Reformation Europe Re-Formed

Reformation Europe Re-Formed

Andrew Pettegree

Andrew Pettegree re-reads Geoffrey Elton’s classic text and considers how the subject has developed in nearly four decades since it was written.

NO TWO GENERATIONS WRITE HISTORY in the same manner. As society changes, so do the preoccupations of scholars, students and those engaged at the coal face of historical investigation. This is not merely a matter of fashion or taste. Different times also offer different opportunities. To compare history writing with only twenty years ago is to realise that we have lived through a time of very rapid change, both in terms of the technology of scholarship and the social and political circumstances that affect history writing more than we sometimes recognise.

In 1998 I was approached by Blackwells to assist in the re-launch of the Fontana History of Europe. The Fontana history has been a staple of school and university courses for thirty years, and the volume covering the Reformation, by Geoffrey Elton, was one of its most successful parts. The plan was to bring the whole series back into print and where the author was deceased, as was the case with Elton, to accompany the original text with a brief afterword by a contemporary scholar.

This was an opportunity hard to resist. It was, first and foremost, a pleasure to be reading Elton again. He was a bravura writer and this was one of his most lively and engaging books: a brilliant, fast-flowing narrative which combines clarity of vision with psychological insight; a true classic. But it was also a classic in that other sense: a book manifestly of an age which is not our own. This was an ideal opportunity to consider how our shared subject had changed in the thirty years since Elton’s book.

Elton published Reformation Europe in 1963, one of the first of the new Fontana histories to see the light of day. Its publication helped confirm Elton’s reputation as one of England’s leading historians. It was enthusiastically received by the first reviewers and has sold steadily ever since. In its way, it was also an important milestone in the writing of the subject, published just as Reformation history was emerging from a confessional straight-jacket which previously impeded its accession into the mainstream of history. In this previous age the history of Protestantism had been almost exclusively written by Protestants, while Catholic history remained largely in the hands of members of the Catholic religious orders. Elton’s book symbolised the successful secularisation of the subject. By placing the history of the Reformation in what was in effect a political narrative context, he drew it out of the ghetto of church history and into the mainstream of history courses.

Nevertheless, reading Elton’s narrative now is to be very forcibly reminded of how different is Elton’s perception of the Reformation world from our own. In this, Elton does not differ from other general histories of that time; it is just that the subject has changed out of all recognition since those times. When Elton wrote, the Reformation world was a much smaller place. Elton presented the great drama of the Reformation through the conflict of two men, Martin Luther and Charles V. Their actions and decisions are central to his narrative; to a very large extent they made the Reformation. Even as a convenient shorthand, this now seems a misleading presentation. It is indeed impossible to ignore the importance of these great personalities, and we can be thankful that an attempt to write Luther out of the Reformation narrative (a fashion that flourished fleetingly in the 1970s) has now been abandoned. About fifteen years ago I reviewed for a publisher the synopsis of a proposed textbook on the Reformation in which Luther made an almost apologetic walk-on

appearance around half-way through the book. This was a distant echo of a current German fashion and perhaps the high-point (or reductio ad absurdum) of the then vogue for social history. Thankfully, that tide has now receded: indeed, in this respect Elton’s text seems in some respects less old-fashioned than it would have been fifteen years ago. Today biography is back in fashion — witness the high prestige of the Whitbread prize, awarded two years ago to one of the most brilliant serious studies of the Reformation century of the last decade, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer (1996). Similarly the rebirth of narrative can be seen in the fact that historical novels, for the first time perhaps since the comfortable 1950s, are enjoying a revival.

Elton’s preoccupations are therefore curiously germane to our present interests. But in other respects the subject has moved on; and Elton’s Reformation seems very distant from our own. It is important to an understanding of Elton’s work to realise that even at the time of publication Reformation Europe was regarded as a conservative book. Elton kept a meticulous file of correspondence relating to all of his writing projects. His papers are now the property of the Royal Historical Society, and I was able to consult them when preparing my afterword for the new edition. The papers contain exchanges with many of the early reviewers — for Elton, being Elton, would not let pass even a minor criticism without offering his counter-observations. The thread which runs through these first exchanges was the charge that he had ignored or underplayed the social and economic element in favour of a strong religious and political narrative. Elton made no apology for this. This was not a choice made through neglect or ignorance of the major continental schools that even as Elton wrote were transforming the landscape of historical writing. Fernand Braudel’s La Mediterranee et le monde mediterraneen a l’epoque de Philippe II (1949), which one could almost call the flagship enterprise of the Annales school, was well known if not yet translated into English. Elton understood what was intended with such a panoramic survey, which introduced its narrative of the events of the reign with a long (900-page), discursive survey of the landscape, environment, economy and culture of the lands. But all his instincts revolted against it. Reflecting only a few years later on the various approaches to writing history in his highly successful and still very readable text, The Practice of History (1967), Elton turned directly to Braudel:

The long ascendency of Ranke, primarily concerned with international

relations and diplomacy … has been replaced by such influences as that of

the French Annales school, which wishes to understand a whole society in

every detail, in all its interrelations and activities…. [Braudel’s

Mediterranean World] offers some splendid understanding of the

circumstances which contributed to the shaping of policy and action; the

only things missing are policy and action. There is a clear and admirable

sense of life, but how those lives passed through history is much less

clear. To me, at least, the Annales method — certainly until it lost

itself in rhetoric and self-adulation — represented a valuable, perhaps

necessary, stage in the development of historical writing, one which

attacked genuine deficiencies and (lid a great deal to remedy them, but it

must not be regarded as in some way the sole consummation of the

historian’s duties. (The Practice of History, pp. 167-8)

One may legitimately question whether this was altogether fair to Braudel; there is in fact a perfectly serviceable account of `policy and action’ in The Mediterranean World, albeit buried deep in the book. But that is not the point. Elton was instinctively drawn to history writing which took its main theme in political narrative and analysis.

For historians of the Reformation today, this will no longer suffice. In particular historians now recognise much more fully the importance of the huge movements of social change which accompanied, and to some extent preceded, the Reformation disputes. Our understanding of these events is really the fruit of a new wave of archival studies, inspired by the Annaliste approach, which have dominated the subject since the 1970s. The descent into the archives by this generation of scholars has since that time yielded a rich harvest of studies of particular localities, exploring how the preaching and writing of the reformers impacted upon local conditions and local political circumstances. In the United States the pioneering work of Miriam Usher Chrisman on Strasbourg was perhaps most instrumental in pointing the way: since then her baton has been taken up by Thomas Brady, Philip Benedict and shoals of other successful scholars. In Britain the work of the late Robert Scribner was with respect to Germany almost equally influential; in English Reformation history the decisive break was made by a group of historians, including Christopher Haigh, Felicity Heal and William Shiels — many of them, appropriately enough, Elton’s own students. Research of this type has transformed our understanding of the Reformation movement in Germany, but also over a longer span, the Reformations in France and the Netherlands. William Naphy’s book, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation (1994), is a splendid example of the sort of radical re-interpretative work that is possible if one looks beyond the best known published sources — in this case Calvin’s letters and writings — to what may be discovered from local town archives. All of this work had decisively — and perhaps irreversibly — centred our understanding of the Reformation dynamic not in the courts and minds of the leading protagonists, but in the urban spaces which were the most fertile recruiting ground for the movement’s new teachings.

Another major difference of the modern era is our approach to the outcome of the Reformation movement. When Elton wrote, there is no doubt that he regarded the Reformation as in general terms a force for progress. The medieval church was universally acknowledged to be a deeply flawed institution, in urgent need of reform. And for all the strife and discord raised by Luther’s protest, few historians of that generation would have taken issue with the general proposition that in its own terms, the Reformation was by and large successful.

Now all of this seems less certain. One of the great advances of the last decade or more of research has been that scholars have begun to investigate the religious life of the fifteenth century from surviving sources, rather than through the hostile prism of the reformers’ own analysis. And they find, not surprisingly, a very different picture. In many parts of Europe the church was clearly not in an advanced state of decay, or deeply unpopular. Rather the church and its institutions continued to enjoy the confidence of the vast majority of lay people, who were investing in its institutions increasing amounts of their time, wealth and emotional energy. Here the way was shown by the German church-historian Bernd Moeller, in a highly influential essay of 1962 (`Religious Life in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation’); but it is an approach which thirty years later can be said almost to dominate English Reformation studies. Fine and influential studies by Eamon Duffy, Robert Swanson and Beat Kumin have shown that the English laity was much more preoccupied with asserting control over the mechanics of their religious life than bringing the whole edifice tumbling down.

The truth is that the state of the church before the Reformation varied very much from country to country. One cannot generalise from Luther’s criticisms of the German church to a general condemnation of clerical standards. But then neither can the reasonably healthy state of the church in England be seen as typical of Europe as a whole. And yet the state of the local church was crucial to the impact made by the new teachings. In Italy and Spain recent history and current political and cultural circumstances conspired to make this barren territory for the northern reform movement. In France, the peculiar (and peculiarly privileged) circumstances of the French church’s place in the Catholic Church hierarchy meant that a well-supported evangelical movement was ultimately thwarted.

All of this meant that in many parts of Europe Luther’s teaching fell on stony ground: an uncomfortable and unexpected outcome for those local supporters who seized on his teachings with enthusiasm. The recognition of this mixed response has prompted a recent emphasis in Reformation studies on the `failure’ of the Reformation, a sentiment that would have been heresy for scholars of Elton’s day. Yet the case is plausible. The reformers preached repentance and salvation; they hoped above all that the new Protestant states would create a new generation of informed Christian people, living the Christian life in active knowledge of the essentials of Protestant teaching. If this was the case their own lifetime produced disillusionment. In their last years Luther and his fellow reformers frequently expressed their frustration that the preaching of the `pure Gospel’ had had such limited effects. Later in the sixteenth-century visitations, wide-ranging investigations into the state of parochial life undertaken in many of the German princely states, revealed a deep well of ignorance, stubbornly resistant to all change. This challenging thesis, first propounded by Gerald Strauss in his book, Luther’s House of Learning, (1978) has provoked one of the most passionate debates among historians of the period.

Now that the dust has settled a little, it seems that to take Strauss’s evidence, and to talk of the `failure’ of the Reformation, seems too intemperate a reaction. It is certainly true that a geographical survey of late sixteenth-century Europe does reveal the failure of Lutheranism to put down deep roots in many parts of the continent. Historians are only now becoming aware that the Reformation went through a profound mid-century crisis around the time of Luther’s death (1546), coinciding as this did with reverses for the evangelical movement in several other parts of Europe. A sense of this makes clear why the emergence of Calvinism as an international force was so vital in consolidating the Reformation’s achievement. But beyond this, to talk of `failure’ in any fundamental sense is overdrawn, because we now realise that the reformers’ own ambitions of transforming religious behaviour in a single lifetime were hopelessly unrealistic. Much more in recent years, historians have begun to talk of a `Long Reformation’, a process requiring many generations before the changes in belief and behaviour anticipated by the reformers could be accomplished. This is true on the part of both Protestant and Catholic churches. Scholars of Catholic reform, in much the same way, now recognise that it was deep in the seventeenth century — if not later — before the reforms anticipated by the Council of Trent (1545-63) began to take root in the parishes.

The debate about `success or failure’ can probably now be left behind. Its importance lies in the fact that it represented an honest attempt by historians to treat the Reformation from the point of view of the broad mass of the population: the group on which the Reformation impacted, rather than its principal protagonists. This, again, represents a seismic shift since the studies of Elton’s day. In Reformation Europe ordinary Christians appear, if at all, only when they are doing unordinary (and in Elton’s view) deplorable things: the peasants’ duped into rebellion in Germany in 1525, the deluded revolutionaries of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster. Elton was unusually unsympathetic in his approach to the radicals, and this aspect of his book was criticised at the time. Now the Anabaptist radicals — thanks to the work of scholars such as James Stayer, Heinold Fast, and Abraham Friesen — are regarded as fully part of the Reformation mainstream.

But in his presentation of the Reformation primarily through the drama of its principal actors, Elton was not unusual. It is perhaps here that the new trends in historical scholarship have impacted most profoundly (and not simply in the field of Reformation studies). It is now accepted that it is possible to write the history of ordinary people; indeed, no presentation of the past is real without such an attempt. In the field of the Reformation this has been reflected in studies of the Reformation’s impact on family life, gender relationships, popular culture and the world of ideas.

It is now recognised that the beliefs of the mass of the population bore little resemblance to the tidy, well-ordered systems of the trained theologians. Nor did they readily abandon their beliefs on the urgings of those in power.

Our changing sense of the questions that should be asked of popular belief can be traced, for England at least, to two milestone books. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1979) opened our eyes to a world of magical, semi-pagan and customary belief which pervaded the lives and beliefs of the masses in early modern Europe. To the reformers the medieval church was a vast and creaking institution in need of urgent restitution. But to the vast majority of ordinary believers, it was more, to paraphrase Thomas, a vast reservoir of magical power, capable of deployment for a variety of secular purposes. The priestly caste was respected as the agency of these powers, but by no means an exclusive agency. The relationship between this world and the next was both close and complex, mediated and explained through a web of rituals and folk festivals that were often Christian only in the loosest sense. Our sense of the dignity and interest of these rituals also owes a great deal to Peter Burke’s seminal study, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1974), a book which can be said to have pointed the way to what has become one of the most fruitful areas of research of the last twenty-five years.

All of these have to be fully represented in a new study of the Reformation. This was a process in which the people were by no means merely passive instruments. The relationship between the Reformation and popular culture was both complicated, and characterised by a greater degree of give and take than has sometimes been recognised. For all that they deplored the stubborn recalcitrance of a people addicted to their own pleasures, the reformers ultimately knew better than to attempt the sort of full frontal assault on merrymaking and folk culture that could ultimately only end in disaster.

All of this has required a changed understanding of how the Reformation message was understood. In the time in which Elton wrote, the ideas of the Reformation were studied very much in terms of Luther’s own theological system. The way in which such teaching might be inculcated beyond the circle of his fellow theologians — indeed, whether his ideas were comprehensible to the untrained — was not fully addressed. Here there has been a complete change in the way historians have addressed the issues of message and medium. The various means by which Protestant teaching could be conveyed — books, sermons, visual propaganda — have now been exhaustively discussed in work of great insight and ingenuity. Here one thinks first and foremost of the milestone book of the late Robert Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk (2nd ed 1994); also of importance for the Lutheran context are the works of Mark Edwards, and for France, Francis Higman. The role of the book is well known; less well-established is the powerful influence of verse and music in the creation of the new churches. In the world of art and architecture the Reformation also had an important and not uncreative impact.

Most of all, though, this was a movement which encompassed every part of Europe. Take down off the shelves any textbook treatment of the Reformation from twenty years ago, and this would hardly be apparent. To scholars of Elton’s generation the Reformation was first and foremost a German event, with events in England the second major focus of interest. But there was so much more to it than this. The Reformation made its way into every corner of Europe: to be repulsed as in Spain or Italy, to be cautiously embraced as in the northern kingdoms of Scandinavia, or to achieve its full vitality only with the Reformation’s second wind with the rise of Calvinism, as in France, the Netherlands, England and Scotland.

But most of all the Reformation also expanded eastwards. At the time that Elton wrote Reformation Europe eastern Europe was a secure and apparently permanent part of the Soviet bloc, to all intents and purposes closed to western scholars of the pre-modern era. This sense of foreignness and impenetrability resulted in its virtual exclusion from many textbook surveys of Europe. But Elton of all people was in a position to know that modern circumstances were in no way a reflection of sixteenth century reality. Elton, born Godfried Ehrenberg to a prosperous Jewish-German academic family, was actually living in Prague when his family fled the Nazi advance in 1939. In the pre-war Europe of Elton’s childhood cities like Prague and Budapest were as much part of the central European cultural network as Munich and Vienna. Wittenberg, where Luther preached, was far nearer to Prague than to Strasbourg, far nearer to Cracow than to London. Central Europe in those days was far more of a cultural unity than its rude division into East and West, following the Second World War, would imply.

In the last ten years all of this has turned full circle once again. There are generations of students now at university who will have no active memory of a time when Europe, for all practical purposes, ended thirty miles east of Vienna, or Berlin was a divided city. These governing realities of the post-war, Cold War era are themselves now consigned to history. A history of Reformation Europe written today would undoubtedly reflect these changed circumstances, and the happy rediscovery of these sixteenth century intellectual and cultural connections that made of central Europe a cultural unity that largely ignored the weak and rather fluid political boundaries of the period. Indeed, thanks to the reopening of Eastern European archives made possible; by the collapse of Soviet power, this development is already occurring. New studies of the impact of Protestantism on strange and unfamiliar lands — Bohemia, Moravia, and Transylvania, for instance — have already yielded some striking results. Scholars have used the last ten years of the twentieth century to rediscover an east European Protestant Reformation which was extensive, individual, and remarkably successful. Indeed, given the extent of penetration, and of popular commitment, it is not unfair to talk of these eastern Reformations, in unfamiliar territories such as Moravia, Hungary or Bohemia, as second in importance only to events in Germany. This is the area where I personally foresee the greatest growth of Reformation studies in the next ten years, as scholars whose careers were not even begun under Communist regimes begin to make their mark, using new archives and new approaches. The new areas to explore are fascinating, not least the triangular relationship between Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy in these regions; the relationship between religious allegiance and ethnicity; and the collision between the new religion of the Word, and the visual brilliance of the Eastern tradition.

In this area of Reformation studies quite obviously the political changes of the post Cold War era have directly impacted on the history that will be written. But we should perhaps ponder for a moment the extent to which that might be true of the subject as a whole. Put starkly, how foreign is the thought-world of the 1960s? Perhaps more than one might think. Consider, as a final example, Elton’s treatment of the Geneva of John Calvin. Elton could hardly fail to acknowledge Calvin as a formidable intellectual contributor to the Reformation movement. His summary of Calvin’s theology is clear-minded and lucid. But when he turns to Calvin’s Geneva, this sense of balance seems to desert him. This is Elton’s description of Geneva after the establishment of the Calvinist regime:

The more democratic institutions in the city’s civil government

disappeared, and the surviving top council came in effect to be an agent of

the now all-powerful consistory. Laws of mounting severity were passed —

against blasphemy and adultery, for attendance at church and compulsory

schooling, concerning cleanliness and public health. Many of them were

sensible and necessary, others bigoted and stultifying; all were the same

to Calvin…. Calvin’s Geneva should not be disbelieved or despised: it

should be treated seriously, as an awful warning.

How could Elton come to believe such a terrible parody? In fairness to him, the full transcripts of the deliberations of the Genevan consistory, which reveal an altogether more sympathetic institution, are only now being made available to scholars through publication; the originals, preserved in Geneva, are almost unreadable to anyone other than trained experts. And Elton’s remarks were not that far distant from the contemporary fashion for seeing Calvinism as an effective proto-modern insurgency movement. For historians of the Cold War era, the vision of Geneva as `Moscow on the Leman’ spreading its tentacles through Catholic France, was very plausible. It is a fine example of how, usually without realising it, we are all, in our writings, prisoners of our time.


Andrew Pettegree, The Reformation World (Routledge, forthcoming); Philip Benedict Rouen in the Wars of Religion (Cambridge UP 1981); Thomas A. Brady Turning Swiss: Cities and Empire 1450-1550 (Cambridge UP 1985); Miriam Ushman Chrisman Lay Culture, Learned Culture (Yale UP 1982); Geoffrey Elton, Reformation Europe (new edition, Blackwell, 1999); Mark U. Edwards, Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther (University of California Press, 1994); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale UP, 1992); Christopher Haigh English Reformations (Oxford UP 1993); Karin Maag (ed.), The Reformation in Eastern and Central Europe (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, 1997); James Stayer Anabaptists and the Sword (Coronado 1972).


Our specially arranged tour to eastern Germany includes visits to many of the main sites associated with Martin Luther and his central role in the Reformation.

From our base in the historic city of Leipzig, our visits include Luther’s former homes, now museums, in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg and Eisenach. Among other highlights are visits of Wittenberg’s churches and the chapel in Torgau’s Hartenfels Castle, as well as the great castle of Wartburg, where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German during his years in hiding.

We are accompanied throughout by Professor Andrew Pettegree, Director of the Reformation Studies Institute at St Andrews University and one of the foremost authorities in the field. He has written widely on Dutch and French Calvinism, on the English Reformation and on the printing history of the Reformation.

The price of this tour is 555 [pounds sterling] (per person sharing a twin room); single room supplement 60 [pounds sterling].

Our hotel is the 3-star superior Holiday Inn Garden Court, located just a short walk from the historic heart of Leipzig. All rooms are en suite and equipped with mini-bar, safe, air-conditioning, satellite TV. There is a restaurant in the hotel and additional facilities include sauna, solarium and steam room.


DAY 1: Take a scheduled Lufthansa flight at 12.20 from London Heathrow to Leipzig, arriving at 16.10. Coach transfer to hotel and check in. Some time at leisure before dinner in the hotel and an introductory talk by the tour leader, Professor Andrew Pettegree.

DAY 2: The full day is spent exploring the important Lutheran connections of Wittenberg and Torgau. The visits in Wittenberg include the Lutherhalle, Castle Church and St Mary’s Church, and Melanchtonhaus.

In Torgau, we shall visit the Hartenfels Castle where the historic chapel was the first designed on Lutheran principles. Evening at leisure in Leipzig.

DAY 3: Today’s excursion visits Erfurt and Eisenach. The lovely medieval town of Erfurt is home to the restored 13th century Augustiner church and monastery where Luther was among the novices. Eisenach nestles beneath the great Wartburg castle where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German while in hiding. Also in Eisenach, we visit Luther’s former home, with exhibits relating to the reformer’s life and work. Evening at leisure in Leipzig.

DAY 4: Check out of the hotel and visit Leipzig’s City History Museum, housed in the 16th century Town Hall. Coach transfer to the airport for the afternoon Lufthansa flight to London Heathrow.


* Scheduled Lufthansa flights London Heathrow — (via Munich) Leipzig — (via Dusseldorf) — London Heathrow

* 3 nights B&B accommodation in 3-star superior Holiday Inn Garden Court, Leipzig

* 3-course dinner on first night

* Airport transfers and coach transfers as per itinerary

* Airport departure taxes

* Entrance fees as per itinerary

* Services of Tour Leader

* Services of local resident guide

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