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Customer Review

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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