Monday, 7 May 2018

Reformation - Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 - Diarmaid MacCulloch

After a short hiatus, I am back to immersing myself well and truly in books about history. Diarmaid MacCulloch's book Reformation had been sitting invitingly on my bookshelf. It emerges as a beautifully written and highly illuminating work.

The book examines the major theological disputes and the ebb and flow of the fortunes of each faction. I was impressed by the manner in which the author places the Reformation, and related episodes, within the broader geo-political context of their times, although he does not dwell unduly on the intricacies of the various military campaigns which occurred.

I found myself being drawn in by the fluent nature of the writing style, the authoritative grasp of the subject matter and the confident control of the narrative. The whole vibrant, turbulent and nuanced picture is painted.

Throughout I could sense the author's exasperation with the obstinacy of some of the protagonists in the story, and his frustration with those who stymied efforts aimed at achieving compromise and peaceful co-existence. I increasingly prefer books which do not totally conceal the sympathies of the writer, as it adds some spice and interest.

It is a measure of this book's quality that I found myself gaining a whole new perspective on the Reformation, and on that phase of history generally. I had previously imagined that certain people were the "good guys", and that others were the villains of the piece. Now, having read MacCulloch's observations and analyses, my views have shifted somewhat.

The role of humanism is stressed at many points, and this exploration goes far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world. Much effort is made to illustrate events in Zurich, Geneva, the Netherlands, Transylvania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The sweep and richness of this telling is thereby enhanced greatly.

One gains a keen impression of how cosmopolitan and internationalist a scene the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were. Nationality and ethnicity were often transcended in these struggles, and even in an age before mass, instant communication, it was quite a "small world"

I particularly enjoyed the passages which addressed worship and religious organisation at a very localized level. Credit to the author, too, for a willingness to quote seemingly obscure and little-known examples to illustrate, or question, broader trends.

The latter chapters are some of the most noteworthy, as they take a look at church attempts to regulate or influence human moral behaviours, and also how Christianity engaged with movements such as the Enlightenment. Once again the writer's command of his subject, and his attention to detail, continually whetted my appetite for more.

A period which can seem murky, dark and austere is brought to life in vivid colour. It is made possible to imagine and visualize the landscape and the events, and the characters who participated in the drama.

In summary, this is a magnificent, thought-provoking and informative work.