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Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin/Allen Lane 2003), by Diarmaid MacCulloch, takes, as its subtitle makes clear, a long view of the most momentous shift in European history between the Black Death and the French Revolution. Histories of the Reformation tend to peter out before reaching 1600, much less a century later, but Mr MacCulloch's presentation is convincing. It was not until 1700 or thereabouts that the Reformation came to an end in England; it did not end elsewhere before 1648. His book is primarily a political history, with new religious ideas inspiring tremendous upheaval. The ideas themselves were manifold and contradictory; until reading Reformation, I hadn't quite realized how different and opposed the Lutheran reforms were from those issuing from Geneva in the form of a Reformed Church; each of these parties thought that the other was as benighted as the Church of Rome. This third, the remnant of a great medieval institution, was in many ways even more reformed than the breakaway sects; becoming more dogmatic than it had ever been, rigidly subjected to the ideology of the Papacy, it stripped away everything congenial to inquiring minds, and so became the faith of reaction and decree. No friend of the current incumbent, I have nevertheless always regarded the Roman Catholic Church as as well-meaning a pastorate as any of its Christian rivals, but Reformation may have changed that. I found myself muttering Voltaire's great cry: …crasez l'inf‚me! with increasing gusto.

The first thing to say about the book is that it's extraordinarily well-written. Few indeed are the passages that bog down in religious gloom or partisan detail, and many are the notes of contemporary wit - something that I hope won't date the text. Reformation is a pleasure to read. I can't say what the knowledge prerequisites might be, but I expect that they're rather low; it's not necessary, for example, to know who the Imperial Electors were or how they chose Emperors. Indeed, Reformation might be the book with which to reacquaint your mind with the uses and suppositions of history - in case you've not had time. (Speaking of time, I took a lot of it to read the book; in the middle, I took up Alessandro Barbero's Charlemagne.)

We all know that the Reformation was 'about' a lot of German and Swiss clerics saying that the Pope did not have the last word in the religious affairs of Europe. This was not an entirely new proposition in 1520; a century earlier, the Conciliar Movement had tried to heal the huge embarrassment of the papal schism - with two and sometimes three competing popes claiming allegiance - by advancing the idea of vesting religious sovereignty in the concept of pope-in-council, much the way that the UK is still officially governed by that of monarch-in-parliament. The two great councils of the early fifteenth century (Konstanz, from 1414, and Basel, from 1431) did indeed end the schism, but they completely failed to advance their own validity, and when the Councils of Trent (there were three) gathered to deal with the Protestant revolt, there was never any question about Papal supremacy.

More difficult to grasp are the metaphysical notions that governed the ideological debates of the Reformation. There were, according to Mr MacCulloch, two great questions, and the pre-Reformation Roman Church, for all the encyclopedic pronunciations of systematic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, had never bothered to work them out in any definitive way. One concerned Purgatory, and the other Transubstantiation. It is difficult to imagine anybody's getting upset about either of these today, when it is the archaic patriarchy itself that is under attack, but to intelligent people of the early sixteenth century - and I don't mean priests or philosophers here, but people like you and me - got very worked up about them. It was a kind of elitism, for to these smart people, both Purgatory and Transubstantiation were vehicles of a superstition, and not supported by Scripture. Purgatory was an outright invention of the medieval church, an inevitable attempt to solve the problem placed by St Paul on the afterlife. Ideas of the afterlife had hitherto been fairly pagan: you were either dead or alive, and, among Hebrews, if you'd been good then your descendants would have God's favor. But flaming pits of fire were the unfortunate introduction of apocalyptic minds. What any student of these matters must understand before anything else is that during both the first centuries of Christianity and the Reformation the end of time was eagerly awaited. Purgatory had to be invented, to hold those who, while not perfect enough to go straight to heaven (and hardly anybody was perfect), clearly didn't deserve eternal damnation. By the fifteenth century, Purgatory had become the object of very sophisticated risk management, and a great deal of money was tied up in chantries, where priests did nothing but pray for the souls of the dead. This insurance business struck many observers as (1) unproductive and (2) practically pagan. Buy your way into heaven? Or at least into its antechamber? We don't think so. This was, of course, the root of the indulgence business (indulgences were chits that reduced your time in the clink) that, again, as everybody knows 'caused' the Reformation. Mr MacCulloch manages to make it freshly clear that the magnificent Basilica di San Pietro (not a cathedral, people!) is the straw that broke Christendom's back. Was it worth it?

While puzzling over that problem, don't take on Transubstantiation. It's immensely more complex, and, again, it goes back to Paul, who said a lot of clever things about the persistence of the physical Jesus in the world. A body of belief - invigorated, to be sure, by that of the imminent end of the world -  grew up around the ceremony of the Eucharist (literally, 'thanksgiving' - food for thought!). The general idea, understood by everybody, was that Jesus was somehow actually present in the wafers that the priest consecrated at every Mass and distributed to the faithful. This is an astonishingly primitive idea, this pursuit of divine blessing through the eating of God, but it its power is not astonishing at all. The difficulty was that two or three hundred years of scholastic debate - angels-dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins sort of talk -  failed to settle exactly what happened at the moment of consecration. Was it really Jesus? And if was Jesus, was the wafer (a 'host') still bread? What about wine - there had been wine at the Last Supper, too. The idiocy of the entire conundrum was that a simple, uneducated Jew's magnanimity was crushed beneath the juggernaut of an altogether alien Aristotelianism. (If that sentence means nothing, then trust me - or expose me!) Concepts of essence and accident, being and becoming, couldn't have mattered less to the Jesus whom we meet in the Gospels, but it caused Europe's 'house' to be divided for centuries.

To a thinker such as Elizabeth Tudor - who was, indeed, a thinker, at least before her accession to the throne - the idea that the Christ was literally present in the host smacked of a kind of cannibalism; reading what she and others wrote about it, you can almost hear their echoing "Gross!" It is true that the Catholic rite would come back with "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter my roof [mouth]," but fastidious Northerners were frankly repelled by the idolatry of the Roman communion. Sadly, however, they could not agree on a better understanding. Differences about the nature of Transubstantiation (bread turned into God) would continue to divide the protestant sects for centuries. There are histories of the Reformation that index these differences, but I'm happy to say that Reformation is not one of them. For us today it is the dead issue, and, I think, rightly so.

Meanwhile, secular forces, originally agnostic or indifferent, began to identify with one party or another, and, having so identified, they backed up their alliance with force. Surely the most interesting story of religious and secular interaction is that of the Netherlands, and I hope that someone will tell at at greater length than Mr MacCulloch - whom I don't at all fault for not having done so. Every part of Europe was affected; every nation on today's map was to some extent - usually, to some very great extent - defined by its inhabitants' response to the reforming idea. Some countries - those in Scandinavia, for example - made reasonably quick and simple - and adamantine - change. Others, such as England, went through enough transformative convulsions to put a country out of business. (And who knows what would have happened in England - which Mr MacCulloch, embracing politically correct terminology with what I hope, again, is not a dated conviction, groups under the rubric 'Atlantic Isles' - if there hadn't been the safety valve of the Netherlands and the New World.) But at least it got through these convulsions 'together.' In France, the Reformation opened a fissure that remains active and open; the Revolution is unthinkable without it. As for Central Europe, it took the devastation of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) to inspire our modern ideas of national sovereignty; indeed, the idea of the nation may be inseparable from that of religious confession, certainly something that troubles today's United States more seriously than anyone wants to assess. 

If I've talked more about the Reformation than about Mr MacCulloch's history - I haven't quoted a single passage -  that's because his history speaks beautifully for itself, and all I want to do is to convey an idea of its excitement and importance. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes us from the sleepy, uncertainly cohesive world of the fifteenth century to the wide-awake determinism of the ante-modern world.  It is not a happy transit by any means, but one that we all have to come to terms with, and one that Mr MacCulloch humanizes for every reader. To add that we need the perspective ought to be superfluous. Alas, it's not.

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