Early Modern Religious Reform

Christopher Gillett

Reformation historiography is nearly as old as the phenomenon itself. In attempts to legitimate their own denominations, early modern Christians of various stripes all recognized the importance of establishing their interpretation of events the definitive one. As a result of this centuries-long process, the modern student inherits a voluminous and diverse scholarship, a comprehensive survey of which would be virtually impossible. Happily – probably for all concerned – my remit here is not to be comprehensive; subsequent entries will deal with various subtopics within the field of Reformation studies. Instead, the purpose of the following survey is to investigate some of the trends in Reformation studies over the past half century, demonstrating where the scholarship has been and where it seems to be going.

Broadly speaking, one of the largest tensions within the scholarly debate on early modern religious reform is concerned with the competing impulses of centralization and decentralization. This takes on multiple iterations in the literature: First, scholars diverge on the best way to organize the diverse – and often competing – theological, ecclesiastical, and political developments of the early modern period into coherent analytical concepts: Was the Reformation a single process that progressed in multiple stages, or were there multiple reformations? In 1962, George Huntston Williams suggested that the “radical reformation” should be considered as a fundamentally separate phenomenon from the “magisterial reformation” of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin. Williams argued that the theological principles at work in the radical reformation were of such a different character than those of the aforementioned reformers that the proponents of these radical ideas did not even qualify as Protestants – Williams describes them, generically, as sectarians. Furthermore, some more recent scholarship seems to suggest that the term “magisterial reformation” is itself too broad to be analytically helpful. In this case, historians like Philip Benedict chose to emphasize the uniqueness of a particular set of magisterial reforms – in his 2002 book, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, Benedict charted the development of the Reformed Church. Contrarily, both Euan Cameron and Diarmaid MacCulloch – whose works were published in 1991 and the early 2000s, respectively – think that the term “the Reformation” is capacious enough to encapsulate all but the most radical of the sectarian reforms. In the annotated bibliography that follows, it will become clear that at this point there is no consensus within the field of Reformation studies as to a preferred option.

Another way in which the contending forces of centralization and decentralization are apparent in the work of Reformation historians is in the contrasts between national Reformation histories and those histories of the Reformation that take a European perspective. Essentially, this divide comes down to a central question: Does it make more sense to emphasize the uniqueness of early modern religious reforms in various European states, or should one search for similarities between national Reformations by placing them in a comparative, international context?

For their part, national Reformation historiographies have a venerable tradition within the broader context of national historiographies. This approach tends to limit the types of questions scholars ask to those of particular relevance to their own national field. One major area of focus for French Reformation historians, such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Barbara Diefendorf, is the effect of the Reformation on the stability of the state. The French civil wars – alternately referred to as the French wars of religion – that raged between 1562 and 1598 are often central to the analysis of the reform movement that developed in France. Perhaps the most insular of all national Reformation historiographies, however, is that of England. To some extent, this insularity is attributable to the unique ecclesiastical, theological, and political developments of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that led to the establishment of a state church quite unlike that found elsewhere in Europe. Prior to the 1980s, it was common to view the English Reformation as an essentially popular phenomenon – the political decisions made by subsequent generations of Tudors merely unleashed a nascent “Protestantism” among the English people. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of revisionist historian challenged this assumption. J.J. Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, and Eamon Duffy all attacked the notion that the Reformation in England was a popular phenomenon. Instead, these historians emphasized the strength and vitality of the late medieval church and viewed the Reformation as process that was imposed on an unwilling population by the government. At the turn of the millennium, a new wave of historians, referred to as the post-revisionists, challenged the interpretations of revisionists by suggesting new directions for the scholarly inquiry, undermining the importance of the central questions at the heart of the revisionist critique. Among these suggestions, in Tudor Church Militant (1999), Diarmaid MacCulloch made a vociferous argument for considering the English Reformation as part of a larger European phenomenon.

Support for considering the Reformation as a coherently international phenomenon has been growing consistently since the early 1990s. In 1991, Euan Cameron took a European perspective in his study of the Reformation. In The Reformation (2003), MacCulloch builds on the work of Euan Cameron to offer an even more inclusive examination of the eponymous phenomenon as one that transcended national borders. Like Cameron he argues that the medieval Church was not as weak as some historians have made it out to be. But he takes Cameron’s tendency for inclusivity to new lengths by considering the implications of the Reformation in Scandinavia and the American colonies. Furthermore, while Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed (2002) only deals with the growth and influence of the Reformed Church, it does examine this phenomenon in a broadly European context. A series of others studies on sub-fields within Reformation studies have also begun to take an international turn: Brad Gregory’s important study of early modern Christian martyrdom, Salvation at Stake (1999), compares the experience of martyrs across geopolitical and confessional borders. And Benjamin Kaplan’s study of toleration, Divided by Faith (2007), also takes a European perspective.

Robert Scribner notes in The German Reformation (1986) that by the 1980s, the study of the Reformation had expanded beyond the limits of merely considering the theological implications of Luther’s early-sixteenth challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church. As a result of this broadening of scope, various social, cultural, political, theological, and economic phenomena which were formerly not considered to be part of the reforming process now come under the umbrella of Reformation studies. Peter Blickle’s analysis of the Peasant Revolts of 1525 centers around the importance of Reformation theology to the rebels. Natalie Zemon Davis suggested in 1975 that popular violence in the French civil wars between 1562 and 1598 could be read for particular religious meanings. But this trend has also concomitantly contributed to the decentralization of reformation studies into the aforementioned regionally-focused studies.

One outcome of this more inclusive approach to the study of the reformation has been to examine the relationship between religion and the state. In the 1970s and 1980s, the confessionalization thesis gained influence among Reformation historians. In its most extreme iteration, the confessionalization thesis argued that early modern states and churches engaged in mutually reinforcing attempts to enact social discipline. In this way, the emergence of the early modern state and the emergence of new denominations were linked to the development of methods to formulate and enforce particular creeds – or confessions. The roots of the confessionalization thesis can be traced back to the work of Hubert Jedin on the Catholic Reformation (which is addressed in a subsequent blog entry). By the 1970s, Reformation scholars began to speak of confessionalization in terms of the ideological and political formulation of three confessions: Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Reformed. John Bossy’s Christianity in West (1985) was influenced by the confessionalization thesis. In his book, Bossy argues that traditional religion was replaced by two equally innovative religious systems – Protestantism and Catholicism. As the early modern period wore on, Churches became stricter about the implementation of moral and ritual norms. Bossy laments the effect this had on the traditional Christianity of Europe, as he sees the latter as being primarily a religion that emphasized social cohesion, rather than rigid conformity. By the end of the 1980s, however, scholars began to challenge elements of the confessionalization thesis. Robin Briggs’s Communities of Belief (1989) explored the ways in which attempts to police society broke down on the parochial level. Benedict described how the reform of manners promised by the Reformed Church was a point of attraction to many people below the level of religious or political elites, thereby subverting the notion that religion was used as a method of social control. Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith (2007) reemphasizes the move away from the confessionalization thesis in modern scholarship – while he acknowledges the attempt to enforce discipline, most of his work demonstrates how local people were able to come to workable compromises to allow coexistence rather than extirpation.

Another consequence of the early modern origins of Reformation historiography was the development of strongly confessional interpretations. These interpretations often emphasized the importance of hero-like figures, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, in precipitating and perpetuating reform movements as if the reform movements emerged from the minds of these men fully formed. More modern scholarship seeks to redress the overemphasis of the role of individuals by placing these figures in the context of their own movements but also establishing them within longer traditions of European Christian reform movements. Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil, William Bouwsma’s work on Calvin, and Benedict’s study of reformed religion in Europe are emblematic of this trend.

Placing the reformers in the context of late medieval scholasticism and humanism allows historians to demonstrate the continuities between the late medieval period and the early modern period. Oberman’s study of Luther emphasized both his humanist background and his relationship to medieval scholastics. Steven Ozment attempts to trace the continuities between late medieval and Reformation thought in The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 (1980). John Bossy advances an interesting and original interpretation of what the sacraments and sense of community engendered by traditional religious beliefs meant to Christians and how the meanings of various elements of traditional belief changed as people changed their minds in response to the innovations of both Protestant and Catholic reformers. For example, Bossy explains the wave of iconoclasm that erupted in Germany as indicative of a feeling of betrayal at the hands of the saints. He points out that the relationship between saint and supplicant could be tense even during the traditional period of Christian devotion, since prayers of petition that went unanswered (or at least, not answered in the way in which the supplicant wished) could be ascribed to a failure of the saint.

Finally, historians debate the effect of the Reformation on the secularization of society. Many scholars – including Max Weber and Keith Thomas – argue that the Protestant Reformation ended a perception of the world that had room to incorporate the supernatural. While Eamon Duffy – and the other English revisionists – rejected the notion that traditional religion was superstitious in the same way that Thomas and Weber argued, the former does emphasize the fact that the Protestant Reformation violently ended a system by which people considered themselves to still be in communion with the deceased. The destruction of the intercessory prayers and masses, the abolition of the chantries, and the rejection of the notion of purgatory all served to severe any spiritual fealty between the living and the dead, in Duffy’s view. In that sense, the world was desacralized. But in an important article released in 2008, Alexandra Walsham suggested that it is unfair to ascribe the secularization of the world to the Reformation. Walsham instead suggests that cycles of sacralization and desacralization occurred throughout history, thereby reducing the cataclysmic nature that has been ascribed to the Reformation’s effect on belief in the supernatural.


Bainton, Roland. Erasmus of Christendom. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969.

Bainton’s study of Erasmus emphasizes the humanist scholar’s interpretation that religion should be about more than outward conformity to dogma or prescribed ritual practice. In doing so, Bainton hopes to reveal something of the authentic nature of Erasmus – a figure who had alternately been conscripted into service for the partisan interests of both Catholic and Protestant historians, or ignored altogether. As such, the Erasmus that emerges from Bainton’s work is not easily tied to particular theological positions. While he unsparingly criticized the practices and behaviors of many within the Catholic Church, Erasmus was committed to remaining within the Church of his birth, as it was in his perspective the only bulwark against religious innovation. On this point, he diverged from his correspondent and sometimes friend, Martin Luther. Bainton demonstrates how these two men – both of whom were steeped in the tradition of humanism and critical readings of ancient texts – influenced one another, but also the reasons for their fundamental differences. Situating Luther and the other reformers in the tradition of humanism in this way is particularly helpful in understanding the origins of both the Protestant and Catholic reforms of the early modern period.

Ozment, Steven. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

In this work, Ozment seeks to provide the student of the Reformation with an insight into the late medieval intellectual origins of the Reformation. In Ozment’s view, the persistence of the tradition of medieval scholasticism created the necessary preconditions for the arrival of the reformers in the early sixteenth century. This intellectual tradition not only provided the method for challenging the authority of the Church, but also the content of medieval scholarship provided the reformers with a set of ideas against which they could react – particularly the emphasis within medieval scholasticism on the position of man in securing his own salvation. Ozment emphasizes Luther’s engagement with the tradition of medieval scholasticism, but also demonstrates the influence of humanism on Luther’s critique on medieval scholasticism.

European Reformation

Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Benedict argues in this work that it was really the reformed movement that made Protestantism as successful in Europe as it was in the early modern period. By the mid-sixteenth century, Benedict suggests, reformed Protestantism had overtaken Lutheranism as the most dynamic and widely established form of Christianity in Protestant Europe. By providing a comparative perspective for reformed churches in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania, Benedict emphasizes the importance for considering the development of reformed religion in a European context. Such efforts, however, do not attempt to devalue the pietistic and ecclesiastical differences that emerged between various national churches, but rather enable the author to offer compelling explanations for these differences. Benedict challenges the confessionalization thesis, by arguing that one of the appeals of reformed religion to the lower orders was a reformation of manners, but that in many instances they did not enjoy the support of the state. This was a process, then, in which people rigorously engaged throughout society and was not necessarily enforced from above. Moreover, Benedict tackles the complicated legacy of Max Weber’s influential thesis linking the development of reformed Protestant ideas to the emergence of modernity. While Benedict contradicts Weber’s conclusion that Calvinism and the emergence of capitalism can be linked, the former is more circumspect about the linkage of Reformed religion with the emergence of democratic institutions: Benedict concedes that Catholics also established democratic states and were influential in the development of resistance theory, but refuses to totally discard the notion that the experience of lay participation in various church governing bodies may have affected the way that secular governing bodied took shape in countries with experience of the reformed tradition. Finally, Benedict concedes that the institution of reformed religion in Europe did contribute to a disenchantment of the world. By ending certain Catholic rituals that emphasized the connections between Christians (such as prayers of petition for deceased friends and family-members), the growth of reformed religion destroyed a sense of community between the living and the dead.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Cameron’s The European Reformation is a work of synthesis which posits the original argument that the initial success of the Reformation can be attributed to an apparent alliance between the reformers’ message and the political aspirations of the common people of Europe. This alliance broke down, however, when it became clear to both parties that their interests were not as harmonious as they at first appeared. Cameron argues that this trend can be identified in a number of European states, thereby emphasizing the uniformity of the Reformation as single, coherently European phenomena. The author acknowledges that divergent theological positions and political developments arose in various European states; but, he posits that, despite the theological differences of the reformers, the fundamental similarity between their critiques was a challenge to the soteriology, penitential cycle, and institutions of the Catholic Church. By constructing his analysis in this way, Cameron not only emphasizes the essential similarities between the magisterial reformers – such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin – but also more radical reformers – such as Andreas Karlstadt. Cameron also challenges the notion that one possible explanation for the Reformation was that Catholic spirituality was moribund in the late medieval period. Contrarily, he suggests that Catholic belief was “a supple, flexible, varied entity, adapted to the needs, concerns, and tastes (with their undoubted crude, primitive features) of the people who created it” (19). Instead the problem, against which the early reformers reacted, was that the institutional Church accrued too many bureaucratic responsibilities within European states – for example, Cardinal Wolsey’s tenure as Chancellor of England or the fact that the papacy was responsible for running an Italian principality. Throughout the medieval period, in order to fund these activities – into which the Church had been forced by necessity, in some instances – limited resources were redirected away from the spiritual mission of the church toward maintaining the secular responsibilities of the church.

Gregory, Brad. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gregory’s study is influential not only within the sub-field of studies on martyrdom, but methodologically significant to Reformation studies more broadly. In Salvation at Stake, Gregory clearly articulates the importance of incorporating the theological positions of the institutional churches into the study of popular religion. Through his examination of early modern religious martyrs across confessional lines, Gregory argues that one can “meet not just their beliefs, but their beliefs bodily enacted.” (1-2) In Gregory’s assessment, martyrdom demonstrates the concern shared by Christians of all social backgrounds about the theological principles of the institutional churches to which they adhered. Gregory does not assume that the respective faiths of the martyrs he considers represented theological monoliths, consistently towing the exact same theological party line. But he recognizes that both in the actions of the martyrs and in the ways that these actions were commemorated and enabled by wider swaths of the laity – in the sense that martyrs were encouraged to persevere in their dedication to their faith by networks of friends, family, and fellow-believers – one can see a level of devotion to the theological principles of the institutional Churches that belies the notion that popular belief can be characterized as neo-pagan or somehow un-Christian. Gregory summarizes that “martyrs were exceptional in their behavior, but not in their beliefs or values.” (8) Gregory asserts that to approach the beliefs of early modern Christians from the analytical perspective of post-modernism fails to help the modern historian understand the experience of early modern Christians.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation. London: Allen Lane, 1999. Reprinted as The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. London: Allen Lane, 2003. Reprinted as The Reformation: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

In both of these works, MacCulloch signals his intention to move away from nationally exclusive narratives of the Reformation. In Tudor Church Militant, MacCulloch emphasizes the importance of understanding the European context of the English Reformation. To this end, MacCulloch cites the importance of Continental reformers, such as Martin Bucer, to the development of the theology of the Church of England. But it was not only the influence of these prominent reformers, but also the movement of both evangelical people and books from the Continent that helped influence the shape of reforms in England, during the latter years of Henry’s reign and particularly during the reign of Edward VI. Moreover, he emphasizes that Henry VIII sought to position himself as occupying the middle ground in the wider context of the European disputes. In The Reformation, MacCulloch broadly considers early modern religious reforms as an international affair – including analysis of the reformation in Scandinavia and the English American colonies. He incorporates an analysis of the theological implications of the reforms within the broader social context that necessarily affected the shape that the criticisms of the traditional Church’s practices took. In all of this, MacCulloch emphasizes the coherence of the Reformation as a single phenomenon – even those reforms within the Catholic Church can be seen to be part of one larger process. If a useful contrast is to be drawn – in MacCulloch’s mind – it is between the Latin West and the Orthodox East, which did not experience the same type of reforming processes. In MacCulloch’s estimation, this difference was caused by the fact that for a thousand years, the Western Church had relied on Jerome’s translation of Scripture. The Reformation was largely influenced, then, by the availability of new translations of scripture that allowed for innovative interpretations.

National Reformations


Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1580. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Duffy’s work emphasizes the vitality of traditional religion in England on the eve of the Reformation. After thoroughly examining the world of traditional religious practice in the first portion of his book, Duffy then turns to the problems that such an assertion causes to the notion that the Reformation in England occurred because a people thoroughly unfulfilled by their religious life brought about reform for themselves. If traditional religion in England was not moribund, then how and why did the Reformation happen? Duffy argues that for many people in English society, the Reformation was an unwelcome challenge to a form of religious experience with which people were comfortable. Moreover, Duffy emphasizes the destructive tendencies of the Reformation in England – particularly under Edward VI’s reign. In Duffy’s view, the Reformation did not only destroy a material form of worship, it also eviscerated a traditional sense of Christian community by which the living and the dead were united through prayer.

Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

In this work, Haigh challenges a number of received historical commonplaces about the Reformation in England. Haigh was reacting to the work of scholars such as A.G. Dickens, who claimed that the Reformation in England was popular and affected primarily from below. Contrastingly, Haigh asserts that the Reformation was essentially a top-down process, implemented through multiple political reformations. Furthermore, Haigh suggests that even as late as Elizabeth’s reign, the reformation had not really taken hold among the English people. By arguing against the notion of a unified process of reform, Haigh is able to explain the failure of the Reformation to permeate throughout English society. Haigh identified three political reformations and one evangelical reformation which occurred alongside them. In Henry’s reign, Haigh suggests that a process of political reformation occurred from 1530 to 1538, after which point the King reversed his position on a number of key theological issues and began undoing some of his reforms. Under Edward VI’s reign, between 1547 and 1553, the second political reformation is said to have taken place. But this, in turn, was reversed by Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558). A final reformative process began with the succession of Elizabeth to the throne in 1559. Haigh asserts that traditional religious practice in England was strong on the eve of the reformation and, given this fact, the series of vacillations in the political reformations weakened the state’s attempts to undo traditional religion and replace it with a new system of worship.

Shagan, Ethan H. Popular Politics and the English Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shagan’s work introduces new methods for understanding the English Reformation that take into account the work of revisionists like Duffy and Haigh. And while the author acknowledges his debt to the revisionist school, he also attempts to push scholarship on the English Reformation in new directions. Rather than getting bogged down in debates about success and failure, Shagan suggests that new questions need to be asked of the evidence in order to more accurately reconstruct the ambiguities and ambivalence present in the reforming processes. In his analysis of the dissolution of the abbey at Hailes, for example, Shagan chooses not to argue about whether or not the people who undertook this work were agents of the state or members of the community seeking to preserve religious artifacts – the author is perfectly willing to accept that there were probably people of both sets of motivations involved in the destruction of the abbey. Instead, Shagan argues that regardless of their individual motivations, by partaking in dismantling the abbey people became accomplices in a process of desacralization. Participation in behavior of this type would have been incomprehensible prior to the Reformation.


Briggs, Robin. Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tension in Early Modern France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Brigg’s work argues that there was a significant gap between the moral orthodoxies of the clerical elite in France and the practice of religion in local communities. However, Briggs challenges the applicability of the confessionalization thesis to the French example. Briggs contends that in the person of the parish priest the modern historian can find a figure who attempted to reconcile two disparate worlds. On the parish level then, the Catholic Church’s attempts instill religious discipline were subverted. Briggs also challenges the generalization that all popular belief was the same, or that it was essentially neo-pagan. Instead, Briggs suggests that many people believed in both Christianity and magic.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Rites of Violence.” In her Society and Culture in Early Modern France, 152-188. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.

Davis’s essay from her book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, analyzes the meaning of religious violence during the period of the French wars of religion. Davis submits that the ways in which violence was undertaken by both Protestants and Catholics in these conflicts took on ritual meanings. When Catholics killed Protestants, using either fire or water, they were evoking religious images of purification. Moreover, when Protestants attacked Eucharistic processions, this was as much a sign of distaste for the theological principal of transubstantiation as it was a way of getting even with Catholics. Furthermore, Davis points out that crowd violence sometimes represented an attempt by the people to police their own communities. It vexed French Catholics that Protestants were allowed to exist in their communities – moreover, some believed that the persistence of French Protestants would bring about God’s wrath. And so, crowd violence was sometimes undertaken because there was a belief within the community that the magistrates were not doing their jobs.

Diefendorf, Barbara B. Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Diefendorf traces the growth of the reformed community in France between 1550 and 1572. During this period, Diefendorf suggests, there was an escalating pattern of religious violence, which culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. Situating the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre as part of a longer trend challenges two prevailing notions about this event in French historiography: First, Diefendorf disproves the idea that religious violence of this sort was uncommon in France by showing that the Parisian administration reacted violently against the presence of Protestants in France from the beginning. Second, the author demonstrates that religious violence was not merely the result of personal animus among the elite of French society. Diefendorf uses the St. Medard affair in 1561 to illustrate this point. Rioting between Catholics and Protestants broke out in Paris as the two groups sought to disrupt each other’s services. This disturbance highlights the growing animosity between these two groups of people more than a decade prior to the outbreak of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.


Blickle, Peter. The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War. Translated by Thomas A. Brady Jr., and H.C. Erik Midelfort. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Originally published as Die Revolution von 1525. Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag GmbH, 1977.

Peter Blickle’s analysis of the peasants’ war of 1525 emphasizes that importance of reformation theology to the rebels. Blickle suggests that it was an interpretation of scripture – influenced by the work of the reformers in Wittenberg and spurred on by more radical reformers in the south of Germany – that underpinned the rebels’ economic grievances. The challenging of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on the interpretation of scripture opened the way for individuals to read parts of the Bible as calling for a more egalitarian society. This was not just the case for peasants, Blickle points out, but also various artisanal groups in the towns and cities of southern Germany. It was the call for a leveling of society based on an innovative interpretation of scripture that transformed the disturbances in 1525 from mere agrarian protesting into a truly revolutionary movement.

Scribner, Robert W. The German Reformation. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986.

This slim volume presents an assessment of the state of Reformation studies. It is a helpful guide to getting a sense of what the historiographical trends were in the field up to its publication in 1986. But in this volume Scribner also trumpets the cause of treating the Reformation as a broad social phenomenon, rather than a more circumscribed theological debate. Furthermore, Scribner highlights scholarship that emphasizes the continuities between the Reformation period and the late medieval period.


Bradshaw, Brendan. The Dissolution of the Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

The dissolution of the monasteries is often treated as one of the important steps in the process of Henrician reformation in England. In this work, Bradshaw seeks to examine how this process was exercised in Henry’s lands in Ireland. Bradshaw submits that – apart from the Observant friars – the religious orders of Ireland were suffering from spiritual and material decay. As such, the dissolutions in Ireland were not met with a great deal of resistance, and Bradshaw suggests that Irish society may have actually benefited from these actions. Bradshaw also ties the dissolutions into the English colonial project in Ireland. Local Irish gentry were offered the incentive of securing their land titles by helping to close the monasteries on their land. In return, the King awarded the monastic lands to the local gentry. This tactic of “surrender and regrant” would later become commonplace in the Tudor expansion in Ireland.

Bradshaw, Brendan. “Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland.” The Historical Journal 21, 3 (Sept., 1978): 475-502.

After exploring the success of the dissolution scheme in Ireland, Bradshaw seeks in this article to examine the question of success and failure in the Reformation in the longer term. Bradshaw focuses on the divergent strategies employed by various religious and political authorities in Ireland during this period. George Brown, the Archbishop of Dublin is taken to be the exemplar of a style of reformer that emphasized outward conformity over persuasion in attempts to convert Ireland to Protestantism. Contrastingly, Bradshaw uses Edward Staples, Bishop of Meath and Anthony St. Leger, the Lord Deputy of Ireland as his examples of a style of conversion that emphasized persuading the native Irish of the validity of the Protestant faith. These conflicting styles led to personal battles that in turn weakened the effectiveness of Reformation mission in Ireland.

Jeffries, Henry A. Priests and Prelates of Armagh in the Age of Reformations, 1518-58. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.

Jeffries’s work demonstrates the vitality of Catholic faith in the diocese of Armagh prior to the Reformation. The author attributes this vitality to the fact that the people were served by a competent clergy, who were aware of their spiritual needs. Furthermore, Jeffries explores how George Dowdall, the Archbishop of Armagh during the early Reformation period, was able to avoid implementing many of the reforms prescribed by Convocation and Injunction. By outwardly conforming to the elements of the Reformation dictated by the King and legislated by parliament – namely acknowledging the royal supremacy – Dowdall was able to effectively prevent substantial theological and ceremonial reforms from taking place in his diocese.

The Netherlands:

Marnef, Guido. Antwerp in the Age of Reformation: Underground Protestantism in a Commercial Metropolis, 1550-1577. Translated by J.C. Grayson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Originally published as Antwerpen in de tijd van de Reformatie: Ondergronds protestantisme in een handelsmetropool, 1550-1577. Amsterdam: Muelenhoff, 1996.

Marnef argues that Antwerp’s position as a cosmopolitan commercial center put it in a uniquely strong position within the Spanish empire to receive Protestantism. While the Spanish ruled Antwerp, Philip II insisted on a strict maintenance of Catholicism as the state religion. However, the size of Antwerp’s population allowed for a certain degree of anonymity, which made it possible to practice Protestantism undetected. Furthermore, Antwerp’s commercial status also allowed for the presence of Protestant merchants and literature from other areas of Europe. Moreover, conditions in Antwerp had a profound effect on how reformed Protestantism took shape in the Netherlands: When Gaspar van der Heyden founded the underground reformed Church in Antwerp in 1555, he insisted on a strict confession that excluded any who occasionally conformed to Catholic practice from membership. We see here, then, the origins of official intolerance towards Catholicism, which would become instituted in the Dutch Republic.

Po-Chia Hsia, Ronnie, and H.F.K. van Nierop, eds. Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

This edited collection of essays deals with the Dutch Republic’s reputation for being a religiously tolerant state in the early modern world. This was the case, despite the fact that the Republic had an established Church and official policies of intolerance towards certain religious groups – particularly Catholics. Essays within the collection, deal with various elements of Dutch toleration, from its conception and legacy to how it was implemented in particular instances.

Confessionalization Thesis

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

In Christianity in the West, 1400 – 1700, John Bossy traces the beliefs and experiences of Christians from the traditional practices of the late medieval period through the period of transition beginning in the early sixteenth century, commonly referred to as the Reformation. By recreating the world of “Traditional Christianity” in his first section, Bossy attempts to correct a number of historiographical assumptions: firstly, that a distinction can be drawn between popular and elite religious belief; secondly, that popular belief was primarily non-Christian in the period prior to the Reformation; and thirdly, that traditional Christian belief was something which the vast majority of Christians in the West were eager to dismantle. Bossy’s description then focuses not on the institutional politics of Reformation in Church and State, but rather on the system of beliefs he argues were held by the majority of Christians. Bossy is only interested in the work of theologians insofar as it informed the belief and practices of Christians more generally. Given his focus on recreating the world of Christian belief and experience, Bossy warns that the notion of “the Reformation” is unhelpful, “since it is too high-flown to cope with actual social behaviour, and not high-flown enough to deal sensitively with thought, feeling, or culture.” (91) In the second section, “Christianity Translated,” he instead describes the ways in which Christian belief and practice changed during this period. Emerging from the religious reforms of the early modern period were religious reforms that emphasized outward conformity to new confessional identities rather than a sense of cohesion with one’s neighbors. Both Catholicism and Protestantism were innovations, and ones that required considerable social discipline to enforce.

Kaplan, Benjamin. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Subsequent entries on this blog will deal with the topic of toleration in the early modern period in more detail – for which Kaplan’s book is a significant contribution. But in the first portion of his book, Kaplan deals with those forces that posed an obstacle to the operation of toleration lower down the social scale. This provides Kaplan the opportunity to discuss the confessionalization thesis, which has been an important development in Reformation scholarship since the Second World War. Kaplan’s study complicates our understanding of the confessionalization thesis by demonstrating the ways in which individuals in the early modern period sought to accommodate the existence of divergent theological positions within their communities. Instead of emphasizing a successful process of social discipline, Kaplan cites numerous examples from across Europe of how people from the lower orders resisted government attempts to enforce uniformity in order to bring stability to their communities.


Walsham, Alexandra. “The Reformation and ‘the Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed.” The Historical Journal 51, 2 (June, 2008): 497-528.

In this article, Walsham is responding to classical notions that the Reformation played an important role in the secularization of society. Walsham uses the scholarship of Max Weber and Keith Thomas as exemplars of this model. Both emphasize how the Reformation led to a decline in the belief in magic and numinous forces. Walsham retorts, however, by pointing out that drawing such a stark conclusion is not merited based on the evidence of the early modern period. After the Reformation, belief in magic still existed; so too did belief in Satan’s efficacy. Moreover, quasi-magical practices persisted among the royalty of Europe – particularly the practice of “touching for the King’s evil,” by which one would present oneself before the king to be touched in order to be healed of scrofula. Walsham suggests that cycles of desacralization and sacralization have taken place throughout history. Certainly, to some extent the Reformation marked the end of intercessory prayer for some people in Europe. But Walsham suggests that to attribute to the Reformation the responsibility for the secularization of society is inaccurate.

Cults of Personality?

Bouwsma, William James. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

William Bouwsma’s John Calvin emphasizes the eponymous reformer as a man of his time, a man whose message self-consciously spoke to the unique anxieties of sixteenth-century Europe. Bouwsma’s argument centers on the fact that Calvin was not an exceptional figure in his time, but that his message appealed to prevalent concerns about how to make sense of a world that had rightly been severed from its religious past, while attempting to map out the possibilities of the future. Calvin feared both falling into the errors of the past – exemplified in Calvin’s mind by the tendency of the Roman church to accrue and institutionalize error and scripturally unsanctioned ceremonies – and the potential excesses of a society that eschewed traditional authorities – encapsulated in the theologies of radical reformers like the Anabaptists that emerged in the mid-sixteenth century. Calvin, then, tried to plot a course between Scylla and Charybdis by proposing a new religious and social order based on humanistic readings of Scripture. By employing plentiful quotations from Calvin’s writings, Bouwsma challenges conventional conceptions of Calvin as an authoritarian and systematic thinker – illustrating, among other unexpected tendencies, Calvin’s resistance to the notion of imposing one’s own rule of behavior on others. In this way, Bouwsma attempts to differentiate between the thoughts and attitudes of the reformer and the theological principles and organizational tendencies of the denomination with which he is associated.

Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Originally published as Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel. Berlin: Severin und Seidler Verlag GMbH, 1982.

Heiko Oberman contextualizes Martin Luther as a part of a humanistic tradition evolving through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, however novel, was part of a much longer tradition of scriptural interpretation and criticism. The upshot of Oberman’s interpretation is to temper confessional views of Luther as the progenitor of the Reformation and harbinger of modernity by emphasizing the contexts from which Luther emerged, while demonstrating how simultaneously Luther drew inspiration from and undermined the expectations of those contexts. One such context was late medieval millenarianism: Luther did not conceive of himself as a Church reformer, as much as a prophet of the end-times. Luther’s perspective on the political and religious conflicts that ensued after the promulgation of his ideas was that God and the Devil were locked in their final struggle. The wars that raged between the German principalities in the early sixteenth century were related to the spiritual battles being waged. Oberman explains that Luther did not leave behind a well-defined program of reform or the instructions for a new institutional Church because he thought that in the near future God would purify the Church. As a result, the denomination that came to bear his name is as much a product of the minds of contemporary theologians such as Philip Melanchthon as it is the result of Luther’s scriptural readings and theological challenges.

Radical Reformation

Martin, John Jeffries. Venice’s Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Martin’s Venice’s Hidden Enemies explores the social and political context which gave rise to various radical denominations in Italy and how, eventually, the Venetian state went about suppressing these groups. By highlighting the unique quality of Venice as an intellectual and merchant center, Martin demonstrates how “heretics’” beliefs differed from those of the Reformations further north, terming the phenomenon the Italian Reformation. One of the most striking differences between the radical reformers in Italy and the Lutherans and Calvinists further north was the prevalence of skepticism about the divinity of Christ. Such a fundamental disagreement meant that the Venetian heretics found few allies even among reformers, and were considered particularly threatening by local authorities.

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.

In the Radical Reformation, Williams argues that although the radical reformation was only made possible by the magisterial reformations in the sixteenth century, it was a significant enough departure from the theology of those movements that it constituted its own phenomenon. Williams asserts that the sectarians recused themselves from the coalition of the reformers and state government. Between 1525 and 1535, Williams suggests, “the gravest danger to an orderly and comprehensive reformation of Christendom was Anabaptism.”(xxiii) For Williams, the differences between the two reformations were on such an essential level that he does not even refer to the sectarians as Protestants. The importance of differentiating between reformations is highlighted in Williams’s work by two related observations: first, the adherents of the Radical Reformation rejected both Protestant and Catholic soteriological constructions; and second, they replaced them with a system that was so complex as to accommodate significant variations within itself. While the sectarians rejected the penitential cycle and sacramental life of the Catholic Church, they also rejected the magisterial Reformation’s conception of sola fide – justification by faith alone – as a new form of indulgence. Andreas von Bodenstein Karlstadt – a one-time associate of Luther’s – left Wittenberg for Orlamünde in 1523 and from there launched scathing attacks on the scholastic reformers, labeling them “new papists.”(65) According to Williams, there were three main strands to the radical reformation: Anabaptism, Spiritualism, and Evangelical Rationalism. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism – arguing that one should experience a spiritual conversion in adulthood before undertaking such a ritual – and the close alliance of religious leaders and the state. Spiritualists attempted to minimize the importance of external forms of worship and organization, even going so far as to diminish the authority of Scripture. Meanwhile, Evangelical Rationalists lauded faith based in reason. Some Evangelical Rationalists, such as Fausto Socinus, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ while on earth.