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Diarmaid MacCulloch


Europe's House Divided 1490–1700

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
The chronological boundaries of the Reformation are not preciselly defined. As his subtitle indicates, MacCulloch's account spans the period from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth; not a long period but one in which a lot happened. Three main themes interweave throughout the story he tells. One derives from Martin Luther and his followers. A second arises from the split that occurred within Lutheranism and gave rise to Reformed Protestantism, also referred to as Calvinism because it was largely though not wholly based on the ideas of John Calvin. The third was the Catholic reaction to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, which stemmed from the Council of Trent at the end of the sixteenth century and led to the founding of the Inquisition and the formation of the Jesuits.

One feature of the Reformation that I hadn't previously known about is that it was dominated by the conviction that the End Time and the Second Coming of Christ were imminent. This belief lent added force to the central importance in people's minds of theological questions. Until recently, Western (Latin) Christianity was unique among world religions in the importance it attached to matters of belief. Believing the wrong things mattered intensely. Those who advocated heretical ideas would infect society like carriers of the plague. They therefore had to be eliminated, usually by burning at the stake; it is estimated that at least 5000 people perished in this way.

But it wasn't only individuals who suffered. There were innumerable religious wars.

The Reformation might indeed be viewed simply as two centuries of warfare: the sixteenth century witnessed fewer than ten years of complete peace, and there were less than a couple of years during the first half of the seventeenth.
One consequence of all this fighting was an increase in the centralisation of power in the hands of monarchs.
The newly strengthened monarchies in turn in turn sought to build up their subjects' potential enthusiasm for fighting the subjects of other monarchs, by stressing a common cultural and religious identity. Usually they privileged one language among others for administrative simplicity's sake, or even one version of a language among others: Castilian Spanish, northern French, High German and the English of London were among the prime beneficiaries.
The worst of these conflicts was the Thirty Years War, between 1608 and 1638, which produced suffering on a scale not seen again until the two world wars of the twentieth century. It resulted in a triumph for Catholicism, secured by the victory of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.

The success of the Counter-Reformation continued in the later seventeenth century and brought about a large reduction in the areas controlled by Protestantism.

Averagely aware Europeans at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were only too conscious that the boundaries of Protestant Europe had hugely contracted over the previous hundred years: Counter-Reformation Catholicism seemed triumphantly unstoppable.... In 1590, around half the European Land-mass was under the control of Protestant governments and/or Protestant culture: in 1690 the figure was only around a fifth.
King Louis XIV of France was also seeking to promote Catholicism; his armies were advancing into the Netherlands and appeared to be invincible. It was England, which had been following its own version of Reformation in the form of Anglicanism, that came to the rescue. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange to the throne the future of Protestantism in England was secure, and under William's successor Queen Anne the stunning victories of John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, routed the French in a series of decisive battles.

By the eighteenth century the Reformation in Europe had run its course. MacCulloch sees its continuation, not in Europe but in North America. When the Republic was set up after Independence the formal separation of Church and State was established as a principle of the Constitution, but this did not weaken the role of religion.

Curiously this has been consistently yoked in America with a more general observance of religious practice than remains in the formally established Protestant Churches of northern Europe.
This can be difficult for Europeans to understand.
This is a Christianity which has been shaped by a very different historical experience from that of western Europe and the similarities in language and confessional background may mislead us into missing the deep contrasts. If Britain has a world to play in modern world politics, it may be to interpret the pervasive and exuberantly assertive (some might say strident) culture of Protestant religion in the United States to a Europe that has come to forget what the Reformation meant.
This is a long book and it contains a vast amount of information—more than can be easily taken in on a first reading. Having finished it, my inclination is to go back and read it again; it has altered my understanding of European history in ways that I find surprising and illuminating. This seems particularly apposite now, as I am writing this review just at the moment when Britain is about to sever its last formal link with Europe


%T Reformation
%S Europe's House Divided 1490–1700
%A MacCulloch, Diarmaid
%I Penguin
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 876-0-141-92669-5
%K history
%O illustrations, maps
%) kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2020

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