation" at the same time. Current scholarship, leaving this older debate aside, focuses on the many similarities between Tridentine Catholicism and the new state churches of Protestant landsLutheran in much of Germany and Scandinavia, Reformed in Switzerland and several other areas, Anglican in England.
In each of these cases, leaders of the favored confession worked closely with government officials toward three objectives. First, there must be a well-educated clergy, solidly grounded in correct or orthodox doctrine. Second, all inhabitants of the territory must learn at least the rudiments of true doctrine, through sound preaching, the establishment of primary schools, and Sunday catechism classes for the young. Last, there must be a betterment of popular behavior and belief, particularly an improvement of the sexual mores that all reformers now saw as intolerably lax, and an all-out assault on resort by the people to a whole spectrum of practices seen as superstitious or diabolical, ranging from magical incantations to outright witchcraft.
Inducing ordinary folk to change the ways their ancestors had lived and thought for centuries was no easy task. Scholars debate whether the desired transformation was accomplished or not (see Part IV). But it is clear that, despite the obvious differences in doctrine, the rival churches breathed a shared atmosphere and struggled to move forward along a similar path. This time, the reformation of Christian society was going to be made to stick.
The call for reformation was not stilled by the relative success of the new churches. For one thing, small sects that lacked all the trappings of wealth and authority roundly condemned churches that had made their compromises with state power in order to become established. For another, each of the established churches harbored zealous believers not satisfied by changes they saw as half-hearted. Under Queen Elizabeth I (d. 1603), England's Puritans called for removal of "popish" elements still to be seen in Anglican worship. In the Lutheran churches of Germany in the seventeenth century, a long struggle to define the true, orthodox, meaning of Luther's teaching was followed by a Pietist movement that aimed to get away from dry doctrinal formulas, back to the personal experience of God's forgiveness described in Luther's writings. Rather than forming a new church, Pietists met in small groups to pray and read scripture, like devout dissidents elsewhere, such as the Jansenists of Counter-Reformation France and the Collegiants of the officially Calvinist Dutch Republic. In the following century Lutheran Pietism grew stronger, while Jansenism survived as an underground movement, despite persecution by the French king. In England, John Wesley's preaching launched a spiritual revival that led to a separate Methodist Church, echoed by the Great Awakening in far-off America.
These reform movements form a continuum, but in this book we need only include enough of that continuum to provide a proper framing for the events of the sixteenth century. Each part of the book will begin with a chapter on "late medieval background" (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), followed by chapters on the main lines of development down to about the middle of the seventeenth century. My treatment of the sixteenth century will include the Catholic Reformation while emphasizing Protestantism.
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Until about forty years ago, most scholars understood the Protestant Reformation as the proclamation of a leading idea that took concrete form in social, political, and economic institutions. In German universities, scholars influenced by an idealist philosophy of history pored over the doctrines of the principal Reformers, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. One scholar argued that doctrinal syntheses had been forged at various times during the history of Latin Christendom, each one pointing toward a form of government and society that represented its logical outcome. Thus, the scholastic theology of medieval university professors, epitomized in the natural law doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), legitimized the rights of subjects and pointed to a monarchy in which the king's power was limited by a parliament. But Luther's sharp distinction between the realms of faith and power undercut any religious justification for active resistance to rulers, and thus pointed to the absolute or unlimited monarchy some seventeenth-century rulers claimed to exercise. By contrast, Calvin's rejection of episcopacy in favor of a quasi-republican form of church government, together with his followers' defiance of Catholic monarchs in France and elsewhere, pointed toward the eventual emergence of democracy.
In North America, the Reformation was until fairly recently a topic of interest mainly for students in Protestant theological seminaries and denominational colleges. Courses on Reformation history did not become common on state university campuses until the 1960s. In the common Protestant view, Martin Luther, by his courageous protest, had freed ordinary believers from the domination of a corrupt and greedy clergy. Centuries of superstition, imposed on a gullible people by the Catholic Church, had melted away when Luther proclaimed that scripture was the sole source of authority and that lay men and women were free to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. Thus, the Reformation was the dawn of an era when, for the first time, individuals were encouraged to think for themselves.
Meanwhile, in Catholic seminaries and denominational colleges, scholars idealized not the Reformation, but the high Middle Ages, especially the thirteenth century, when universities flourished and virtuous rulers and urban guilds worked to lay the foundations of a just social order. From this perspective, when Luther made his personal religious experience the measure of Christian faith, he loosed upon the world a destructive individualism, a wanton tearing down of beliefs and institutions laboriously built up over the centuriesas in the case of Protestant iconoclasts (image breakers) who smashed to pieces the religious art cherished by their ancestors. Interestingly, the competing denominational interpretations both emphasized the emergence in the Reformation of a modern form of individualism, for good or for ill.
The historical-materialist interpretation of the Reformation, first put forward by Karl Marx (d. 1883) and Friedrich Engels (d. 1895), was in more recent times cultivated in the German Democratic Republic (1945-1989). The Communist state required scholars to work within the parameters of official ideology, but East German historians found ways of making the argument interesting. In this view, the Reformation was an "early bourgeois revolution," that is, an attempt by the burghers of Germany's many towns to overthrow the power of an aristocracy of feudal nobles, rooted in their control of agricultural land and peasant labor. The movement was premature, since the burghers were not yet strong enough to seize control of state power, but it was a revolution nonetheless, because Luther's attack on the authority of the church undermined the religious respect for the status quo that propped up the power structure of feudal society.
In this great struggle, loyalties followed class interests. The most prestigious urban familiesthe so-called patriciansfavored the old religion. Up-and-coming merchants, not yet part of the ruling elite, rallied to Luther's cause. Lower down the economic scale, members of the craft guilds endorsed the more thoroughgoing rejection of Catholic belief and practice preached by Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and later by John Calvin in Geneva. Unskilled laborers, often recent migrants from the countryside, showed themselves the true revolutionaries by embracing the most radical of theological options, that of Anabaptist preachers who were often of humble origin themselves.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, proponents of these three very different lines of interpretationidealist, denominational, and materialisthave criticized but also borrowed from one another's work, resulting in a great melting pot of opinions that makes for a much richer understanding of the Reformation. The ecumenical movement among Christians has enabled scholars working in the context of a faith community to set aside hostile stereotypes. Meanwhile, the growing interest among historians at large in the lives and beliefs of ordinary men and women has generated new questions about how the teachings of the Reformersor of the pre-Reformation Catholic Churchwere understood and practiced in daily life. Finally, and especially in the Germany that was until recently two distinct countries, scholars from East and West initiated multiple contacts that softened earlier dichotomies. Those starting from a materialist perspective began to recognize religious ideas as having a motive force of their own not strictly derived from class interests. Those starting from a theological perspective began to recognize that the religious choices of sixteenth-century men and women were not completely individualistic, because religionand religious changealso had a social dimension.
From this dazzling variety of possible ingredients for an interpretative stew, each historian will cook up his or her own recipe. I confess an attraction to a principle first stated by the German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel: the great movements of history involve a convergence of ideal principles and selfish interests, woven together in such a way that those involved often cannot tell one from the other. In general, Hegel's principle means that while ideas have a definite impact on history, it is never the impact expected by their proponents. As applied to the Reformation, it means that men and women will not willingly die a martyr's death for material interests, but neither will they in great numbers willingly disrupt the normal inertia of their daily lives solely for the sake of religious principles. This seems to me a reasonable premise for the present book: one of my aims is to give ideal and material motives the respect that each deserves.
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James D. Tracy is professor of history at the University of Minnesota. A leading scholar of early modern Europe, he is the author of Erasmus of the Low Countries (1996), Emperor Charles V, Impresario of War (2002), The Low Countries in the 16th Century (2005), and The Founding of the Dutch Republic (forthcoming). He is also a founding editor and current editor of the Journal for Early Modern History.
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