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Book review: “The Reformation: A History” by Patrick Collinson

It’s a rare book of religious history — to say nothing of one about the cantankerous and violent era known as the Reformation — to be called sprightly.  Yet, that’s a term that can aptly be applied to Patrick Collinson’s 2004 The Reformation: A History.

Which isn’t to say Collinson’s book isn’t also erudite, astute and wise.

Collinson, who died in 2011, was an expert in Elizabethan history, especially Puritanism, and had a long academic career at universities in Sudan, Australia and England, capped by his tenure as the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1988 to 1996. 

His book on the Reformation is part of the Modern Library Chronicles, a series of 34 short works, published between 2002 and 2012 and written by experts with a lively style that’s accessible to the general reader.

Here, for instance, is how Collinson describes his installment in the series:

This little book is a way of paying my respects to a grand historical subject.  I hope that those who really know about the Reformation and who have never had to cut corners will not regard it as an insult.  Try covering the Reformation, the whole thing, in little more than fifty thousand words! 

It is a book, he writes, “which has come out of my head and off my own shelves,” adding, “Whatever was not there is not here.”  Which is to say that Collinson, in his early 70s, was not doing original research in this book, but giving the reader an overview based on his own learning and experience.

In this book I have let my hair down and have probably made mistakes too numerous to count.  Old men forget.  And much will appear dated to those still active at the coalface.  My main responsibility has been the general reader…

Better to be wrong than to be boring, I always say, but to be neither is best…

Fast-paced

And then he’s off to the races with 12 fast-paced chapters of 15 to 20 pages each discussing such subjects as whether there even was a Reformation — historians being historians wonder such things even after they’ve been writing about the Reformation for five centuries — and what the late medieval Catholic church was like and why words and books were so important to the religious revolution that did — yes, it did — take place.

Luther gets a chapter, and so does Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation, and a group of assorted other reformers, and that exceptional case, the mixed bag of reform in the British Isles. 

Although the Reformation was about religion, it had major impacts on — and was impacted in a major way by — other aspects of life.  So, Collinson has a chapter on the interaction of politics and the Reformation, and one on how the average person fit into it all, and on the unfortunate (for art lovers) iconoclasm that was an aspect of the reform movement, and on the ways in which the Reformation set the stage for our modern world.

A monolith and a family of churches

As a reader, I was snared by Collinson on his first page.

That’s where he notes that, at the time the Reformation took place, western Christianity, i.e., the religion of Europe, had been separated from its eastern brethren for some thousand years and under the rule of the succession of popes (albeit with some complicated times when there were two or even three claimants to the throne of St. Peter).  He writes:

By comparison with the West, eastern Christendom is not monolithic but rather a family of Churches.  Besides those claiming the title “Orthodox” and acknowledging the honorary primacy of the patriarch of Constantinople as “Ecumenical,” there were and are other ancient Churches defined both ethnically and by ancient, half-forgotten, but apparently unbridgeable dogmatic differences.

Collinson’s point here is to discuss how the Eastern churches never had anything like the Reformation but, nonetheless, have had at the core of their belief “eternal principles of renewal and conversion.”

He is working to show that the Reformation didn’t come out of thin air.  Reform is part and parcel, not only in the Christian faith but “indeed, in religion more generally and globally.”  The history of any faith is a history of reform, and that’s an important context in which to view the Reformation in Europe.

Normal?

I got something else in addition to that.  Collinson’s mention of the Eastern “family of churches” revealed to me that I had a very Euro-centric vision of Christian history. 

I realized that I had taken the dominance of the Pope over European Christians for more than a thousand years as something like a natural state of affairs.  In that context, the Reformation was the shattering of a unity — a united Christianity — into a multiplicity of sects.  It was like a vase that had fallen and shattered.  A lamentable occurrence.

However, when seen in a wider world that included Eastern Christianity with its “family of churches,” the break-up of Western Christianity into sects seemed much less unusual — and less lamentable.  It could even be viewed as a movement toward a more normal situation.

I don’t know if Collinson was suggesting something like this. He certainly didn’t make much of it in his text.  But his words sparked these thoughts in me.

“Stately dress” and “nice thoughts”

The Reformation: A History is lively and engaging because of Collinson’s skill as a writer.  On seemingly every page, I was struck by the felicity with which he was able to turn a phrase.

Such as in his discussion of the various translations of the Bible, a key component to the Reformation: Collinson details the groundbreaking work of English reformer William Tyndale and his execution in Europe as a heretic. 

He was soon all but forgotten, his work absorbed into the many English Bibles that the press produced in ever greater numbers over the next hundred years…The so-called Authorized or “King James” Version of 1611 is ninety percent Tyndale over those parts of the Bible that he had had time to translate before his tragic death, simply Tyndale in rather more stately dress.

And his look at another key element in the Reformation, the debates over whether Jesus, as Catholics believed, was present in the Eucharist:  Many Protestants denied the “real presence,” arguing that the bread and wine only “signified” the Savior and could only benefit the recipient if seen in that way.

For Luther, such opinions were anathema.  They went against his reading of scripture, his Christology, his understanding of “flesh” and “spirit,” above all his craving for objective certainty.  Christ’s presence could not be made to depend on having nice thoughts about him.

Religious danger

When Collinson discusses the religious violence in England, he does so with a particular verve.

During the 16th century, English Christians were ping-ponged from a Protestant monarch (Edward VI) to a Catholic Queen (Mary I) to a Protestant ruler (Elizabeth I).  It was a dangerous time to be too public in one’s faith, and Collinson writes:

So under Mary, Protestants had to choose among death by burning, exile, and, the most popular, keeping their heads down….

Catholics under Elizabeth faced similar choices in consequence of increasingly draconian laws, including death by disembowelment, exile, or the closet existence of church papists.

Of course, it was also a time when it was dangerous to be a monarch.  During Mary’s reign, two Protestant exiles in Europe wrote pamphlets arguing that, at times, “true obedience” to the government could mean resisting tyrannical magistrates, including the most powerful one.

All members of the community, “the common people also,” were entitled not only to resist and restrain but assassinate evil governors. For if magistrates and other officers failed in their duty the people were “as it were without officers.”

This was a license to kill for the Lee Harvey Oswalds of this world.

Indeed, one of the pamphleteers called Mary an “open idolatress” and a prime candidate for killing.

A father’s love

Finally, Collinson isn’t only adept at phrasemaking but also at spotting someone else’s well-put words.

For instance, in his chapter on how the Reformation affected the lives of people, Collinson looks at Luther as a father and the head of an affectionate family.

This is what Luther wrote to his little son Hans: “I know a beautiful garden, where there are many children with golden robes.  They pick up the rose-cheeked apples, pears, plums, etc., from under the trees, sing, jump, and rejoice all day long.  They also have pretty ponies with golden reins and silver saddles.”

Luther could be a fire-breather, but, when it came to his young son, he showed himself a doting father.

And, when it came to his daughter Magdalena who died in her teens, he showed himself to be a broken-hearted papa.

“The tenderness of the father’s heart is so great that we cannot think of [her death] without sobs and sighs, which tear asunder the heart…You know how affectionate and sensible she was, nay, how charming.”

Collinson’s book about the Reformation is a story of great movements and scholarly debates and violent wars and also a father’s love.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.3.23

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