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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Reformation

The Reformation - Patrick Collinson, John McDonough I've had my eye on this book for several years. A review by Trevor McCandless prodded me to go ahead and see what it had to say. The one thing that Trevor said in his review that caught my attention was, "The material presented here on the anabaptists, of whom I knew virtually nothing, is also utterly fascinating." I happen to be interested in anabaptist history, so I wanted to see what the book said that impressed Trevor as being "utterly fascinating." Now that I've read it I concluded that it must have been the story about the Münster Rebellion that he found so fascinating.
"...an extraordinary piece of apocalyptic theater was played out to its inevitably bloody conclusion. Jan of Leiden sat on the throne of David with the golden apple of global empire in this hand, ruling with operatic pomp a polygamous realm in which there was competition to see who could acquire the most wives. The king executed one of his own sixteen (some said twenty-two) wives for being cheeky and trampled on her body."

This book has the characteristics of a transcript of a scholar lecturing on the subject of the reformation, but who is being limited to 8 hours of lecture time. The author is obviously well informed on subject, but is forced to provide a cursory overview summary of the history of the time.

One little factoid the caught my attention was that many of the quotations credited to Shakespeare, were first collected by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam in his book,Adagiorum Chiliades (the thousand proverbs), also referred to as Adagia. That book was in turn the fruit of Erasmus' vast reading in Classical literature. This shows that "there is nothing new under the sun." Erasmus must have been an incredibly intelligent person. He arose from an impoverished youth to become a leading scholar of his time. By the 1530’s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales. He is most famous for his Greek translation of the New Testament (later used as the basis for the King James Version). And as additional proof of his intelligence, he maintained a middle road in the religious debates and ended up angering both sides, including Martin Luther of the Protestants and many conservative Catholics. I sometimes get the impression that Erasmus was the only sane and logical person alive at the time.

Patrick Collinson is at his best toward the end of the book when he discusses the changes to the lives of the people who lived through the time. He glosses over the Thirty Years War and many other details. The fact that he has one chapter about the Anabaptists and that he mentions that there was a peaceful (and sane) branch of the Anabaptists is proof enough for me that the author is trying to be even handed. Some historians of Reformation history credit the Anabaptists for the Peasants' War and for the Münster Rebellion, and nothing else.

Literacy was on the increase in the 16th Century, however most people of the time still could not read. Nevertheless, much of what was printed at the time was heard as those who could read, read aloud.
"... people in the sixteenth century read aloud (most, it seems, lacked the capacity to read silently)..."

Was the Reformation required for the modern world to come into being?
"If the Reformation represented an emancipation of the mind and the untrammeled communication of knowledge, which was not all what Luther and Calvin intended, then it was equally a precondition for what has been labeled the Scientific Revolution. ... ... Whether the Reformation was simply its cause is a question to hand over to historians of the Enlightenment."

Based on today's standards, 16th Century political and religious leaders were conservative and the common people very superstitious (execution of witches was common). So it's hard to imagine how their fighting over obscure religious issues allowed movement toward the enlightenment, scientific revolution, industrial revolution, expansion of capitalism and others things that made our modern world. Nevertheless, the Reformation seems to have introduced the concept of religion being something that could be ignored or changed in ways that would have never occurred to the medieval mind. Thus the grip of religion was loosened, and people with ambitious goals could pursue secular matters with limited interference from the revealed wisdom of the past.