The Reformation: A History

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Hardcover, 2004



Viking Adult (2004), Edition: 1st Edition, 800 pages


At a time when men and women were prepared to kill-and be killed-for their faith, the Protestant Reformation tore the Western world apart. Acclaimed as the definitive account of these epochal events, Diarmaid MacCulloch's award-winning history brilliantly recreates the religious battles of priests, monarchs, scholars, and politicians-from the zealous Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses to the polemical John Calvin to the radical Igantius Loyola, from the tortured Thomas Cranmer to the ambitious Philip II. Drawing together the many strands of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and ranging widely across Europe and the New World, MacCulloch reveals as never before how these dramatic upheavals affected everyday lives-overturning ideas of love, sex, death, and the supernatural, and shaping the modern age.… (more)

Media reviews

‘Reformation’ is set to become a landmark for academic historians
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In its field it is the best book ever written.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Eat_Read_Knit
A comprehensive - boy, is it comprehensive - analysis of the religious life of Europe spanning two centuries. Just over 700 tightly-packed pages - the remainder comprises notes, bibliography, appendices and a massive index - provide a broadly chronological look at the developments, conflicts,
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politics and social trends of the Reformation. The broad scope necessarily means that the minutiae of war, politics, doctrine and social trend are overlooked, but 75 pages of notes detailing sources and further reading compensate for this.

MacCulloch begins with the an examination of late medieval Catholicism, moves through the early reformers, the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation to the Thirty-Years' War and the English Civil War, and finishes with a thematic examination of topics including church discipline, the concept of a Protestant work-ethic, attitudes to death, celibacy, marriage, homosexuality, the role of women in the church, witch-hunts and anti-Semitism through the Reformation period.

MacCulloch writes with humour, and in an engaging style. He very helpfully cross-references between chapters on a regular basis, making it a little easier for the reader to keep track of who does what where and when. He pulls no punches about the truly ghastly things that people did to one another in the name of Christianity in the period, but generally remains sympathetic to the fact that, however wrong they were, they were often doing what they thought was right.

A seriously excellent history book, providing an introduction for the student and an accessible overview for the non-academic.
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LibraryThing member jddunn
I picked this up because I knew almost nothing about the Reformation, and I felt like I should at least have the basic history straight for events which were so vital to the shaping of the modern world.

And, it mostly covered me for that. He did an excellent job of putting you inside the very alien
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worldviews and socio-cultural arrangements of the time, and illustrating just how revolutionary and sudden a change the Reformation really was. He gave engaging and detailed sketches of most of the main actors involved in the religious, political, and cultural arenas. He covered enough of the intricate theological problems which developed and were fought out, but not so much as to make my eyes glaze over. And he did an excellent job of taking you down to the level of everyday people and looking at how and why they embraced such a sudden change in such a vital part of their existence, and what the consequences were for their way of life going forward.

Where he fell down just a bit was in connecting the ground-level with the elite, and the religious with the political and especially the military. He did a good job on the elites insofar as they related to religion, but the political history was pretty thin. He also certainly covered all of the major conflicts of the time, but they always seemed like something that happened in the background and only flashed into full view at a few crisis points. I came in with a vague idea of how and why the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, and the 30 Years’ War were fought, and left with a not much clearer one.

Of course, any one of those conflicts can and has merited many an extensive history of its own, but I think he could have done a better job of fully describing them and linking them more thoroughly and organically with the political, social, cultural and religious turmoil that caused and sustained them. The 30 Years’ War especially seemed to be elided over. Constraints of space were probably a big concern, as the book still came in at over 700 pages, but I would have rather read another 100 or so and been left with a more complete picture.

Still, pretty minor quibbles for a book that taught me lot about a subject I came in with little background on, and that had plenty of major strengths to outweigh that one notable weakness. Definitely read if you want a solid social, cultural, religious, and basic political history of the Reformation from a modern point of view. If you’re more interested in the military history or in any of the specific conflicts, pick up a more specialized history of the case in question.
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LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Few books will rival Dairmid MacCulloch’s Reformation in terms of scope, scholarship, depth, analysis, or merit. His history of Europe and the Americas from the early 1400’s to the late 1700’s is awe-inspiring. The book is not a straight-forward chronology of event and causes, but rather an
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intricate interweaving of disparate histories. Chapters move from locale to locale, showing how each area’s events had effects on another’s. From Luther and Calvin, through Cranmer and Zwingli, MacCulloch is a deft historian, blending modern-day analysis with centuries old texts. His tome shows how the Reformation and the Protestant movement shaped the world as we know it today. A daunting but excellent book.
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LibraryThing member Mr.Durick
Typically if having read a book I find myself still underinformed, I expect someday in the future to read another book overlapping the same subjects as the first. This book was so dense with fact and so intricate on such an important phase of Western history that I think I may actually reread it.
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Background, process, and consequence are all here tied together with ongoing contingencies traced out. I believe that there is not a single sentence that will not parse. The word 'magisterial' has found its application.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
I found this a difficult read. The topic is vast - two centuries of European history, with side trips the New World, India, China and Japan. The first half of the book is ostensibly a history of the times; the problem is it jumps around geographically and historically to the extent that it's very
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confusing unless you already are well grounded in Eurpean history for the 16th and 17th centuries. There's also something about the writing style that I couldn't quite put my finger on but that made things hard to follow. And although the period is populated by fascinating characters - Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Erasmus, Cramer, Xavier, Borromeo - none of them gets a linear biography - you find out a little about Calvin in one chapter, then a little more in the next, and so on.

That being said, this is fascinating stuff. There are all sorts of little quirks and details - I never realized that the transylvanians were Lutherans, or that "effeminate" once described men who were thought to be excessively interested in heterosexual sex.

Several things come through to me:

One is that we have a tendency to think of cultures temporally separated from ours, especially cultures of our ancestral heritage, as "people just like us"; perhaps not having the benefits of automobiles, television, People magazine and Starbucks, but nevertheless people that we could easily relate to assuming there were no language barriers. Historical novels always seem to take this as a given, with 12th Century Scots inevitably behaving like Manhattan yuppies in tartans. In fact, this is a "given" in the modern liberal outlook (I mean "liberal" in the classic sense here, not the modern political sense): that our ancestors would cheerfully embrace the virtues of democracy, religious tolerance, women's rights and free market economics if only they were exposed to them. I admit I am as prone to this belief as the next guy; it just seems "right" somehow; something every intelligent person should see, regardless of when or where they live. It becomes apparent, instead, that if I had time-travelled back to visit my distant ancestors in Reformation Germany and tried to explain things to them, I most likely would have been burned alive. If thus for our own culture across time, why not for different cultures across space? It does not bode well for the situation in the Middle East.

A second result is the reinforcement of something I already knew - there have been and are now a lot of people who take religion very seriously indeed. A lot of my liberal friends (now I'm using "liberal" in the modern sense) just "don't get" faith and its implications. Yet the most characturized fundamentalist Bible-thumper of modern editorial cartoons is nothing compared to people of the Reformation, who were quite willing to kill their neighbors over whether or not they had communion rails in their church. I willing to bet if you asked the average American what happened during "the Reformation", they would say there was a liberalization of religious attitudes (assuming they even knew what the "Reformation" was, since modern schools can't teach anything, history or otherwise, that has anything to do with religion). The actuality was, of course, the reverse - 200 years of religious warfare. Modern liberals tend to see religious belief as just another political/economic choice - something that is easily negotiable to accomodate current politics. And if the faithful refuse to negotiate, that just indicates stubborness or ignorance or ill-will on their part. I'm not sure whether religious education - I don't mean education in a religion, but education about religions - would help here - I fear it would be counterproductive, by reinforcing prejudice against religion in the same people whose self image is based on their belief that they are fighting religious prejudice.

I also find a disturbing sense of deja vu. A lot of politics in the 16th and 17th century was based on the expectation that these were the Last Days - the world had been more or less stable for so long, now it was turning upside down - what else could that mean but the imminent Apocalypse? Well, religious people who feel the Apocalypse is upon us are still around, but we now have the phenomenon of the non- and anit-religious also becomming Apocalyptic. What else are the writings of Paul Ehrlich and the rest of the doomsday environmentalists but the preachings of Apocalyptic prophets? When earthquakes and two-headed calves and unusually weather were once looked on as signs of the disfavor of God, they are now seen as the result of global warming and environmental pollution. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

The final unsettling similarity between now and then is the use of terrorism. Terrorists then were just as suicidal as they are now - Henri III, Henri IV, and Willem III were all done in by suicidal assassins, for religious reasons. It's true that terrorists then had a little less in the way of technology - carriage bombs never caught on. But Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot is not all that different from the London bombings and the St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre is not that different from what went on in Bosnia or Rwanda and what's going on in Darfur and Baghdad.

Thus, I'd say it's worth a read = maybe 3.5 to 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member billiecat
Not only an excellent one-volume history of a confused and confusing time, but also a necessary book for anyone who wants to understand Christianity today by understanding where it came from. MacCulloch's examination of the period from just before Martin Luther until the entry of protestantism (and
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Calvinism) into the Americas explains not only the politics but the beliefs that fueled the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the Thirty Years War, and the rise of Anglicanism. After reading this book, I have a better understanding of Protestant doctrines and how they are different from Catholicism, how they are the same, and why the schism occurred. I expect few who espouse those beliefs have examined them as well as MacCulloch, and the effect is enlightening.
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LibraryThing member Pianojazz
Superb one-volume history of the Reformation, including masterful chapters on the English Reformation. MacCulloch is well informed of recent theories of Cathlolic/Protestant history, particularly those of Eamon Duffy in his important work, "The Stripping of the Altars." MacCulloch gives short
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shrift to the 30 Years War and to the political and legal developments both preceding and following that War. But this is not a military history; it is a history of ideas, and on that sole basis the book succeeds admirably!
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LibraryThing member charlie68
Good if rather over long read into the Reformation and being a Christian made for a lot of introspection. All the major players are here Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, pretty comprehensive look at this era. A little to comprehensive perhaps some of the book could of been left out for the sake of
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LibraryThing member daniel.links
I've given it five stars. It deserves them but it is not a quick read. It is one of those history books that is packed with information, and no matter how well it is passed on to you the sheer weight of it will slow you down. Despite a module at undergraduate that was nominally on "European History
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1500-1800", much of this was new to me, which may say more about my commitment as an undergraduate than the book of course.
This book does exactly what it says and covers the international and internal politics and wars of the major European states, the ins and outs of theological disputes (which left my head spinning far more than the politics) and also social change (ranging from witches to sex to commerce).
Some of the author's odd quirks - the "British Isles" are the "Atlantic Isles" throughout - could have seemed gimmicky but actually meant that you ended up challenging the lazy match of present attitudes to the past (and indeed whether such attitudes aren't pretty problematic in the present as well).
The other point of contemporary relevance is pretty simple - whenever anyone says "Western Europe had the reformation and counter-reformation, and this is why we are modern and enlightened etc etc etc", remember that even if this seems true in hindsight (which I am not entirely sure I accept) it is only true in the very long run. The reformation was chaotic and the most partisan states and individuals were true fanatics. In challenging (as just one example) the myths of English moderation as opposed to the excesses of the Spanish inquisition this is an even-handed and eye-opening book as well.
It gives great insight into a formative period in European (and world) history and as an absolute surprise find was one of the best buys of this year.
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LibraryThing member SCRH
This large book (792 pages) is divided into three main parts. Part one (“A Common Culture”) covers the years 1490-1570 and discusses the people, places, politics, and issues the lead to a “reformed” church. Part two (“Europe Divided”) covers the years 1570-1700) and describes the nature
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of the reformed church in the various sections of Europe and the Americas. Part three (“Patterns of Life”) discusses ways in which the reformed church impacted the concept of “church” and how it and society impacted each other.

An “Appendix of Texts” contains the Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments, and the Angelic Salutation (The Hail Mary).

A topical bibliography is included. The index is good and takes up 42 pages.

The book is written for a college-level audience, and for me, was not an easy read, as much of the material was my first detailed exposure to it.

Several pages of plates and sketches (all black and white) enhance the book.

I found the book to be helpful in my understanding of the Reformation and as such, made me appreciate the foundation laid by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others upon which leaders of my Stone-Campbell religious heritage leaders were able to build. I expect that I will return to the book from time to time as a reference source.
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LibraryThing member patito-de-hule
The scope of this book includes background to the reformation the reformation and "second reformation" on up through the 17th century. It explains clearly the theological aspects as well as the political ramifications. I found it amazing how much information was covered here in only 700 pages.
LibraryThing member mms
Comprehensive histore of the religious reformation in europe - Jewish and Christian.
LibraryThing member neurodrew
An excellent narrative history of the reformation and counter-reformation years of 1500 to 1700 in Europe, this 650 page volume reads very easily. The author is very expert in the various doctrinal controversies that are the basis for the reformation, but does not neglect the human stories and
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historical curiosities and accidents. I learned a vast amount about the various sects, and about the history of Hapsburg lands, Poland, Transylvania and France. England's peculiar protestantism with its tinge of Catholicism is very well explicated as well. It took many days to read this, but it was enjoyable and absorbing.
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LibraryThing member mattmcg
This book was favorably reviewed by many journals. I found the first few chapters rife with errors of both fact and judgment. Burn him at the stake!
LibraryThing member Angelic55blonde
This is a long and dense book so if you are looking for something to casually read about the Reformation, this is not the book for you. The author does a superb job in researching this topic and goes into immense detail. However, reading that much detail does get tedious after awhile. I would only
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recommend this book to someone who seriously wants to learn more about the Reformation and everything that went into it.
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LibraryThing member FKarr
stunning; detailed, clear; gives excellent background to the Reformation's major issues; well balanced treatment of individuals and larger forces; more focused on religious than political figures
LibraryThing member jontseng
A good blend of narrative history and theological nuance.
LibraryThing member BruceAir
Too often journalists and pundits bat about accepted "truths" concerning religion, especially following major events like the death of a pontiff. Today's so-called moral values revolution in the U.S. also depends in large part on hopelessly muddled history. MacCulloch's book is a thorough,
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reasoned, meticulously assembled story of what he calls the Reformations (plural) that rumbled through Europe.
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LibraryThing member baggas
Excellent story of this critical period in Western history. MacCulloch makes his topic very interesting, and tries to link various strands in the tale, though this results in him jumping back and forth in time and across borders, which can get a little confusing for the casual reader trying to
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remember who's who. Overall though, a big but rewarding book.
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LibraryThing member kranbollin
A superb book on an extremely complex topic, I've read it twice now and enjoyed it even more second time. The author is especially good at explaining seemingly arcane religious issues over which people were willing to kill each other. He is also very good at describing how religion and politics, a
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truly lethal brew, sometimes became inextricably mixed. Get it now!
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LibraryThing member zen_923
After finally finishing this book, I was really tempted to give this only a 1 star or 2star. This is because this book is clogged with too much information and written in such a dry manner as to make it very difficult to read. However, i did learn something from this book and although i was only
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interested in the political, military and diplomatic history of the reformation, this book gave me so much more. It would painstakingly explain to the reader everything about the history of the reformation, including cultural history, social history and all the religious doctrines that originated from the reformation. This makes it a complete history and would have been the best book on the subject had it not been for the way it was written and organized.
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LibraryThing member dhmontgomery
A thorough and readable history of the Protestant Reformation, both of the events and people but also, crucially, of the ideas. One will come out of this book knowing not just who Martin Luther and John Calvin were and what they did, but what beliefs animated them and fueled the tumultuous two
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centuries of conflict where men burned other men over disagreements about the manner in which bread was turned into wine during the Holy Eucharist. A long read, but accessible.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

800 p.; 6.44 inches


0670032964 / 9780670032969
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