Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Roads from Rome: unpicking the myths of the Reformation

Five centuries on, can we still see Luther’s challenge to the Church as a watershed that set Europeans on the path to modernity?

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Ferdinand Pauwels, Luther Posting the 95 Theses (1872)

This year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, the deed that kick-started the Reformation, has inevitably been marked by a mini-deluge of scholarly books and articles. Indeed, the outpouring of printed theology and propaganda in the 16th century, so vital for the spread of Protestantism across the western world, will surely prove but a drop in the ocean of ink required for the commemoration of this pivotal moment in European history. And yet we might pause to ask a couple of questions. Was this event really a watershed that set Europeans on the path to modernity, and was it an event at all? 

Perhaps the most important thing we learn from the historians and their big books is that although the Reformation lives in our collective memory as a dramatic episode — a pugnacious friar’s conscious uncoupling from the Catholic church — its significance lies in the branched processes of historical change it set in motion. The Reformation lasted decades. Occasionally reform was reversed, and typically outcomes differed from what reformers had intended. Some worshippers acquiesced, others were defiant, but none could escape the revolutionary implications. The bipolar model once in vogue — a political Reformation from above and a social Reformation from below — has been surpassed by a profusion of Reformations plural. The Reformation is now represented by variants that are local and regional, national and trans­national, emotional and gendered, literary and bibliographic, artistic and musical. And the settings are not just courts and councils but landscapes, urban spaces, village communities, households, material culture and the interior lives of individuals. 

 Of the three books reviewed here, Eamon Duffy’s challenges most forcefully the myth of the English Reformation, namely that it was singular and necessary and benign. Duffy’s previous books have portrayed a traditional religious culture in rude health on the eve of the break with Rome, not one creaking on its foundations and in need of demolition. Duffy has also described, with brilliant precision, the shock and pain caused by the enforcement of a new liturgy, one where the Mass was downgraded from luminous miracle to dull commemoration. One of the worst traumas endured by parishioners was the loss of their precious stained glass and paintings, statues and relics, vestments and communion ware — all destroyed by iconoclasts who condemned such things as extraneous and idolatrous.

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