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on 2 October 2006
Historians are always torn between writing chronologically or thematically. Here, MacCulloch offers his readers the chance to have their cake and eat it: first, a grand narrative of the Reformation through the 16th and 17th centuries; then, a thematic section treating subjects as varied as witchcraft, idolatry and homosexuality.

It both serves as an introduction to the Reformation, introducing and explaining the key figures and their roles (e.g. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Borromeo and St Ignatius...), and as a critique on established ways of thinking.

For MacCulloch, it is the ideas behind the Reformation that are most significant and that must take priority over an interpretation of the Reformation that primarily views it as a contest for power e.g. between the Pope and nascent nation states or as a battle for Europe among key elite families.

Thus, he unashamedly has a chapter on St Augustine's theology since he views interpreting Augustine as so central to the issues. In this, overall, he is very convincing. More than that, he is brilliantly lucid. For example, his explanation of the distinction between Calvin's eucharistic theology as opposed to Luther's or Zwingli's (or the Pope's, of course)(p248ff) is both clear and also sympathetic. (Those five pages have allowed me to think through my own eucharistic theology more than any other article I have ever read, theological or historical.) That said, his intellectualism occasionally leads him to make some odd points: e.g. paraphrased from p83, "If there is one explanation of why the Latin west experienced as reformation and the east did not, it lies in listening to the New Testament in the new voice of Greek (not Latin)." Really? That sounds like the bias of an academic to me.

Furthermore, while this is definitely a balanced account, he nevertheless has his heroes. Reginald Pole, perhaps surprisingly, is one of them and it's a pleasure to have MacCulloch rehabilitate him from his reputation as a historical failure: generally, MacCulloch likes people who do their best to promote inclusivity in the Church, even if they failed to achieve their aims. Similarly, from the Protestant wing, he champions people like Philip of Hesse, sponsor of the Colloquy of Marburgh, who resisted a particular confessionalisation in his territories, but wanted a more open scene.

His other, related bias is to those who championed faith on the margins: such as Juan de Valdes, and the others in the Spirituali movement. Thus, MacCulloch may not have an established bias (as with Eamon Duffy and Catholicism) but that doesn't mean he lacks bias per se.

What he does have, however, is a great ability to empathise with religiosity from both sides of the spectrum. His chapter on "The Spirit of Protestantism?" (p528-33), seeing the potency of the locus on the spirit within the togetherness of the congregation, is a marvellous evocation of how a Reformed spirituality really does exist: it's not just a limping beast, as Duffy for example might imply. Yet he's also able, say, to empathise with the discipline and spirituality of the Jesuit movement (p219ff).

Moreover, he pointedly gives credit where it is due as well as highlighting times of shame: for example, he doesn't exonerate the Spanish Inquisition in any way, but he does credit the way it worked tirelessly to prevent burnings for witchcraft (that raged in northern Europe) because it was so sceptical about the phenomenon.

The chapter on sexuality is perhaps more idiosyncratic: do we really know enough to say that homosexuality "formed a common part of the family lifecycle" (p625) sating sexual needs between adolescence and marriage in one's mid-twenties?

But to pick up on and query such examples is really to pick up on how lively and full of vitality this book is. It fully justifies great praise.

It's very readable (though I found it a bit of a slog in the middle, as he explains the seemingly endless French wars of religion. But that's the nature of the subject, I guess) and full of choice anecdotes.

If you want a first introduction to the Reformation, you might be advised to go to Owen Chadwick's book, because that is half the length, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't miss out on MacCulloch.

"Reformation" is a magnificant work of history, but it's more than that. It's an exploration of human spirituality, of how that is shaped by theology, and then what the consequences are when theological convictions are given real political power and influence.

It's a classic.
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I disagree with some of the other reviews here that this is bland or a difficult read - I approached it with some tripidation but found it both reassuringly scholarly and yet immensely readable, probably because the author has a distinctive 'voice' which mediates perfectly through the vast amount of material he covers. MacCulloch knows his material intimately and yet manages to convey the complexities without ever resorting to the fatal dumbing down of many authors. As someone with a vague idea of the history of the period, but little knowledge of religious philosophy, I wasn't sure if this would be too 'technical' but actually I found it fascinating and unputdownable. It dropped a star because at some points I felt MacCulloch was trying to cram in too much e.g. the complexities of religious thought across the whole of Europe, but the third section in particular on the differences the reformation made to actual peoples' lives in terms of the way they thought about sex and the family, for example, more than made up for some of the intricacies. All together a brilliant read.
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on 30 January 2008
Is it an advantage, as MacCulloch says to "not subscribe to any form of religious dogma" in trying to "describe the Reformation to a world which has largely forgotten or half-understood what it was about" (p xxv) ? One wonders whether indeed it is possible not to subscribe to some dogma(ie a belief or system of beliefs held on authority) religious or secular whether consciously held or not, and whether in all cases historians do not have a viewpoint conscious or unconscious lurking in the background to which they "bend the story to fit irrelevant preconceptions". Keynes accused practical men who eschewed theory as being slaves to some long defunct economists, one wonders if historians are any different.

However this is an excellent book, whatever one may make of the distinctive viewpoint which comes out so strongly in the section on Outcomes.

As well as the information concerning the ideas of the Reformers, going well beyond Luther, Zwingli and Calvin to Bucer and Bullinger, not to mention many others, it gives considerable space to the ideas and influence of Erasmus, and Cardinal Pole. As he says "Social and political history cannot do without theology in understanding the 16th century". MacCulloch gives succinct and accurate descriptions of the ideas , not exactly for dummies but with a secular audience in mind.

How many of us knew that there were one million Christian slaves enslaved by Islamic raiders between 1530 and 1640,roughly equivalent to the trade across the Atlantic? (p 57) That lay people with the dissolution of the guilds lost much control of what went on in church at the Reformation? (p 16)that in the 1930's the Popes did not excommunicate Hitler because among other reasons it was remembered that doing so to Elizabeth I had been counter productive? (p 334) That England judicially murdered more Roman Catholics than any other country in Europe (p 392).That as late as 1612 (well after the Council of Trent) the Archbishop of Salzburg lived with his concubine and 15 children?(p 447). As used to be said by a Sunday newspaper "all human life is here".

His history of the Church of England is particularly interesting reflecting as it does all the recent research which has made the old Anglo-Catholic historiography somewhat unconvincing.He makes very short work of any talk of the Elizabethan Settlement being any kind of compromise intended to mollify Catholics (p 289). Nor does he have much time for the "Protestant work ethic" and while admiring Max Weber whom he describes as a genius sees his work as being influential on discussions of history "particularly among those who are not historians". (p 604). In the background of much thought he sees a sense that time is at an end ,and says that without appreciating this the Reformation can often be regarded as "a vandalistic, mean-minded or money-grubbing assault on a settled round of devotion and a world of beauty and celebration".(p 551).

This book should certainly be read as it cannot fail to amuse, to stimulate,and to inform.However it is a pity that the print in the Penguin edition is so small and may prove a problem for elderly scholars.
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on 5 December 2003
It is a rare delight to read a book that is so crisply and wittily written yet formidable in its academic rigour. The narrative runs through the Mediaeval era to ca. 1700 and encompasses all parts of Europe and the European overseas territories in an enjoyable yet thought-provoking prose. It is a good book to read as much as a useful reference for students of the Reformation and early modern Europe in general. MacCulloch takes the English Reformation from its splendid isolation and puts it within the wider European context – something that was urgently needed and accomplished with great success. The book’s greatest strength lies with the ability of the author to communicate theological and ecclesiological subtleties that were so contentious during the Reformation and divided the Latin Christendom. One of many personal favourites of this reviewer’s is on p.25 (second paragraph) explaining the Aristotelian nature of existence, a concept which is crucial in understanding the idea of transubstantiation – it is indicative of MacCulloch’s ability to write calmly but with wit.
MacCulloch deals with all aspects of the Reformation, not merely the theology and politics of it. It tells more than the stories of great Reformation and Counter-Reformation figures (e.g. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli or Borromeo, Loyola) – they receive their due treatment – but this work also mentions ‘Radicals’ (e.g. ‘Anabaptists’) on the fringes and those hitherto neglected characters such as Bullinger and Bucer. Politics is integrated seamlessly to the narrative. Also, how Reformation(s) changed the attitudes of many early modern people in matters such as witchcraft and sex are discussed succinctly in the third part of the book.
A work that deals with such a long time period and a huge area necessarily has to be selective and on the whole MacCulloch’s decisions are judicious. There may be questions regarding the special emphases placed on the Anglo-Saxon areas, that is to say the Anglican Church and the developments in the UK and in North America. On the other hand, while the ‘peripheries’ of Latin Christendom do receive far better treatment in this book than most other works on the Reformation, there are certain areas that would have benefited from discussions. The Nordic area (e.g. Finland) and south-eastern Europe (other than Royal Hungary and Transylvania, e.g. Croatia) in particular stand out. In this respect one very small thing that puzzled this reviewer was ‘Sigismond’ of Sweden – either he is Sigismund (Sweden) or Zygmunt (Poland). Even though the section ‘Further Reading’ points to the most important and accessible literature, it would have been of greater help to a keen reader or a student, had there been a more extensive bibliography. If grasp of European geography is tenuous, especially in East and East-Central Europe (could you put your finger to Poznan in Poland or Cluj in Romania on a map?), readers are advised to have a good map nearby for consultation as readers will be transferred hundreds of miles away from Geneva on one page to a corner of Transylvania on the following.
All in all, this book is a testimony to great scholarship and a perfect introduction to the complexities of the Reformation(s) in Europe and beyond. Together with Euan Cameron’s ‘The European Reformation’, this book will serve as a sound introduction to the period. It is highly recommended.
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on 9 November 2003
This is a weighty but very readable review of a fascinating period of European history. With the exception of one reviewer here, all other reviews have, so far as I have seen, been unanimous in their praise and enthusiasm for the book. The FT and TLS for example, the latter saying: "It is hard not to admire a book that is such a masterpiece of learning, and yet written with a disarming lightness of touch. It is a magnificent achievement". The proof is, of course, in the reading. The great thing about this book is that the reading is as a delightful experience as it is a rewarding and illuminating one.
A very worthy successor to his brilliant Cranmer biography and to his Edward VI ecclesial history.
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on 15 March 2008
I would venture to say that this is the best book there is on the subject of the reformation.
I particularly liked the way he was aware of the limited knowledge of the general reader. He has taken great care to impart his expertise gradually which is to be lauded. Where topics have been mentioned in passing he provides, in brackets, a page reference where the subject is covered in more detail. This is helpful because the reformation is a broad subject and a lot of topics are covered in the book's 700 pages.
He is an eloquent and elegant writer and you really get the sense that this guy knows what he is talking about. He has thoughtfully compartmentalised the book brilliantly as only an expert could do.
Obviously in an overview of the subject, everything is touched upon without going into too much detail. But this isn't a bad thing as he has expertly chosen what he thinks is most important for the reader to gain a full understanding of those tumultuous years.
It is an excellently structured book, never being desultory or hard to follow. The first part gives an introduction to the subject, the second is the reformation and its aftermath, and the short third part gives an insight on what it was like to live through. This final part also devotes a couple of chapters to attitudes to love and sex during the reformation.
If you look at the back of the book, you will not only find references and notes, but Mr Macculloch has also provided a list of further reading that he recommends on subjects that may have piqued your interest.

A more panoramic view of the this period will be hard to find.
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on 4 January 2005
Reviewers, including here, have heaped praise on MacCullouch's history, and with justification. Reformation is a lucid treatment of a complex and wide-ranging subject.
However, it should be emphasised that this is no 'coffee table' work of popular history - it is a dense, serious, scholarly work and at around 700 pages of text, is not for the casual reader. Frequent cross-references help readers navigate through the mass of information, but more and better placed maps would have helped.
Despite those caveats, Reformation is a fine work of synthesis, combining nuanced discussions of complex theological issues with the broad sweep of events, and I found it both illuminating and enjoyable.
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For years I have wanted to read a comprehensive history of this period, which is far less well covered than the Renaissance and Enlightenment. To cover a gap in my knowledge, I believe that this is a near ideal text for a variety of reasons. The reformation, the author proves, must be taken into account in order to understand the world today.

First, the author evokes the context from which the Reformation sprung: directly from the Renaissance, with its scholarly questioning of the essential texts and the intellectual world that it opened up. But there was also the aging feudal model, which aristocrats were trying to preserve their fiefs as the modern state began to emerge with the consolidation of power of the absolutist monarchies, taking away their independence of action; this created a natural pool of allies for opposition to the Papacy, which tended to naturally support the divine right of kings (with many exceptions, of course, as this is over-generalising).

Second, in an incredible feat of ongoing exposition, the author explains what people were believing/thinking at the time and how this released the violent passions that shook Europe and led to uncountable deaths. This is a realm completely alien to me, who was brought up entirely without religion - it is whether the faithful believe that the eucharist actually embodies the blood of Christ, symbolises it, or is a papist-inspired blasphemy; whether a baptism should be at birth or later in life; whether a person can be saved by redemption in Christ's forgiveness, is innately predestined to God's kingdom, or is granted it by faith (and ritual) alone; the nature of Mary's divinity or lack thereof; etc. People were executed and burnt alive for one opinion or the other, and the author explains why and how. This was by far the most interesting and surprising part of the book for me: it proves how much ideas and belief mattered then, not as a mere epiphenomenon as we tend to view it today, but an actual motivator for action.

Third, MacCulloch does not shrink from explaining how these ideas were used in the political context of the time, across Europe but also in the new world. This makes for extraordinarily dense reading, from why Ferdinand and Isabelle ejected the Jews from Moorish Spain as they liberated it in 1492, to Queen Elizabeth I's struggles to consolidate power in England, to the unsuccessful military campaigns of the prince of Transylvania to take over Poland. In particular, he explains why Martin Luther allied himself with rebellious princes against the peasant uprisings, which were ruthlessly smashed: he needed their protection and they needed his ideological independence, in spite of the peasants' taking inspiration directly from Luther's preachings. It is a dazzling historical tour that whets the appetite for more, which I cannot do justice to here in such a succinct charaterization. MacCulloch demonstrates how religious concerns intertlaced into many of the powerplays that one knows about, such as Louis XIV's attacks on the Netherlands.

Finally, the author examines the impact of the Reformation, not only on daily life, but as a grand historical movement. It is here that in many ways the most can be learned about how the various christian churches (and entire cultural identities) evolved and adapted into their present forms. For example, the US is portrayed as an embodiment of the protestant ideal in a new geographical context, which supposedly explains the far higher identification of its citizens with the church today than their paradoxically more laic counterparts in such catholic countries as France and Italy. He even looks, in what I interpreted as an existential psychoanalysis, at the psychology of fundamentalism, with pointed observations about the post 9/11 world. This too stimulates me to delve deeper into Muslim history and contemprary religious movements.

If I have any criticism, it is that MacCulloch covers such a vast and sweeping movement that the reader can get lost in the details about who did what and believed what. But then, that is the nature of the subject and I do not see how he could have done otherwise without oversimplifying things.

Warmly recommended as a great and deep reading experience.
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on 29 August 2008
Diarmaid MacCulloch has produced a masterful and magisterial history of a period that is usually called the "Reformation" but which, as MacCulloch demonstrates, transcends simplistic notions of Catholicism and Protestantism. In the space of 250 years, not only Europe, but also the world as a whole were reshaped through a series of social and political convulsions in which religion played a central role. MacCulloch successfully manages to combine historical and geographical approaches that show how the main players were related to what went before as well as other actors.
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on 19 March 2014
I came at this book from a Reformed background that many would fine to be rather extreme, however I got an immense amount out of this excellent book.

While MacCulloch is certainly not impartial (lets face it, who is) he is always fair even if you disagree with his conclusions this book accomplishes what appears to be one of its main aims of putting each element of the reformation in its proper context, which I realise now I have often been lacking. I am now convinced of the futility of considering elements of the reformation in isolation from the bigger picture, for instance to understand Geneva you have to understand Germany and to understand the English reformation (if indeed there actually was one) you have to understand the continental situation. More to the point to understand the 16th century you have to understand the 15th century and so on.

I now feel much closer to the momentous events of the reformation and the secondary causes that underpinned the political and theological developments that occurred.
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