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.

MacCulloch’s other major contention is demanding of the imaginative powers of his readers, many of whom will find themselves excluded from the mental, and especially the theological world of the 16th and 17th centuries. This was before all else a religious revolution, not to be reduced to politics and distributive economics. So there is nothing for it: the reader must be prepared to take seriously premodern other-worldliness, to grapple with what St Augustine said about grace at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, and how Augustine was reinterpreted in the 16th century, most crucially by Luther, and in 17th-century France by Jansenists, who as hyper-Augustinians believed in a high doctrine of predestination, and were at theological odds with the Jesuit followers of Luis de Molina, for whom God’s transcendence over time was not predestination but foreknowledge of free human choices. (If we were to gain admittance to some of the polite salons of Louis XIV’s France we would have to steel ourselves for much discussion of ‘grace’, even among the précieuses.) The reader will have to try to understand how Old Testament language about the various ‘covenants’ between God and man contributed to North American exceptionalism. He will have to work hard to understand how Lutherans differed from other Protestants in their understanding of what happens in the Eucharist, and how both Lutherans and those other more advanced Protestants (the ‘Reformed’) disagreed among themselves.

No odium more odious than odium theologicum. Can this possibly matter? MacCulloch admits that the Reformation may now seem like the story of two bald men fighting over a comb. But it mattered in Bremen. In the first phase of the Protestant Reformation, this great north German port, and its cathedral, fell into the hands of the Lutherans. When, thirty years later, the wealthy merchant elite of the city opted for the other kind of Protestantism, the cathedral clergy resisted, with the result that a church that was physically and in every other sense at the centre of things remained locked and unused for 77 years, which happily meant that the many treasures it contained remained undisturbed.

Above all it is impossible to make sense of many episodes in the Reformation, or even of the whole, without appreciating that these people thought that they were living in the Last Days, expecting the imminent end of the world. Bishop Hugh Latimer, preaching before Edward VI, told him: ‘We know by scripture and all learned men affirm the same, that the world was made to endure six thousand years,’ of which 5552 had already passed.

As our guide, MacCulloch is in the optimum position for a historian of religion, both an insider and an outsider. He comes from a line of Scottish Episcopalian and Anglican clergy, and has been in deacon’s orders. But he has changed. ‘I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so).’ William Cowper wrote: ‘Blind unbelief is sure to err.’ But so is blind belief. Standing where he does, MacCulloch is aware of the importance of understanding his subject for those who are not religious: ‘The decay of actual religious practice in Europe during the last century makes it all the more urgent a task to explain the reasons for Europe’s continued diversity.’

In one other respect MacCulloch makes a fully justified demand of his readers. With the collapse of the USSR and its empire, and the eastwards extension of the EU, we are at last waking up to what Europe consists of. MacCulloch insists on the pan-European scope of the Reformation. Some of the most interesting religious history happened in the confederation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a territory much larger than France, extending from the Baltic into the Ukraine and from German-speaking Prussian lands to within two or three days’ journey of Moscow. This republic (as it officially was) practised religious toleration. When Henri duc d’Anjou was elected king in January 1573, only months after tens of thousands of Protestants had been massacred in his native France, he was forced to submit to a resolution which ran:

Since there is in our Commonwealth no little disagreement on the subject of religion, in order to prevent any such hurtful strife from beginning among our people on this account as we plainly see in other realms, we mutually promise for ourselves and our successors for ever that we who differ with regard to religion will keep the peace with one another, and will not for a different faith or a change of churches shed blood.

It took the rest of Europe a century and more to learn that lesson, and Anjou himself, as King Henri III of France, would be stabbed to death by a religious fanatic – as it happens, a Catholic.

But it would have been misleading to have left the story in 1573 (let alone 1563) as MacCulloch’s more narrow-minded critics might wish. He must go on to tell us how it was that precociously tolerant Poland was to become synonymous with Roman Catholicism, to the extent that in the late 20th century, in the person of Pope John Paul II, it took charge of the latest episode in the history of a reactive, not to say reactionary, Counter-Reformation. One of the great merits of MacCulloch’s book is that it teaches us that all this, not to speak of what happened in Hungary and Transylvania, was by no means exotic and peripheral to the pan-European revolution which was the Reformation.

Reformation and counter-Reformation in most other parts of Europe are given their fair share of the available space. MacCulloch, the biographer of Cranmer, is primarily an expert on the complex and interactive processes of religious change in what he persistently calls (to avoid annoying the Irish?) the ‘Atlantic Isles’. His account of what happened on those islands from 1500 to 1700 is masterly, and full of insights which will be new for many. William Tyndale’s fascination with language and translation, which gave us the English Bible, may, it seems, have had its roots in the markets of the Welsh borderlands, where he would have heard a mixed babble of Welsh and English. The mistake which Pope Pius V made in excommunicating and deposing Queen Elizabeth was one reason Pius XII was reluctant to take a firmer line against Adolf Hitler. Sir Philip Sidney’s state funeral was delayed until February 1587, perhaps to provide a ceremonial counterpoint to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. In Elizabethan London far more people went to sermons than to the theatre. Religious literature outweighed secular by a factor of six or seven. The unique English practice of ringing changes on the church bells ‘became part of the fun of being an English Protestant’. The Church of England, and Anglicanism, are impossible to imagine without cathedrals, from which choral evensong is broadcast every Wednesday afternoon, all that some people retain of religion. But this was a fortuitous survival which owed everything to Queen Elizabeth I.

English-speaking America was the most momentous consequence of the civil wars which began with Charles I’s ‘suicidal disregard for Scottish public opinion’; also significant was the fact that the attempt to extend the Reformation to Ireland, which was hopelessly confused with a near genocidal colonial enterprise, failed. Given that American Protestantism is currently the most dynamic form of Christianity worldwide, MacCulloch suggests that Britain’s role in modern world politics may be ‘to interpret the pervasive and exuberantly assertive (some would say strident) culture of Protestant religion in the US to a Europe that has begun to forget what the Reformation meant’.

The opening sections of Reformation on the ‘Old Church’, and on the pre-Reformation overtures, are full of palpable hits. ‘The Reformation was full of angry words.’ Did we know that Luther’s attack on the sale of indulgences (‘some of the more outrageous outcrops of the soul-prayer industry’) was more likely to have had an impact in Northern than in Southern Europe, since the Mediterranean lands had never made so much of Purgatory? Transubstantiation? ‘Thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.’ Spain ‘destroyed the only non-Christian societies left in Western Europe’. ‘It is possible to talk of an Iberian Reformation before the Reformation.’ Erasmus? He ‘constructed a salon of the imagination’, and should be declared ‘the patron saint of networkers’.

The chapters which follow – the sequence of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin – are less exciting, and over this familiar ground the reader may be better off with other and older guides. Luther is portrayed as ‘a good monk’, and as the kind of academic who would see his university home and dry in both Quality Assessment and the RAE. MacCulloch is cool and source-critical about those aspects of Luther’s inner turmoil in which Protestantism was in gestation, which in German are called by the strong word Anfechtungen. Where is that critically important ‘theology of the Cross’, which Gordon Rupp said was not so much Luther’s tune as his key signature? MacCulloch is not, I think, a member of the Luther fan club (he does not flinch from saying that Luther’s anti-semitic writings were a blueprint for Kristallnacht in 1938), nor for that matter a Calvin groupie. In his recent work he has taken greater interest in more obscure reformers, such as the Polish nobleman Jan Laski (John à Lasco) and the Italian Pietro Martire Vermigli (‘Peter Martyr’), both of whom rubbed off on Cranmer.

One must turn back to A.G. Dickens and his pupil Bob Scribner for a more adequate and curious account of how Luther’s new theology was disseminated and of how it interacted with grassroots reforming impulses. This is Dickens’s story of the printing press and the flugschriften, almost ‘Reformation by print alone’, versus Scribner’s new social history, which is all about images and counter-images, street-theatre, carnival, the ‘incombustible Luther’ whose engraved portrait supposedly survived many a house fire – a Protestantism that was far from inaugurating Max Weber’s disenchantment of the world. MacCulloch tells us less than we might have expected about the free imperial cities, places like Erfurt and Augsburg. But this is unfair: there is no way that a book with this scope could get as immersed in these matters as a specialist on the German Reformation.

They could even have been a distraction. MacCulloch never loses his grip on his main subject, which is what happened to Europe as a series of long-term consequences of the Reformation, waves set in motion by that stone thrown into the European pond. So his book comes to a head, and in a way to its point, in the lengthy chapters that deal with what Heinz Schilling has taught our generation of historians to call ‘confessionalisation’. You will find little or nothing in some of the older books about this phase of Reformation and Counter-Reformation: the essential liberality of most historians attracted to the subject and writing in English, often on the East Coast of the US, as well as in England’s golden triangle of universities, made the Age of Orthodoxy, or rather of competing, warring orthodoxies, unappealing. They tended to sign off in Paul Johnson’s 1563 and to leave what followed to historians of Confessional Lutheranism, of High Calvinism, or Puritanism, or Tridentine Catholicism.

‘Confessionalisation’ is a less than adequate label to attach to MacCulloch’s richly cultural account of the rival Christianities taking shape in the Catholic South and the largely Protestant North. To take the South: the Counter-Reformation found its heart not only in the Decrees of the Council of Trent but in the rediscovered catacombs of Rome, which stimulated the imagination of a new generation of Catholic martyrs. The missions conducted by the Jesuits in the Italian countryside were religious versions of carnival (just as Robert Burns, describing revivalist religion in 18th-century Ayrshire, wrote of ‘holy fairs’), and the missioners enjoyed the status of modern pop stars. But the more distant missions taken to the Americas and Asia were fatally compromised by the ‘European reluctance to accept on equal terms the peoples whom they encountered’. The deaths of thousands of Christian converts in Japan almost disprove the old idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Central Europe, a broad band stretching from the Atlantic coast of France to Transylvania, was contested territory where an alliance of the Jesuits and Catholic rulers, especially the Habsburgs and Wittelsbachs, rolled back the carpet of Protestantism, and where the Thirty Years War, the mother and father of wars of religion, strangely delayed for sixty years and tragically provoked by an apocalyptic sense of impending Protestant triumph, determined the religious map of Europe for the rest of time. In 1590 half the European land-mass was Protestant; in 1690 about a fifth. (But westward, look, the land is bright.) And these wars involved the greatest uprootings of population in Europe between the barbarian invasions and the wars of the 20th century. Is that what Sir Herbert Butterfield meant when he spoke of the Reformation as a mere ‘internal displacement’ in Western European civilisation?

Europe was torn in half and the edges were ragged. MacCulloch writes about a variety of implications and outcomes: time (divided Europe lived by two different calendars for two centuries), the war on images, the witch-craze, death, preaching and catechising, discipline and the reformation of manners. Sixty pages on love and sex seems excessive, especially since the Reformation saw no changes in the family and relations between the sexes which could be called fundamental. But MacCulloch is more interested in relations within the sexes, and offers the startling insight that what marked ‘the end of the Reformation’ was a radical change in the perception of homosexuality, the emergence of a gay subculture in Amsterdam and London. What is curiously lacking, however, is an account of the impact of Reformation and Counter-Reformation on art and literature. Some of the names which do not occur in the index are Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Bunyan and Defoe.