Peter Marshall’s book, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, includes a collection of essays that intend to expand the understanding of an increasingly intricate and world-changing period of history. At its most simple, the Reformation began with Martin Luther and Peter Marshall’s collection in this book provides an appropriate and in-depth look at the climate of Luther’s world, whether religious, social, or political. The contribution of this book’s supply of intellectual discussion will go far in academic and historical circles. Additionally, the scholarly contributors provide the needed intellectual weight needed to provide trustworthiness of the historical account. While other narratives focus on Luther specifically and individually, Marshall’s team of literati reach deep into Catholicism and the subsequently effected governments and societies to enlighten the student or historian concerning such issues as how the medieval Catholic church touched individual lives, shaped political philosophy, and contributed to governmental rule. In turn, it does the tremendous work of instructing on the significance of Protestantism and how it changed many governments and provided for new life within society. Indeed, Protestantism brought not only new theological understanding but lessened oppression through the State, brought about universities and encouraged learning, and brought a number of new inventions and ideas – such as the printing press – to the world.
Bruce Gordon and Lyndal Rope contribute their thoughts in the first two essays that bring clarity to the state of the church – the only church – in Christendom. Their ability to explain not only the history of medieval Christianity, but also Martin Luther’s protests of abuses and a thorough description of the theological arguments that Luther brought forward is comprehensive and systematic. Beginning this anthology, Gordon, in Late Medieval Christianity, goes in-depth into what it meant to be a Roman Catholic during the middle ages. Without stopping at a simple abridgement of Catholic doctrine, he provides clarification and a rich description of Catholic teaching. This includes what it meant for the average member of the Church to learn under priests and the pope, how they expressed devotion through ritual prayer, fasting, pilgrimages, and the Eucharist;1 and how the church defined life, death, faith, and belief.2 In addition to Gordon’s discussion of these aspects of religion, he also appropriately discusses how the church dealt with dissenters and heretics. This is imperative in this historical narrative because it goes far to make one understand how it was not only belief that kept Catholics under papal control but fear as well.
3 While Roper’s essay, Martin Luther, provides much information on Luther’s ninety-five theses, it lends a great deal to what Luther’s theology was, how he leaned heavily upon the book of Romans to define his idea of grace over works,4 and gives a great deal of background to Luther’s story. Following essays on the background of the church and of Luther specifically, Carlos Eire tackles another great reformer on the heels of Luther, John Calvin, in his essay, Calvinism and the Reform of the Reformation. While any book on the Reformation would not be the same without the history of the Roman Catholic Church and of Luther himself, a well-rounded history will include other aspects of the Reformation as well as other reformers. Appropriately numbered as the third essay in the series, Eire moves past Luther to discuss how John Calvin, who grew up in the heat of European religious change, would bring dramatic change to Geneva, Switzerland, the landing place of Calvin and the birthplace of his reform.
5 The significance of Eire’s essay is its summation of the practice of Calvinism, not simply Calvinistic thought. John Calvin was not content with Lutheran reform. While he agreed with Luther’s idea of grace individually, Calvin was concerned with morality as a mark of true Christianity.6 In addition to the contrast in theology from Luther, Calvin also managed to radically change Genevan moral authority through rules, punishment, and correction.
7The final four essays in the collection are important in topic though, perhaps, skewed in their ordering within the book. After the essay on Calvin, Brad Gregory discusses “radical Protestants,”8 as he labels them, to include all of Western Christianity in Europe – those who did not adhere to either Luther or Calvin and were against the Roman Catholic Church.9 Groups such as the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, or even the very radical group Friends of Love,10 among others, are discussed here as smaller, less individually impactful reforms through no less important as they did provide some influence in an evolving European Christianity when taken collectively. Following Gregory is perhaps the only essay that seems out of place, though important for inclusion. The essays Britain’s Reformations by the Editor, Peter Marshall himself, and Reformation Legacies by Alexandra Walsham, are both appropriate and necessary in a book on the Reformation.
Britain’s reformation was as different from Luther’s reformation in Wittenberg as Calvin’s reformation in Geneva was from Luther’s theology, meaning, it was clearly similar in its desired removal from Catholicism, but it differed in its approach to its implementation of that separation. What made Britain’s reforms different was two-fold. First, though there were some factions of Protestantism within Britain, it was King Henry VIII who spearheaded the separation.
Secondly, though this Reformation could technically be termed theological – as Henry did not agree with the Catholic church’s theological reasoning for denying the divorce he sought – it was not an impassioned reform for the sake of religion strictly. This, and the fact that Henry legislated Catholic Dissolution11 complete with punishment unto death for those who would disagree,12 that seems to have slowed the growth of Protestantism in Britain as the country would see it form in fits and starts. Likewise, Walsham’s Reformation Legacies provides a well-rounding of the Reformation and its implications within governments and social structure, as well as how religion was adapted and adopted through Europe and in to the Americas later. What seems a bit out of place is Simon Ditchfield’s Catholic Reformation and Renewal. It is not that this essay should not be included – the Catholic Reformation is an important and necessary inclusion in the history of the Protestant Reformation – and his essay clearly and concisely illuminates Catholic theology and struggles with perspective. However, it seems that this would have been more appropriately added at the end of a book on the beginning of Protestantism, though this does not detract from the readability or of the learning and is purely preference. Altogether, Marshall has put together a comprehensive set of essays that capture the essence of the Protestant movement from all sides of change.
It also goes a long way to include all reforms, not only Luther’s, though Luther is treated, fittingly, with esteem in terms of importance. It is a very readable book that will benefit the scholar and lay-historian alike. Marshal has done well in his presentation of essays.
1 Bruce Gordon, “Late Medieval Christianity,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, Peter Marshall, Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 22-292 Ibid., 323 Ibid., 394 Lyndal Roper, “Martin Luther,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, Peter Marshall, Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 455 Carlos Eire, “Calvinism and the Reform of the Reformation,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, Peter Marshall, Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 87 6 Eire, 88-897 Ibid., 888 Brad S.
Gregory, “The Radical Reformation,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, Peter Marshall, Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 1159 Ibid.10 Ibid., 14311 Peter Marshall, “Britain Reformations,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, Peter Marshall, Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 19712 Ibid., 198-199