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The Reformation: Its History and Legacy (December 2017): General Works

By Matthew Hill

General Works

General works on the Reformation are numerous, but the following are solid introductions. Distinguished historian Roland Bainton’s The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century correctly argues that the reformers saw themselves as rebels, not theological innovators, and their original goal was reform, rather than the undermining of the Catholic Church. The Reformers sought to restore early Christianity, but their visions of the role of authority were at heart incompatible with the early Christian Church. Hans J. Hillerbrand’s The World of the Reformation sees the Reformation as the foremost event of the first half of sixteenth-century Europe. He argues that although the Reformation was essentially religious in nature, its path was influenced just as strongly by its surrounding context. Hillerbrand expands his narrative in The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century, whose more detailed and panoramic portrait makes it an essential work. Owen Chadwick’s rather concise The Reformation, which covers the overlapping story of the conquistadors, Eastern Orthodoxy, competing perspectives on tolerance, dissolution of the English monasteries, and cultural changes in church music and worship, is a bit dated, but one of the more well-rounded treatments.

Early Reformation narratives interpreted the Reformation as a single story, but this view has been challenged by many who have argued for plural Reformations rather than one singular event. This new historiographical viewpoint expanded the field considerably. For instance, R. Tudur Jones in The Great Reformation argues that the Reformation encompassed such a pluralistic chain of events, personalities, and ideas that positing the Reformation as a singular movement is too simplistic. Also a bit dated, but immensely useful, is Lewis W. Spitz’s The Protestant Reformation, 1517–1559. Spitz is especially strong in establishing the social and intellectual trends of sixteenth-century European life not only in Western Europe, but also in Russia and the Ottoman East. Another useful work is G.R. Elton’s Reformation Europe: 1517–1559, written by a leading scholar of the Tudor era.

The Reformation may have had strong German and Swiss roots, but it did not end there. Expanding its geographical reach is Euan Cameron, who in The European Reformation argues that the Reformation was a divisive protest movement against the received wisdom and traditions of the past. It began as a movement of elites by elites, but gained momentum and transformed society as lay persons assumed the role of reformer and spun off in myriad directions. This work is particularly strong on social demographics. 

In his magisterial account The Reformation: A History, Diarmaid MacCulloch centers his argument around key fault lines and crisis points that shaped the ebb and flow of events. This is important, as MacCulloch notes the role of contingency in the Reformation story. A smaller but well-written study is Patrick Collinson’s The Reformation: A History. Collinson’s stated purpose is to present the big picture of the Reformation, avoiding the provincialism of area studies. Outside the traditional story, Collinson helpfully explains its impact on political thought, art, the printing press, and the linguistic contributions of Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin on the German, English, and French languages.

Amidst the many micro-studies that have materialized in recent years is Carter Lindberg’s The European Reformations, which reestablishes a panoramic framework of the Reformation. A truly thorough account is Carlos M.N. Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650. Eire argues that the era was defined by a series of overlapping Reformations, defined differently by the shared language of religion. Eire restores religion as a major force in history and maintains that the transitional nature of this era profoundly shaped modern Europe.