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4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, but not definitive, July 24, 2004
This review is from: The Reformation: A History (Hardcover)
In many ways, Diarmaid McCullouch's account is a useful, thorough guide to the Reformation, which starts in the aftermath of the Hussite controversy, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the rise of Humanism and the reconquest of Spain, and which ends with the Glorious Revolution, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and with the beginning of the Enlightenment. MacCulloch is careful to remind the reader to take seriously the religious passions of the period and avoid the enormous condescension of the secular present. For here was a period where both Catholics and Protestants emphasized the absolute need for faith in Jesus as well as the need for moral behavior and increased discipline. In the battle of faith over works, Protestants emphasized the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Romans, while Catholic emphasized the Gospel of Matthew and the Epsitle of James. Whereas Catholics only had the Eucharist once a year, the Scottish Calvinists emphasized a more rational devotion, such that parishioners could now expect to take it twice. Instead of obeying the Pope, Protestants emphasized thier new ecclesiastical hierarchies. For these differences people were slaughtered from Drogheda to Magdeburg.

MacCulloch's main virtue is thoroughness. This is a history of the Reformation that covers almost all of Western Christianity. Not merely do Britian, France, the Netherlands and what is now Germany all play their parts, but we also get special sections on the suprisingly cosmopolitan culture of late 16th century Poland, the Protestant redoubt that was then Transylvania, as well as accounts of the Counter-Reformation in Italy and Spain. We even get the short and unhappy history of an attempt to turn Moldova Protestant, as well as colonial efforts in Virginia, Japan, Latin American and the Philippines. Indeed of all the countries of Western Christianity, only Slovakia, Slovenia and Finland do not make an appearance. Moreover, MacCulloch also makes clear that this was also a period of religious reform on the Catholic side. Just as the pre-1517 period was not one of religious decadence, there were new orders, new forms of discipline, new cultural forms, new teleogies after the Council of Trent. In 1580, Poland, France, Bohemia, Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, and Belgium were all balanced between Protestantism and Catholicism. A century later they were all clearly Catholic. A third point in MacCulloch's favor is an amusing style and a fine eye for detail. Many people would not know that the Spanish Inquistion was one of the more level-headed groups during the witch-hunt panics, a response, MacCulloch suggests, of their long experience with paranoia. After a lucid and amusing description of medieval Aristotelian theories of transubstantiation, MacCulloch notes the irony that thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for rejecting an idea of a man who had never heard of Jesus. Later, we will see Protestants rejecting early cures for malaria and syphilis because Catholics were the first to come up with them. Many people are aware of Luther's hostility towards Jews, but MacCulloch notes that Erasmus could be equally venemous against them.

Having said that, this history is not definitive. The Gaelic culture of Scotland was easily absorbed into Protestantism, while the Gaelic culture of Ireland was almost completely hostile. By 1650 Catholics were tiny minorities in both England and Scotland. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands a sizeable minority were (and still are) Catholic, while what is now Belgium was mostly Catholic. Why? There is no systematic explanation of why one area was Catholic and another Protestant. We only get partial explanations, such as the argument that since the cult of purgatory had never developed as far in the South, Luther's polemics against it had much less effect. There is little discussion of what the population as a whole thought about the reformation. The Revisionist argument that the British population was underwhelmed by the Reformation for several decades is never really confronted. What did Europeans actually know about their Christian faith? Whether one uses Keith Thomas, Gerald Strauss, Christopher Haigh or Geoffrey Parker the results are not encouraging. MacCulloch emphasizes the Ottoman threat, many discussions of possible turning points and alternate endings, a discussion of the witch-hunts, and two chapters on sex and gender, even though the changes there were relatively modest. By contrast, there is little discussion of the economic causes or effects of the Reformation. In that way, it is very much a monograph of our time. Much of the book consists of sympathetic discussions of Protestant and Catholic theology, while there is no appearance in the index of El Greco, Montaigne, Spenser, Rembrandt or Milton. In his discussion of theology, there is a certain bias for Reformed theologians over their Lutheran and Catholic rivals. Certainly Augustine is treated as if he were holy scripture, while the modern critical consensus that Jesus opposed divorce absolutely goes unmentioned. Instead, there is the patently incorrect claim that Britain has the most restrictive divorce laws in Europe.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 13, 2008 5:51:12 PM PDT
Here in Brazil, no other religious group is so poor and unhappy as the protestants(last majority of them are pentecostals).

Posted on Sep 30, 2008 8:39:07 AM PDT
I'm only an amateur scholar of history, and a poor one at that, but don't you mean something like "Avignonian captivity" rather than "Babylonian captivity"?

That is, unless there's a case to be made for moving the timeline back 1800 years and locating the seeds of Protesantism in the same crucible that formed Judaism....which could be true for all I know.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 28, 2010 6:14:36 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 28, 2010 6:15:00 PM PST
The reference is correct. See, for example,

Posted on Jul 14, 2011 2:15:47 PM PDT
Customer says:
"Whereas Catholics only had the Eucharist once a year..." Please tell me from whence did you get this false information? My Catechism and upbringing informs me that the Eucharist, as the heart of Catholic liturgical worship, has been celebrated, if not daily, at least weekly from its earliest beginnings. In other words, one does not attend Mass without (Communion) the Eucharist; Mass without the Eucharist is oxymoronic.
Also, just curious but when you say: "After a lucid and amusing description of medieval Aristotelian theories of transubstantiation..." Perhaps you could shed some light on why you find what the Council of Trent (1551) proclaimed as the mystery of the Faith is, to you, a source of amusement. Or is it simply the case that you find Aristotle (and by extension St. Thomas Aquinas his interpreter and commentator) comical?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 2, 2013 9:49:43 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 2, 2013 9:50:47 PM PST
Green-man says:
G. B. Robinson:

The Avignon Papacy and the Babylonian Captivity are the same thing. After the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, most European Catholics referred to that papacy as Babylon; similarly, after the papacy was moved back to Rome, the period of the Avignonian papacy was commonly referred to as the Babylonian captivity of the church, often shortened to just "Babylonian Captivity." Your point about ancient Israel's own Babylonian captivity is actually quite close to the mark. The Avignon papacy was called "Babylon," and the rule of the Avignonian papacy was called "the Babylonian captivity," because many Christians felt this event represented the Church as going into a kind of spiritual exile as the people of God.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 2, 2013 10:01:32 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 2, 2013 10:05:36 PM PST
Green-man says:
A Reader:

Actually, A Reader, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're mostly incorrect in your information, and are not interpreting your catechism correctly. First, most medieval Catholics only had the Eucharist once a year. It was available all the time, of course, but most Catholics (for a variety of reasons) did not attend church/participate in the mass except once or twice a year (usually on Easter). Most introductions to the history of Christian worship will convey this information, and it has been known for several centuries by both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars (one reason why Trent maintained that the mass should be celebrated by the laity on a more regular basis). Of course, you are correct--mass without the Eucharist just doesn't happen. But during the Middle Ages, priests often celebrated the mass by themselves because no one else showed up for it (in the smaller parish churches, that is). I would say this was never what the Church intended as a satisfactory celebration of mass. Also, I'm not sure what the reviewer meant exactly by the sentence, "After a lucid and amusing description of medieval Aristotelian theories of transubstantiation..."; however, I believe the reviewer is referencing the author's comments about pre-16th century medieval theories of transubstantiation. In fact, prior to Trent, which codified the way in which the faithful would understand the mystery of the faith as the Eucharist and the way in which theologians would follow an Aristotelian logic to understand transubstantiation, there were several theories about how the bread and wine "became" the body and blood of Christ, all of which flowed out of the general stream of Aristotelianism produced during the high and late Middle Ages (also found in introductions to medieval theology and philosophy). I don't think the reviewer found Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, or the mystery of the faith "comical." Instead, I think the reviewer found "amusement" in the multiple theories of transubstantiation, some of which actually appear quite ludicrous. We must also keep in mind that several such theories were condemned at Trent as aberrations of what St. Thomas and orthodox Aristotelians actually taught.
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