Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation. – Review

Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation. – Review – book reviews

Robin B. Barnes

Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation. Edited by Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. x, 294. $59.95.)

This conference volume presents fifteen essays on a historical theme of great contemporary interest. In their preface, the editors wonder “whether any progress toward greater [religious] tolerance has really been achieved since the sixteenth century.” They offer the work as a collection of”new and revisionist interpretations” of the issue in the period ca. 1500-1700, which challenges “the hitherto dominant scholarly view” that this era witnessed “a steady expansion” of toleration. That view is something of a straw man as, for over a generation, Reformation scholars have energetically abandoned whiggish assumptions of progress. But these essays, all by distinguished scholars, help to show the enormous complexity of religious identity and conflict in the early modern age. The volume is appropriately dedicated to the memory of Hans Guggisberg, a contributor renowned for his work in the history of tolerance, who died as the work was going to press.

Heiko Oberman sets the tone with a contribution focusing on the “test cases” of witches, Jews, and religious dissenters. The experiences of these groups show that the story of tolerance is much more clouded and depressing than nineteenth-century Protestant triumphalism would suggest. Bob Scribner’s reflections on the German scene lead in a quite different direction, suggesting that the most significant form of tolerance was a function of “practical rationality,” a live-and-let-live acceptance of differing beliefs among ordinary people. Scribner questions the “common” view that this age witnessed the rise of a “persecuting society”; the intolerance of that age had a “loose weave.” These assertions seem hard to square with the themes that supposedly hold the volume together. So, too, do the conclusions of William Monter, who shows that executions for heresy were relatively rare before the mid-sixteenth century. Even then, such executions remained limited in number, and they had for the most part died out in most regions by 1600.

The essays found in this volume consider a variety of issues relating to the general subject. Regarding the question of Catholic-Reformed coexistence in France, Philip Benedict stresses the consistent difficulty of enforcing royal toleration edicts. He thinks it likely that awareness of confessional identity was actually stronger in the late seventeenth century than it had been in 1600. Here, as elsewhere, toleration remained at best a practical political concession, not something valued for its own sake. Lorna Jane Abray seeks to qualify the traditional depiction of Reformation Strassburg as an island of relative toleration, but much of the evidence she presents actually supports such a view. Once again, however, we see that the picture is more complex and varied than is often assumed. Euan Cameron posits a “residual awareness” of pan-Protestant identity in this period, especially among layfolk, who were disinclined to theological debate. His argument is strained at points, but it is certainly provocative. Bruce Gordon looks at Nicholas Manuel of Berne, a voice for peace in the early Swiss Reformation. Hans Guggisberg’s contribution focuses on the mid-sixteenth-century campaign for tolerance at Basel led by Sebastian Castellio.

Ole Peter Grell considers the experience of the Dutch Calvinist refugees who were driven out of London by Mary Tudor and went to Lutheran Denmark; evidently persecution and exile did not necessarily inspire more tolerant attitudes among those who experienced them. Andrew Pettegree believes that in the largely Calvinist Dutch Republic, secular magistrates used toleration of dissidents as a weapon in support of their own authority; here the acceptance of diversity was far from a high-minded ideal. Diarmaid MacCulloch asserts that the English reformer, Thomas Cranmer, had no interest in religious freedom, but sought to achieve concord by persuasion if possible, and by force if necessary. Norah Carlin finds English radicals of the Civil War era anticipating the toleration arguments of John Locke. In keeping with a broad European scope, the volume concludes with essays by Jaroslav Panek on Bohemia and Moravia, Katalin Peter on Hungary, and Michael Muller on Poland.

Grell’s introduction rightly emphasizes a point that is common to many of these contributions: tolerance in the Reformation era was almost never a positive ideal but was regarded as a necessary evil. It was a temporary, pragmatic means to true religious unity. Underlying the approach of the editors is the latter-day conviction that religious diversity is a good thing, and that early modern discomfort with it is to be regarded with regret. But perhaps the largest question posed by this collection is a challenge to that very notion: Is it humanly possible to affirm schemes of meaning and value that we perceive as genuinely foreign to our own?

Robin B. Barnes

Davidson College

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