As author Patrick Collinson writes, this is a book about Western Europe - a period in Western Europe's development that, when drawn on a map, rather interestingly parallels the shape and development of the European Union community. Collinson gives attention at the start to the area of Christendom beyond the Western Church, but makes the point that the evolutionary/revolutionary pattern in the greater Orthodox world is far different from the West, and that it never experienced the kind of events that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation caused in the West.
The Reformation was not a one-time event, but an ongoing process over many centuries. The timeline Collinson provides at the start begins at 1378, the start of the Great Schism, the era of popes and antipopes, which provided some fertile ground for later Reformation in fact if not in theology and ecclesiology. This is of course 150 years prior to Martin Luther's grand pronouncements, followed quickly by John Calvin and others. Collinson's time frame continues up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain, which finally established the Protestant rule in Britain.
Collinson's explorations show interesting sides to this tumultuous period of history. Luther's conversion story, often retold by Luther himself, changes periodically into not-always-consistent versions. This is part of the tension Collinson describes, the tension between Reformation as a process and Reformation as an historical event. Collinson also develops the idea of Reformation as something not necessarily tremendously radical - Martin Luther, according to many historians quoted by Collinson, can be seen as a medieval rather than a modern man - he `...offered new answers to old questions. He asked no new ones.'
Thus, Collinson speaks of the late medieval church and its Reformation - this was something internal rather than external to the church, however much later history may want to see it in terms of external sources and forces. Collinson explores issues of language and literacy (remembering the kind of revolution that inventions such as the Gutenberg Press made available), and looks at alternate patterns the Reformation followed under different leaders and in different locations. Collinson highlights the English Reformation as a particularly special case - `exceptional in the extent to which it was contested, both at the time and ever since.' Part of the difficulties in the Anglican communion today can be directly traced to the issues and problems of authority and ecclesiology that were present during this early period. Some of the more interesting chapters include his discussion of Politics, the development of early sensibilities that later would lead to the idea of the nation-state, and Art, which includes the likes of George Herbert, Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
Collinson explores people, places, events, trends - he does not concentrate on one particular historical investigation, but develops various strands overall. Collinson's final chapters traces different developments after the Reformation/Counter-Reformation period, showing how strands reached into Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution and other ages, but stops short of making definitive pronouncements about the cause and effect.
Collinson's text is lively, accessible, and interesting. It carries the movement of history well with a good amount of detail without being excessive in labouring minor points. He has a useful index and section on further readings for each chapter/subject.
A great find!