Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648 (The Penguin History of Europe)

by Mark Greengrass

Hardcover, 2014



Viking (2014), Edition: 1St Edition, 752 pages


"This latest addition to the landmark Penguin History of Europe series is a fascinating study of 16th and 17th century Europe and the fundamental changes which led to the collapse of Christendom and established the geographical and political frameworks of Western Europe as we know it. From peasants to princes, no one was untouched by the spiritual and intellectual upheaval of this era. Martin Luther's challenge to church authority forced Christians to examine their beliefs in ways that shook the foundations of their religion. The subsequent divisions, fed by dynastic rivalries and military changes, fundamentally altered the relations between ruler and ruled. Geographical and scientific discoveries challenged the unity of Christendom as a belief-community. Europe, with all its divisions, emerged instead as a geographical projection. It was reflected in the mirror of America, and refracted by the eclipse of Crusade in ambiguous relationships with the Ottomans and Orthodox Christianity. Chronicling these dramatic changes, Thomas More, Shakespeare, Montaigne and Cervantes created works which continue to resonate with us. Christendom Destroyed is a rich tapestry that fosters a deeper understanding of Europe's identity today"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stillatim
Pity the historian who tries to write for people who are not professional historians, for all her options are bad:

i) write in order to sell books to people who want their own prejudices confirmed. See: presidential biographies; new atheist pamphlets; moralistic narratives of war.

ii) write *kind
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of* for non-professional-historians, but in such a way that you will satisfy other professional historians. They also want their prejudices confirmed, but have some *mighty precise* prejudices. See: books about 1-4 under-represented people over 1-5 years; historiographical polemics; narrative-less fact explosions.

iii) write specifically for intelligent non-professional-historians, while knowing that they'll get angry with you when your book isn't a perfect narrative, with themes, that tells them something new about the past rather than something new about the state of historiography.

And if, like any decent person confronting this dilemma, our historian chooses (iii), she must also be aware that she's trying something that's more or less impossible on the level of craft.

Once upon a time, none of this was a problem. History was the craft of creating narratives that explained the past, where "the past" was understood as the Big Events and Personalities and how they developed. So good history could focus on answering questions like "Why did the English Revolution happen when it did?" or "Why was there an industrial revolution?" or "What caused the Reformation?"

Other than people who still write history as if it were half a dozen white men Creating History from their armchairs in Virginia, however, historians realized that historical causation is a very tricky beast. Nobody can possibly believe that there was *a* cause of the English or Industrial or French or American Revolution, or the Reformation. If you're writing a historical monograph, no problem: you just say, hey, this thing here (e.g., the printing industry/rural poverty/collapsing legitimacy) contributed to the French Revolution, too.

But if you're writing for non-historians, you can't do that. What we non-historians want is a broad overview of the events, and some good thoughts on what caused the events.

But professional historians now have to spend much of their time arguing that x can't have been a cause, or even that event y was not, in fact, an event (e.g., the industrial revolution: thing, or not?) And they know the 'causes' are more interesting and important than the 'events' in most ways: a given peasant rebellion might be a cool story, but what really matters is the price of wheat.

And you know what tables describing the changing price of wheat do *not* do? They don't interest non-historians, unless you can put it in a narrative. In other words: writing history for non-historians, while remaining a responsible historian, is nigh impossible. To begin with, you must make sure that you book doesn't privilege events over things like the price of wheat; you must be sure not to "impose" a narrative on events, because that would distort our understanding of the events. At the same time, the intelligent non-historian requires--dare I say it?--some elegance, some entertainment, in her history books. Some unifying characteristic that she can hold onto while wading through the endless examples of migration patterns. Some dash.

Mark Greengrass has done his damnedest to deal with this problem, and he has not solved it. There's an astonishing amount of information in this book, and he is clearly a responsible historian. I'm ready to believe anything he tells me. What I'm not ready for is a text that makes a fairly unobjectionable statement (say, "most armies at time x comprised multiple nationalities and a large number of what we would call mercenaries"), and then follows it up with fifteen examples of this. I don't need the examples; that's for professional historians who need to have these things proved to them.

I'm not ready for a text that, while being so careful to index every statement about early modern Europe* to fifteen facts, is perfectly willing to make wild and ludicrous generalizations about Europe before the sixteenth century.

I'm not ready for a text that includes paragraphs like this:

"[Before the Reformation the] religion of the laity was very different as between the learned and the unlettered. Such differences were recognized in contemporary debates... the concerns of the laity were influenced by and overlapped with those of the clergy.. the evidence for what people believed is as ambiguous as the analytical categories are crude... When the Franciscans began their missionary work in the New World in the sixteenth century, the gulf between their religious experience and that of the Amerindians was immense. The same cannot be said for the distances separating... the laity and the clergy in Europe on the eve of the Reformation."

To sum up: the laity and the clergy had entirely different religious experiences before the Reformation, though we don't know what experiences anyone had, and there really was no difference between the religious experience of the clergy and the laity before the Reformation, at which point there ceased to be any difference between them.

Now, to be fair, I am ready for much of what Greengrass does. He usually writes fairly clearly, except (irony?) when he's writing about communication technologies, at which point he's prone to using phrases like "the organizational and structural means of functioning at a distance deepened." And this is an excellent, responsible attempt to write the kind of book that almost nobody a) can and/or b) cares to write anymore: large scale history that does justice to the complexities of human life without pretending that there is nothing in the world other than individuals making bad decisions.

So I can recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. If you want a good read, of course, there are far better books out there. But they'll all sacrifice some of the nitty gritty to large narratives like "the Reformation," "the thirty years war," and so on.


* Some historians would object to my using this term, because it imposes a unity on such a diverse period and geographical region. To them I say: THAT'S HOW LANGUAGE WORKS YOU IDIOTS. A friend of mine, who actually is an historian, has a different analysis of this: people who refuse 'grand narratives' or 'structures' end up writing books about one person doing one very particular thing. But that person is only interesting if s/he gives us insight into a larger narrative or structure. So...
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LibraryThing member Johannes99
The writing of this book must have been a huge project and you cannot but admire the scholarly level of its analysis. That said it expects too much from the interested layman such as I am. The focus is on the Reformation and the breaking up of Christendom, but there should be so much more to tell.
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The book is more analytical than a narrative of the history in this turbulent and bloody part of Europe's history. The facts are innumerable but they seem often unconnected for the uninitiated and it is quite difficult to follow the story line (if there is any). After reading it I certainly understood a lot of the events that occurred between 1517 and 1648, but it could have been so much more. Compared with Tim Blanning's The pursuit of glory (1648-1815) it doesn't stand the test.
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LibraryThing member EmreSevinc
This is a whirlwind tour of a very tumultuous period of Europe. A period spanning 130 years that started with one of the most famous schisms in Christianity, a period of radical changes in climate, effecting lives of kings and peasants alike.

It's not easy to describe so many important events with
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so many far reaching geographical and temporal effects, while keeping the narrative running smoothly. I have to admit that I found many parts of the book very 'jumpy': jumping from one subject to another, quickly changing themes, sometimes drowning the reader in so many details, names and places only in a few paragraphs. As if this was not enough, in some parts the author hints at the importance of some changes in climate, and then suddenly jumping to another topic without elaborating what he meant regarding climate and geography.

During some sections, I felt like drinking from a firehose, feeling all the weight of so much history pouring on my mind. Not having a very solid foundation in that part of European history, I found myself taking detours, chasing many historical figures and more details about the events in other resources. What made my inquiries more difficult than necessary was the lack of references and footnotes: you read something that really draws your attention, only to realize that its sources is not references. The author, a professional historian, apologizes for that at the end of the book, saying that he had to omit references because this book was series was intended as popular introductions, and not academical texts. I can understand the concerns of its editor and publisher, but still, I'd be happier if there were detailed references to the sources.

Another missing aspect was the economical background: even though the author describes how war efforts were directly affected by the financial situations of kingdoms and dynasties, I couldn't find how the economy of other facets of life in that period affected the shaping of societies.

Nevertheless, I can recommend this book to readers curious about the 16th and 17th centuries of European history. Starting with how the roots of current Europe were shaped by the great differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, it describes many aspects of wars, revolutions and tensions between dynasties, kingdoms and the empire. It will not be an easy read, and you'll have to expand your research to many more different sources, but you'll have a general overview of life in 1500s and the first half of 1600s. This, in turn, will help you better understand some of the political discussions taking place in 2010s.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This book is long and, to be fair, it needs to be in order to cover such an eventful period of history. Starting at the outset of the Protestant Reformation and concluding at the end of the Thirty Years' War, this book is packed with information about daily life, economic history, complex politics,
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scientific advancements, and, of course, the overarching theme of religion. In the introduction, the author put forward the idea that the medieval concept of Christendom was eventual replaced in this era with that of Europe and much of this book ties back to that thesis. It's a good argument, particularly for an era which saw so much religious change and conflict associated with that change, and overall I tended to concur. I also appreciated the efforts to detail political structures and events in eastern Europe, which often are neglected in other histories of this period. Overall, this book was definitely worth the effort and it's very much worthwhile for those interested in this period of European history.
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Physical description

752 p.; 6.25 inches


0670024562 / 9780670024568
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