The Reformation

2017 will be a significant year for readers of history, particularly religious history. It will be 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Church door at Wittenberg in Saxony. For convenience, the event in 1517  is taken to be the start of what came to be known as ‘The Protestant Reformation’. Even now it may be too soon to understand the full implications of what happened. For example, could the same sort of impulses which drove The Reformation be driving Brexit and other desires for autonomy?

A handy one volume introduction has been written in recent years by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History at Oxford. ( Of course we all enjoyed the schoolboy jokes about Martin Luther being constipated and starting the Reformation out of frustration and rage, or desperately wanting to get married. For an explanation of the upheaval which is a tad more nuanced, MacCulloch is a sure guide.

MacCulloch tells the story of a multiplicity of reform movements in Europe. Each was determined to improve on the late medieval model of Christianity. Each laid claim to be the true heirs of Christ and his apostles, and all interacted to produce a complicated and unique bundle of religious cultures which between them have reshaped the world. For MacCulloch, the key factor that made possible the Reformation is less to do with the political or social complexion of late-medieval Germany, or the excesses of the Renaissance papacy, but the printing of a scholarly edition of Augustine’s works in 1490. The greatest single solvent force on the Church is portrayed not as social, political, or economic, but technological: the invention of printing. It gave European humanity a different sort of way to experience religion – by reading the Bible.

Scholarly assessments are not the whole of this book. We learn that Calvin loathed dancing but enjoyed shove ha’penny, that the unfamiliar comforts of marriage caused Luther to get fat, and that Archbishop Laud was a cat-lover who disliked dogs almost as much as he did Puritans. MacCulloch is also good value on church buildings.The reader is taken on a guided tour of churches in England and Germany, introduced to monuments that reveal the enigmatic nature of late-medieval Christianity, the tenderness of Lutheranism towards images, the evangelical fervour of Elizabethan Puritans. Buildings commonly feature as personalities in their own right.

A further strength is a church insider’s knowledge of the issues that concern modern day Protestants and Catholics. If the author does not devote much space to the social and political roots of Reformation, he dedicates over a fifth of the book to its impact on society in the short and long term. Throughout his narrative he has a shrewd and good-natured eye for erotic and homoerotic elements in the make-up of early modern religious leaders. In those dealing with social change, the main focus is on sexuality and its related domains of marriage and the family: precisely the issues that most vex contemporary Churches. In the last analysis, MacCulloch gives readers the stark (and open) choice, that the Bible either has to be accepted or ignored when resolving these issues. That was, of course, the same choice that confronted early modern people in many other contexts, such as the realisation that humans are an evolved species.

This towering work of popular history teaches us that the Reformation grew out of the Renaissance, and provides a compelling glimpse of the complex cultural background to all those reform movements. By starting this book now you’ll be as well placed as anyone in Lanark by 31 October 2017  to discuss why St. Kentigern’s in Lanark lies in ruins but St. Nicholas still has a congregation .


Enquire at your local library or consult for further bibliographic detail

864 pages in Penguin

First published 2004

ISBN  978-0143035381


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Diarmaid MacCulloch

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