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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864

In The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch's opening chapter “The Old Church, 1490-1517” identifies its two pillars as the Mass, with its close relation to the belief in Purgatory, and papal primacy. The chantry evolved as a place where Masses could be sung to buy time off in Purgatory, a practice open to abuse in the selling of indulgences. Martin Luther ranted about indulgences as “clerical confidence tricks” and contradictions of his teachings about salvation through faith.

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Such voluntary organizations as guilds and confraternities, with clergy paid by the laity, accommodated the laypeople's hunger for prayer. Pilgrimages to holy sites and the growth of a cult of Mary signified a need for devotion of another sort. Questions about the Mass led to Thomas Aquinas's explanation, derived from Aristotle, that the Communion bread and wine underwent a process of transubstantiation in which the accidents, or outward sensory properties, stayed the same, while the substance (that which stands under, unavailable to the senses) became the body and blood of Christ. Those in the “Roman obedience” generally accepted this account, “but in sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.”

The second pillar, papal primacy, withstood a challenge from John Wyclif (1328-1384) and his Bible-believing Lollard supporters in England, but after Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, a Czech rebellion established an independent Hussite Church in Bohemia. The Hussites used Czech instead of Latin and insisted that worshipers receive wine as well as bread at the Eucharist (Communion). Many Church leaders held that the Church was better run by a collective authority than solely by the bishop of Rome, but this argument for “conciliarism,” or governance by a council of bishops, was defeated by Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II.

In the fifteenth century, noble families took over many Church properties, selecting powerful laymen known as commendators to run the abbeys, often with “genuine idealism.” During the rise of secular governments, or commonwealths, in the sixteenth century the Valois monarchy in France kept its distance from the pope, and England's Henry VII started a struggle for independence that his son Henry VIII later won.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 threatened Europe until the end of the seventeenth century, with modern estimates of around one million Christian Europeans enslaved between 1530 and 1640. The Muslims were repulsed only in the Iberian kingdoms, where the Castilian Francisco Ximénes de Cisneros achieved administrative reforms for the Castilian Church but brutalized Jews during the Inquisition. At the same time, Spanish and Portuguese penetration of the New World advanced the Church across the Atlantic Ocean.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola celebrated free will, but the “bleak picture of human worthlessness” that Saint Augustine inferred from Saint Paul's epistle to the Romans smothered the genial humanist vision of Desiderius Erasmus and dominated the thought of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Their grim teachings about predestination, original sin, irresistible grace, and the elect obviously contradicted any hopes for human effort and led to desperate sophistries to dodge accusations of antinomianism. Luther argued that the body and blood of Christ were physically present in the Eucharist, but he rejected it as a good work, made the Bible central for Christians, accepted sacred art, and insisted on infant baptism. Philipp Melanchthon of Wittenberg became Luther's ardent disciple, but a group of Zurich reformers, led by Huldrych Zwingli, took an independent stand on several of these points. Zwingli organized assemblies to synods, or presbyteries, on matters of worship that antedated the English parliamentary system. After Zwingli's death, his follower Heinrich Bullinger taught Zwingli's interpretation of the Mass as symbolic and presented baptism and the Eucharist as “seals” of God's covenant with his people.

The period from 1524 to 1540 witnessed increased tensions between civil and ecclesiastical powers. It began with the Peasants’ War and was marked by the travails of the Anabaptists in Moravia, led in a separated Church by Jakob Hutter. Luther and Melanchthon met with other theologians in 1529 at Marburg, where all agreed on fourteen articles that evolved into the Augsburg Confession, the cornerstone of various Protestant faiths, especially Lutheranism. Millenarian fervor moved the Anabaptists to seize Münster in 1534, but the bishop's forces starved out the rebels and executed Anabaptist leaders in “exercises in exemplary sadism.”

Protestants and Catholics made no progress toward reconciliation in the sixteenth century, but inspired leaders emerged on both sides. Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, whose members soon assumed crucial positions in missionary work, and John Calvin reorganized the Genevan Church and preached on predestination and the elect. Calvin rejected Luther's stand on the physical presence of the body and blood in the Eucharist, and he was skeptical about images of the sacred and honoring Mary.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 accepted the religious division of the Empire but did not reconcile the Lutherans and the Reformed on the Mass. The Catholic faith revived briefly under Queen Mary in England from 1553 to 1558, but Queen Elizabeth's accession in 1558 quickly produced the Religious Settlement that has been the foundation of the Church of England—and thus worldwide Anglicanism—ever since.

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During the same decade, Scottish Protestants created a new church, the Kirk. The Habsburg archduke Ferdinand supported Catholicism with a determination that eventually fueled the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The last session of the Council of Trent, from 1561 to 1563, despite its unresolved debate over whether final authority should rest with the pope or with the bishops, influenced papal policies for the future. The council did nothing, however, to prevent the brutal wars of the period between Protestants and Catholics in France.

By 1570 the Protestants dominated northern Europe but were split into Lutheran (or “evangelical”) and Reformed branches, divided on such doctrinal issues as the Eucharist, the proper use of images and ceremony, and predestination. The Catholic Church, eager after the Council of Trent to reassert its primacy, enjoyed widespread advances in Poland and Lithuania largely through the excellent schooling opportunities offered by the Jesuits. The partition of the Low Countries created today's Roman Catholic Belgium and the Protestant Netherlands.

Jacobus Arminius modified the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, preaching that some reject God's grace and suffer damnation through their own willfulness, a damnation that God foresees but does not decree. Subscribers to this “Arminianism,” known as Remonstrants, were soon locked in a struggle with the Calvinist powers that was resolved when the Synod of Dordt “formulated conclusions under five headings that would remain the reference points of developed Calvinism: the unconditional decree by God of election, the limiting of Christ's atoning death for humanity to those elected to salvation, the total corruption of humankind, the irresistibility of God's grace, and the unchallengeable perseverance in saving grace of God's elect.”

In Scotland, King James VI submitted to the flourishing of presbyteries, thereby strengthening the Kirk's role alongside the Scottish Parliament. England's Queen Elizabeth faced two antagonists: the Puritans, who favored presbyterianism over episcopacy, and the Catholics, whose hopes were dampened by the execution in 1587 of Mary, Queen of Scots. Richard Hooker criticized Reformed theology in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, but William Perkins developed a sophisticated theory of covenants that afforded an escape from charges of antinomianism, the claim that free grace nullified moral law. The bloodshed went on, with England “judicially murdering more Roman Catholics than any other country.” Whereas the Tudor government's respect for Welsh culture helped bring the Welsh into English Protestantism, different circumstances and English mistakes ensured the success of the Counter-Reformation in Ireland.

Catholicism continued strong in southern Europe, especially in Italy, where vernacular Bibles were ceremonially burned and evangelicalism was eradicated by the Roman Inquisition. Venice successfully resisted the centralization of authority promoted by the Council of Trent, but Milan under Archbishop Carlo Borromeo maintained strict control while developing an impressive educational system. King Philip II of Spain promulgated Tridentine decrees and used the printing press to spread the faith, while Jesuit intellectuals invented a historic past and the clergy promoted a large increase in funeral Masses. The interaction over centuries of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam fostered “currents of mystical spirituality” that bore Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The Church in southern Europe assumed responsibility for spreading its religion worldwide, and Spanish evangelism succeeded widely in Central and South America. It had meager results in Asia, except in Japan, where it bloomed until the Tokugawa family's cruel suppression of Christians in the early seventeenth century.

In central Europe, the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family joined a succession of Wittelsbach dukes in forming a Counter-Reformation notable for the Jesuits’ persistent championing of a cult of Mary. An independent Protestant Church evolved in Transylvania, Reformed but not Calvinist, only to wither in the late seventeenth century when the ruling Rákóczi family converted to Catholicism.

The machinations of Spain's King Philip II and Catholic extremists drove France's King Henry III to have the duke of Guise assassinated in 1588, prompting an uproar that led to Henry's murder in 1589 and his succession by the king of Navarre as Henri IV, whose weary remark—not at all substantiated—that “Paris is worth a Mass” suggests everybody's exhaustion with years of bitter polemic. In 1598 Henry made peace with Spain and crafted the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing religious freedom. The edict's revocation in 1685 produced the contempt for the established Catholic Church that wracked France a century later. “It is striking how the areas in the south that after 1572 formed the Protestant heartlands continued to form the backbone of anticlerical, antimonarchical voters for successive Republics, and even in the late twentieth century they were still delivering a reliable vote for French Socialism.”

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) proved to be one of Christianity's bloodiest chapters, marked by the imperial army's devastation of the Free City of Magdeburg in 1631 and the end of Catholicism's hope “to become a coherent, bureaucratic, and centralized state.” In England at this time James I, a Reformed Protestant, was working for a universal peace. Upon his succession in 1625, Charles I, with William Laud, bishop of London, attempted a “Counter-Reformation without the Jesuits.” Charles's subsequent campaign against the Protestant establishment came apart in 1642 when Parliament split into “Presbyterian” followers of Scottish church structure and “Independents” who urged a minimum of central organization in English religious life. The Independents won a coup d’état leading to Charles's execution, and the profusion of Protestant denominations that then sprang up led to the separatist movement that plagued Charles II after his restoration in 1660.

MacCulloch's last section surveys “how it felt to live during Europe's Reformations and Counter-Reformations.” His chapter “Changing Times” summarizes the witchcraft scare, and the chapters on love and sex are fluent, witty, and informative, especially in his account of the background to attitudes toward homosexuality. The Reformation presents a long and tangled drama with an extended cast of saints and villains, and it is hard to imagine anyone else covering the whole narrative with more gracefulness.

Review Sources

America 191, no. 11 (October 18, 2004): 24.

The Economist 369 (December 13, 2003): 82.

History: Review of New Books 33, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 76.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 4 (February 15, 2004): 167.

Library Journal 129, no. 6 (April 1, 2004): 107.

London Review of Books 26, no. 14 (July 22, 2004): 22.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 13 (March 29, 2004): 58.

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