Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Carlos Eire, 2016)

A necessary, perilous venture
I ordered Carlos Eire’s new book because I am entranced with his earlier one, Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003). Still, Waiting for Snow is a memoir and this new one is a history. And the first is of modest length (387 pages) while the new one is of… well… I don’t want to use the word immodest but including notes and such it tops out at 893 pages. Still, I trusted Eire to write lively, compelling prose and so I assumed the length would not matter. His new book is Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 and I recommend it to you. Hugely. And no, it is not too long.

The reason for the “s” at the end of Reformations is that although Protestants are keen to say there was one movement of reform—the Protestant Reformation—Eire argues there were actually numerous movements to reform the church in the 16th century. This is Eire’s area of scholarly expertise—he teaches history and religious studies at Yale—and if he lectures like he writes his classes must be wonderful. Though carefully researched, Reformations is written not for scholars but for ordinary people who want to understand how the efforts to reform the church lurched the Western world from the medieval into the modern era.

Dr. Eire is one of those rare, gifted historians—like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ron Chernow—whose books of history read as effortlessly as a well-crafted novel. If you doubt that you must have not read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Goodwin and Alexander Hamilton by Chernow—please do so. Captivating prose, richly textured descriptions, lively, well told stories, a passionate commitment to truth, and clear explanations free of technical jargon animate Reformations throughout, and kept me not just reading, but fascinated. No, it is not too long; when I reached the final page I wished for more.

As the book’s subtitle says, Reformations tells the story of two centuries—1450-1650—so readers can see what led up to the great spasm of reform with the birth of Protestantism and what flowed out as a result. The process of reform was not purely a religious exercise involving theological debate about doctrine and ecclesiastical practice between professors and clerics. It involved that, certainly but in medieval Europe there was no sharp division between religious commitments on the one hand, and political, economic and social concerns on the other. Eire allows us a glimpse of medieval piety, church teaching and preaching, scholarly discussions, and the social, political, economic and religious concerns that ordinary Christians experienced in the years leading up to Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Corruption was rife in the church and in society, reform was needed, but that was such common knowledge that few disputed it. What no one anticipated was that the effort to reform the church would be so unsettling, or that it would set in motion forces that would transform the Western world from a culture of religious belief to one of secular disbelief.

And it is true that the 16th century not only launched Protestantism but also loosed a deadly flood of skepticism that still characterizes our world. I know of no other description of this historical process that is told with such compelling clarity as Eire provides here. This alone is worth the price—and the length—of the book. I am convinced the Protestant Reformation was necessary, but it was a perilous affair, and it’s unfolding included numerous unfortunate choices, made with the best of intentions but that still yielded very tragic consequences.

The slide from the fragmentation of the church into greater and greater skepticism was partly a matter of ideas. The Protestant reformers argued that the Bible, not the church, was the final authority. Yet these same reformers could not agree on what the Bible taught on doctrines as important as the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist, the two central sacraments of the church. And this disagreement was a very public one, waged in ways that everyone could see, resulting in very public church splits, vigorous expressions of condemnation, and as political powers got involved, violence. Serious thinkers in society wondered why, if the church was corrupt and the Bible was unclear, either could be trusted as final authorities on truth and goodness. Should we not instead begin afresh, doubt everything claimed by every authority, and use reason and careful experimentation to discover truth free of religious dogma? Catholics persecuted Protestants and Protestants returned the favor. Religion, it seemed, could even be dangerous.

Life is messy, and changing ideas led to changes in practice, and sometimes those changes brought unintended consequences. One example Eire explores involves something called confraternities. These were volunteer organizations of a charitable, religious nature that were very popular in Catholic Europe and strongly encouraged by the church in the medieval period. Involvement in such groups not only met social needs among the poor and needy but was seen as a way to merit the grace of God for salvation.

When King Philip II of Spain attempted to turn over some of the philanthropic activities of confraternities to civil authorities, and to fund them through taxes instead, the confraternities rose in protest and made him abandon that plan. Their chief complaint was a ringing affirmation of Tridentine Catholic teaching: if works of mercy were to be taken from the hands of the laity and turned over to government officials, and if all voluntary almsgiving were replaced with mandatory taxes, how were the faithful to earn their salvation?” [p. 410]

If you believe the Protestant understanding of salvation as a free gift of grace, you’ll guess correctly that the reformers were unenthusiastic about confraternities. But, as Eire explains, suppressing them for good theological reasons opened the door to greater secularization in society.

Confraternities had been around for centuries, and they had played an increasingly important role in religious and civic life in the late Middle Ages. Their functions were as varied as the needs of any community, and as much of an intermingling of material and spiritual concerns as one might expect from a culture that so closely linked the natural and supernatural. Confraternities were deeply involved not just in specific devotions, such as the use of the prayer beads of the rosary, or the adoration of the Eucharist, or the celebration of certain feasts, but also in charitable and philanthropic activities, such as the running of hospitals, almshouses, orphanages, and rehabilitation centers for former prostitutes. Wherever Protestants disbanded confraternities, they did much more than extinguish all sorts of rituals and public celebrations; they also wiped out much of the local charitable infrastructure, which they then redesigned and placed in the hands of civil authorities, to be funded by compulsory taxes rather than by voluntary acts of charity. [p. 409]

So, more of life was transferred from church to state, from being a religious enterprise to being a civil one, from being a spiritual practice to a secular action. I can understand why this choice was made, but I can also understand why it fueled the doubts of skeptics. Deeply religious people institute a good, necessary social change, and inadvertently religion is seen as less necessary for the health of society than previously thought. It’s called the law of unintended consequences.

It is refreshing for me, a Protestant, to read this history by a thoughtful Catholic scholar. I am not suggesting by this that Reformations is sectarian or biased for it is not. Eire is too good a scholar for that. (I assume he would be capable of writing a book on the same period as a Catholic apologist if he desired—and I would eagerly read it. But that is not Reformations.) I’m referring to the fact, rather, that he is careful to tell the Catholic side of the story, and in doing so I learned a great deal. There were many who remained in the Roman Church who worked hard and faithfully for reform, even at great cost, and were motivated by a deep love of Christ. It turns out that not only did the Protestants disagree with one another, not all thoughtful believers eager for reform found their actions and arguments convincing or compelling.

Eire also helpfully corrects some commonly held Protestant assumptions. One example involves the nature and extent of the Spanish Inquisition.

For centuries, thanks largely to sensational Protestant accounts, the Spanish Inquisition had a reputation as a bloodthirsty killing machine, with some estimates assigning tens of thousands of executions to it. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, research in the late twentieth century revealed just the opposite to be true, especially of the period that coincides with the so-called confessional age. The figures shocked the scholarly world, turning long-held assumptions on their head: as it turns out, between 1547 and 1700 the Spanish Inquisition executed 826 people, or only 1.8 percent of the total number processed by its tribunals. Equally surprising, it also burned 778 effigies during that same span of time, which means that almost as many people escaped its clutches as were actually killed by it. Moreover, when the methods of the Inquisition began to be compared to those of secular courts throughout Spain and Europe, scholars were equally surprised to discover that the dreaded Inquisition was far kinder to its prisoners than its secular counterparts. Cases were discovered of prisoners under civil jurisdiction who did everything they could to be transferred to the Inquisition, including blaspheming on purpose, or spouting heretical propositions. If nothing else, these discoveries have shown us that long-held assumptions should always be questioned. All the same, however, there is no denying that the Spanish Inquisition, despite its newly discovered relative leniency, was a fearsome agent of social disciplining that few in its day would have seen as kind and merciful. [p. 614]

On the other hand, I would say that Eire does not place sufficient emphasis on the fact that the Protestant reformers were attempting to reclaim a gospel that had been lost by a church that had moved away from scripture. Medieval Catholic theology had elevated penance and the need to merit grace to such an extent that the truth of justification as a free gift of grace, as taught by the apostles and St Augustine had receded into the background. He also seems at times to emphasize the differences between the Protestants more than the core convictions that bound them together.

The turmoil of the 16th century forever changed our world. It is a legacy that brings both blessing and curse, which means that we bear a serious responsibility. The church is horribly fragmented, but our Lord emphatically calls his people to unity. “The glory that you have given me,” Jesus prayed just before his death, “I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23). In this we have failed miserably and are failing, and it is not a little thing. According to our Lord, the world has reason to disbelieve until it is set right. It is not surprising, then, that we live in a culture where skepticism and secularism are advanced beyond anything anyone in the 16th century would have imagined possible.

We are in a very different world from the one in which the reformers lived, and yet it seems self-evident that reformation is necessary, again. Reformations can help us learn from the past in order to be more faithful today.


Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2016) 757 pages + notes +bibliography + indices.