Accidental shift in morality

Reformation Europe
May 11, 2007

Weighing in at just under 200 pages of text (or fewer, on account of the many illustrations), one might be tempted to see Ulinka Rublack's Reformation Europe , in comparison to the recent tomes of Diarmaid MacCulloch ( Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 ) and Andrew Pettegree ( The Reformation World ) as a form of "Reformation lite". Indeed, Rublack does not attempt to offer a comprehensive account of events - Italy figures more prominently than England. Rather, her beginning point is familiar to anyone who teaches early modern history: how can we understand the mentalities of a society that stands at a distance of 500 years from our own?

Further, when the principal issue concerned involves religious change, the difficulties of comprehension are only exacerbated. Unfazed by the task, Rublack addresses the question of how religious change took place in the early modern world. Her response is framed in terms of a very human story.

The key protagonists are Martin Luther and John Calvin, but they do not stand alone on stage. Alongside them attention is given to a diverse cast, including Charles V, Erasmus, Margaret of Navarre and Martin Bucer, to name a few.

None is simply presented as embodying ideas, but as men and women whose religious experiences were shaped by birth, education, family and the vicissitudes of life. Rublack has no time for the Reformation as a providential event; her main thesis is that it took place on account of favourable "constellations" - the right people in the right place as the right time.

At the same time, the Weberian idea of charismatic leadership is acknowledged. Luther and Calvin achieved great things because they were extraordinarily talented individuals. There was nothing accidental about their thought.

The book emphasises the different levels on which the Reformation took place as well as the varied ways in which religious change could be effectively presented. While the illustrated pamphlets of the 1520s were devastatingly effective for Luther in the 1520s, Calvin's success rested more on his "rhetorical civility", a powerful combination of the spoken word and moral conduct.

Similarly, Rublack is interested in how the central teachings of the Reformation were appropriated into daily life, where they assumed local and even individual forms. Considerable attention is given to modes of communication and networks.

Most impressive is the manner in which this excellent book demonstrates how the complexities of the Reformation neither undermine its coherence as movement or depreciate its significance. Pupils and students studying the Reformation will welcome this fine book.

Bruce Gordon is reader in modern history, St Andrews University.

Sir Francis Dashwood at his devotions, c 1752, by William Hogarth. From Hogarth, France and British Art: The Rise of the Arts in 18th-Century Britain, by Robin Simon. Hogarth Arts, 400pp, £45.00.

ISBN 9780955406300

Reformation Europe

Author - Ulinka Rublack
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 226
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 9780521802840 and 1003698

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