Part of the Fun of being an English Protestant

Patrick Collinson

  • Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 832 pp, £25.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 7139 9370 7

What should we mean by ‘Reformation’? Was it a ‘paradigm shift’ of the kind proposed by Thomas Kuhn, a new set of answers to old questions, a Darwinian moment? Perhaps. For Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose Reformation was published in 1996, it was not so much an event in the 16th century, or even an extended process, as a constant manifestation of the spirit of Christianity, at least from 1500 to the present day, ‘a continuing story, embracing the common religious experiences of Christians of different traditions worldwide’. Other historians, less ambitious, have found that many features of the Protestant Reformation were replicated in the Church which remained Roman Catholic, so that we can speak of the ‘Catholic Reformation’. German historians identify a ‘Second Reformation’, two or three generations after the first, associated especially with Calvinism, or the ‘Reformed’ tradition. As for English historians, they have begun to talk about ‘the Long Reformation’, which was still happening into the 19th century. A recent American textbook goes further, telling its readers that the Reformation, far from being uniquely Western, resembles what happened in China in the 11th century, when the brothers Ch’eng I and Ch’eng Hao revived the Confucian philosophy, and the reconstruction of Islam by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al-Wahhab in the 18th century.

By this time it might seem sensible to ditch the Reformation, at least as the unique watershed it once was. But it is not going to be seen off so easily. Substantial books carrying ‘The Reformation’ in their titles are still being published. In 1996 the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation came out of New York in four volumes: 2004 pages, 1226 articles by 472 scholars in 24 countries, none of them writing about Ch’eng I and Ch’enga Hao. And Routledge has recently launched The Reformation, a four-volume set of 72 reprinted essays. It’s still an industry, and hardly a cottage industry.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation is a better book on the subject as a whole than anyone has managed to write for a long time. The architecture of the book is impressive, both massive and elegant, and above all logical in its progression, and MacCulloch writes with a fluent literary confidence laced with irony. I could point out a few errors, but they are almost too trivial to bother about. (I don’t think that Archbishop Laud’s pet tortoise was a giant tortoise, and it is at Lewes not Rye that the Pope is annually burned in effigy on 5 November.) MacCulloch takes it for granted that his book should examine ‘multiple Reformations’, including the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation. The subtitle reveals an overarching theme: he writes not only about ‘Europe’s house’, in fact, but about much of the world which Europe invaded and partitioned in the 16th and 17th centuries. At least one reviewer has objected to the breadth of his canvas. Give us back the tidy Reformation we used to know about, Paul Johnson complained, something which began in 1517 and ended with the Council of Trent in 1563. This misses the point by several miles. Only by taking the story far into the 17th century can MacCulloch plot the line and plumb the depth of the greatest geological faultline in European civilisation.

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