In Reformation Christianity, an a-list cast of scholars has produced a tome worthy of the label “a people’s history.” Traditionally, comprehensive histories of both “the” Protestant and Catholic Reformations have taken a top-down approach focusing on the larger political, ecclesiological, liturgical, and theological shifts and the resulting official confessional lines within Christendom. As the introduction states, this book seeks “to transform the way in which we approach this vast religious upheaval by directing the center of interest away from princes and popes and professors to ordinary people…. How did the Reformation, or rather the Reformations—for there were many—affect laypeople, children, the rhythms of day-to-day life? Whose Reformation was it, anyway? Who gave it its momentum? What part did the ordinary urban or village dweller have in shaping it? What about the role of parents or of the great majority of the population that was illiterate or semi-literate?” (p.2) The chapters that follow answer those questions by using a wide-range of primary sources that include the writings of prominent reformers, trials of controversial figures, acts and minutes of church councils, artistic renditions from woodcuts to paintings, confraternity records, sermons and songs, and all kinds of popular religious literature. Overall, this approach to “the religious history of the early modern period ‘from below,’ in a grounded and down-to-earth way” (p.2) results in a refreshing perspective on 16th- and 17th-century Christian life.
The book is organized into three parts. Part one concerns the effects of the Reformation on religious practice by locations based on population density and the unique politics of the British Isles. The first three chapters respectively look at the changes in worship practices in urban areas such as bourgeois Geneva, the changes in the popular types of devotion in terms of saints, relics, and confraternities in rural areas in Catholic and Protestant France and Germany, and the reasons for the relative presence or absence of a Protestant reformation from below in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The main conclusion of this latter chapter is that “where the Reformation succeeded as a genuinely popular movement it was because Protestant leaders adapted themselves to the culture of the people” (p.90). This occurred in England and Scotland by the seventeenth century but did not occur in Ireland.
Part two examines the changes in cultural practices informed by religious belief specifically in the areas of birthing, child-rearing, marriage, other interactions between the sexes, and death. Chapter Four, “Entering the World”, focuses on the ceremony of childbirth, beginning with “the recognition of pregnancy” (p.96), and thus is more a comparison between Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward pregnant women, beliefs about the pregnancy’s relation to original sin, and perspectives on religious practices associated with the female subculture of childbirth. A key point, looking mainly at Anglicans here, is that the Reformation eliminated the use of the Sacrament of Eucharist as an aid to child-bearing, attempting to replace it with prayer, while evidence suggests that many “intimate practices and beliefs that were barely suspected by husbands or priests, were long resistant to reform” (p.103). Drawing mainly from Genevan and French sources, Chapter Five’s “Baptism and Childhood” exposes how “the Protestant and Catholic Reformations helped to shape how adult society and children themselves viewed children’s relationship to God, their need for education, their relationship to their parents, and their place in society” (p.141-2). Both Protestant and Catholic Reformations placed an emphasis on the education of children. One major change brought about in the Protestant Reformation was that the responsibility for the care and protection of children shifted from the cult of saints to exclusively the living: parents, neighbors, and church and civic authorities. Chapter six analyzes the gender hierarchies that existed in both Protestant and Catholic circles, concluding that the “variety in experience makes it impossible to generalize about the impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformation on all women, or on all men” (p.166). Thus, the chapter is more a treatment of gender norms that subjected women to an inferior role and that were “understood to be rooted in Christian scripture, along with other types of authorities, such as Greek philosophy and Roman law” (p.166). Chapter seven surveys “the prescriptive advice offered to laypeople in the Reformation era about how they should approach the business of death and dying” (p.169), while also attempting to gauge their responses to it. When it came to the subculture of death and dying, a Reformation divide truly existed since in Protestant confessions, the idea of Purgatory was rejected and masses for the dead were eliminated across the board and tended to be replaced with rhetoric at funerals which emphasized the notion of the elect, evoked imagery and themes from the Old Testament, and used Scriptural references to the pure remnant of God’s people in a way which placed emphasis on the bonds within the present community.
Part three focuses on the larger, society-wide effects of the Reformation. In a way, this part also hints at the larger changes in Protestant and Catholic points of view on who was the Church and what relationship Christians had with it and Scripture. Chapter eight examines both the notion of iustitia dei (divine justice) as a major concept promoted by the Protestant Reformation and the human struggle that ensued to establish it in the form of social justice, lasting only the first two decades and occurring primarily in the Holy Roman Empire. Overall, the relative brevity of this struggle to make Christian society more egalitarian was due to the threat it posed to the social order at a time when religious change was already creating its own ruptures. Chapter nine tracks the emergence of lay theologies which were overall more concerned with piety than theology and coincided with the advent of the printing press and the rise of humanism—“with its attention to original texts and the idea of the Bible as the unique source of the knowledge of God to which everyone should have access in her or his own language” (p.215). While Catholic laity were unable to establish as equal an access to sources of theology as Protestants, Protestant lay theologians spoke more to laity than clergy, communicating primarily through the media of songs, music, and prayers. The chapter on insiders and outsiders within Christendom argues that the Reformation did not create new ideas of what were the limits of Christianity but instead served to intensify sentiments of what was orthodoxy and heresy in both Protestant and Catholic lands. Finally, the concluding chapter focuses on the impact of the use of the vernacular. With a focus on the early years of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, the argument of this chapter is “that the Reformation represented a remarkably swift and fundamental transformation in people’s imaginative worlds and that this remarkable replacement of one set of mental images by another was made possible in part by the emergence of a new vocabulary, a new language” (p.262).
On the whole, this is a welcome addition to the historiography of the Reformation. It is ecumenical in the sense that as an edited volume of essays the chapters successfully come together to argue that there were multiple Reformations within both Protestant and Catholic parts of Europe; however, decidedly more attention is paid to Protestant Germany, Geneva, England and Scotland than to Catholic lands. In terms of the structure of the book, one might be left wanting a conclusion that provides some sort of synthesis and comes back to some of the issues raised in the introduction. Since the final chapter is on a sub-topic, the book ends a bit abruptly. Yet, this is not so much of a flaw since the book as a whole is incredibly accessible, suitable for any undergraduate course as well as helpful for specialists. Reformation Christianity provides a thorough analysis of the breadth and depth of change that occurred as a result of the Reformation. Whether or not one is interested in religious history, this book effectively convinces the reader that the 16th century Reformation was a watershed that dramatically changed social relationships and everyday life in both Protestant and Catholic Europe.