The Literature of the Counter-Reformation Essay - Critical Essays

The Literature of the Counter-Reformation


The Literature of the Counter-Reformation

The Counter-Reformation refers to a movement dominated by Catholic reaction to the challenge of Protestantism for a period from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century, from approximately the reign of Pope Pius IV to the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Literature of this period includes some of the most highly acclaimed works in theology. The term “Counter-Reformation” traditionally has been rejected by Catholics because it implies that the Church was motivated to fight internal corruption only because Protestant actions demanded it. Catholics note that reform had a long history in the Church before Protestantism and continues to the present day; to Catholics, their view is better rendered by the term “Catholic Reformation.” Hubert Jedin has examined the complex history of the words and concepts involved, particularly the differences between “reformation,” “reform,” and the Latin “reformatio,” and whether “internal renewal” or “radical reconstruction” is the more appropriate descriptor for the changes that occurred in the Church. Ultimately Jedin has found the use of both terms essential: “Catholic Reformation” to emphasize continuity, “Counter-Reformation” to emphasize reaction.

When discussing the Counter-Reformation, scholars generally find it useful to give background on the Reformation to which the movement was a reaction, and on the state of Church practices that preceded the Reformation. John C. Olin has traced the history of Christian reform in his study of the background to the Catholic Reformation, including Church abuses and Martin Luther's demands for the end of the sale of indulgences. Olin notes that the concept of reform developed over time, from signifying personal change on an individual basis to eventually encompassing the restoration of the Church at large; but he adds that institutional and personal reforms are closely related. He cites The Imitation of Christ, a 1411 work by Thomas à Kempis, as one of the most influential books of spiritual ideals. A. G. Dickens has also credited The Imitation of Christ for inspiring numerous religious writers who followed. Dickens's survey of some of the more influential literature leading up to the Counter-Reformation explores the conflicts between traditional ways of undertaking spiritual studies and newer, more intellectual approaches, and further discusses how meditative and mystical methods fused into devotio moderna (“Modern Devotion”). H. Outram Evennett has explored the genesis of the most important work in the Catholic Reformation, the Spiritual Exercises (c. 1522-23) by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Evennett discusses how the society's members, referred to as Jesuits, empowered by the Spiritual Exercises, promoted active, good works. He credits them for “transforming and enormously quickening the spiritual life-blood of Catholicism.” Church leaders throughout Europe had met in council for many years but had always failed to reach an accord. Finally, in 1561, at the Council of Trent, a breakthrough came and pronouncements and decrees were agreed upon. With its new unity, the Council of Trent greatly strengthened the orthodox faith at the same time that internal disputes among Protestants led them to split into numerous sects, thereby decreasing their power.

Significant scholarly interest is directed to the responses elicited by the Counter-Reformation. Phebe Jensen has discussed how the Elizabethan government dealt with Catholic challenges to its authority, censoring Catholic writings at a time when much of the public supported the expression of religious speech and conscience. Michael A. Mullett has examined how religious leaders sought acceptance of their message by employing a new style of art; he describes how the concept of the baroque dominated all art forms in seventeenth-century Europe, and explains that the Jesuits favored the utilitarian and that “instruction through delight” was one of the chief aims of Catholic baroque art and literature.

Representative Works

Robert Bellarmine
The Book of Controversies (essays) 1586-89

Louis de Blois
A Book of Spiritual Instruction (handbook) 1551

Edmund Campion
Ten Reasons (essays) 1581

Peter Canisius
The True Evangelical Life (sermons, essays, letters, songs) 1543

The Council of Trent
Canons and Decrees (manifesto) 1566

Ignatius of Loyola
Spiritual Exercises (handbook) c. 1522-23

William Peryn
Spiritual Exercises (handbook) 1557

Dionysius Petavius
Dogmata theologica (essays) 1643

Teresa of Avilia
Life Written by Herself (autobiography) 1565

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John C. Olin (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Olin, John C. “Introduction: The Background of Catholic Reform.” In The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola: Reform in the Church, 1495-1540, pp. xv-xxvi. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

[In the following essay, Olin examines the long history of religious reform and explains how the efforts of Renaissance humanists to lessen the disparity between the ideal and reality influenced Church reform.]

The Church in the late Middle Ages endured what may be called a “time of troubles”—a time marked by challenge and dissent, manifesting the symptoms of spiritual and institutional decline, climaxed by the great crisis and disruption that broke...

(The entire section is 6001 words.)

Michael A. Mullett (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Mullett, Michael A. “The Catholic Reformation and the Arts.” In The Catholic Reformation, pp. 196-214. London: Routledge, 1999.

[In the following essay, Mullett examines how the Catholic Reformation influenced baroque art, including architecture, poetry, drama, and music.]

In this final chapter we shall consider the relationship between the Catholic renewal of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the arts used as media for purposes of doctrinal instruction and the raising of religious consciousness. We shall review the art forms of architecture, painting, literature, theatre and music—looking very selectively at a few representative architects,...

(The entire section is 11160 words.)

Criticism: Influential Figures

H. Outram Evennett (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Evennett, H. Outram. “St. Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises.” In The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation: The Birkbeck Lectures in Ecclesiastical History Given in the University of Cambridge in May 1951, edited by John Bossy, pp. 43-66. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in May 1951, Evennett analyzes the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius had developed as a technique for conversion and describes their influence.]

I attempted in my last lecture the somewhat formidable task of trying to convey what seem to me to be the main characteristics which marked the reinvigoration of Catholic...

(The entire section is 9749 words.)

A. G. Dickens (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Dickens, A. G. “The Medieval Sources of Catholic Revival.” In The Counter Reformation, pp. 19-28. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

[In the following essay, first published in 1968, Dickens discusses some of the prominent fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers of the Catholic Reformation.]

The period of decline in medieval Catholicism nourished many of the seedlings of Catholic Reformation. Among the features of the latter stands a notable revival of scholastic philosophy and especially of Thomism. Yet this revival had in fact begun among the Dominicans over half a century before the birth of its greatest figure Francisco de Suarez (1548-1617). Thomas de Vio,...

(The entire section is 2513 words.)

Phebe Jensen (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Jensen, Phebe. “Ballads and Brags: Free Speech and Recusant Culture in Elizabethan England.” Criticism 40, no. 3 (summer 1998): 333-54.

[In the following essay, Jensen discusses how the religious censorship practiced by the Elizabethan government was challenged in a sermon by Bishop John Jewell and a manuscript by Edmund Campion.]

Writing to a friend in 1586, the English Catholic exile Sir Francis Englefield described the attempt to reconvert England to the old faith: “In stede therfore of the sword, which we cannot obtayne, we must fight with paper and pennes, which can not be taken from us.”1 Although the Counter-Reformation in England is...

(The entire section is 8164 words.)

Further Reading


Bireley, Robert. The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 309 p.

Analyzes the political thought of the greatest anti-Machiavellian writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their relationship to the Counter-Reformation.

Cameron, Euan. “‘Civilized Religion’ from Renaissance to Reformation and Counter-Reformation.” In Civil Histories: Essays Presented to Sir Keith Thomas, edited by Peter Burke, Brian Harrison, and Paul Slack, pp. 49-66. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


(The entire section is 396 words.)