Contesting the Past

The volumes in this series select some of the most controversial episodes in history and consider their divergent, even starkly incompatible representations. The aim is not merely to demonstrate that history is “argument without end,” but to show that study even of contradictory conceptions can be fruitful: that the jettisoning of one thesis or presentation leaves behind something of value.


Contesting the Crusades
Norman Housley

Contesting the German Empire 1871–1918

Matthew Jefferies

Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War
Gary R. Hess

Contesting the French Revolution
Paul Hanson

The Israel–Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories
Neil Caplan

Contesting the Renaissance
William Caferro

Contesting the Reformation
C. Scott Dixon

List of Abbreviations

ARGArchiv für Reformationsgeschichte
CCPhilip Benedict, Christ’s Churches, Purely Reformed (New Haven, 2002)
CRWRonnie Po-chia Hsia (ed.), A Companion to the Reformation World (Oxford, 2004)
EREuan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford, 1991)
GdRThomas Kaufmann, Geschichte der Reformation (Frankfurt am Main, 2009)
GRC. Scott Dixon (ed.), The German Reformation (Oxford, 1999)
HEHThomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy (eds.), Handbook of European History 1400–1600 (Leiden, 1996), 2 vols.
RCEMEKaspar von Greyerz, Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 2008)
REMEDavid Whitford (ed.), Reformation and Early Modern Europe: a Guide to Research (Kirksville, 2008) RHT A. G. Dickens and John M. Tonkin, The Reformation in Historical Thought (Oxford, 1985)
RkZStefan Ehrenpreis and Ute Lotz-Heumann, Reformation und konfessionelles Zeitalter (Darmstadt, 2002)
RWAndrew Pettegree (ed.), The Reformation World (London, 2000)
TERAlec Ryrie (ed.), The European Reformations (Basingstoke, 2006)



It was in this small town that the Elector Friedrich founded a university, which has since become known to all the world. And it was in this university that the doctors began to sharpen their wits in matters of Holy Writ; they rejected the glossings and musings of interpreters and took the biblical writings to hand, preaching and writing thereof. However, there soon arose a great tumult between them and those who did not follow their religion. The abuses of several popes and bishops had contributed significantly to the rise of this unrest. The originator of this reformed religion was Martin Luther, a doctor of Holy Scripture, who converted many to his opinions, learned and unlearned, princes and kings, bishops, priests, and monks. However the others, who are greater in number, hold fast to their glossings and musings and ingrained traditions, and out of this, discord has arisen, much blood has been shed, and many books have been written, and indeed on both sides.

The quotation above appears under the entry for Wittenberg in the Cosmographia (1544) of Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), one of the most influential historical works of the early modern period. Münster’s description is reminiscent of the short, sharp prose of a German fairy tale, replete with heroes, villains, battles, and wonder-working words. It even ends in blood. Yet Münster is not recounting a myth but the historical origins of the Reformation, and while it lacks the depth and breadth of analysis that we have come to associate with the modern discipline of history, in its essentials it is not far removed from the narrative of Reformation history that has shaped the perception of these events up to and including the early decades of the twentieth century. In one form or another, this story has been told countless times.

In the traditional account, the Reformation is thought to have originated with Martin Luther’s act of heroic individualism – or more precisely, his two acts, the first being the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (traditionally dated to October 31, 1517) and the more dramatic public declaration at Worms in April 1521 when, before Emperor Charles V and assembled Estates of the Holy Roman Empire, he famously refused to renounce what he had written to that point because it would have contradicted the testimony of Scripture. And his conscience, he declared, was bound to Scripture. Not surprisingly, this speech, ending in his final words “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen,” has since become a defining moment in histories of the modern age. According to the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), for instance, “The Diet of Worms, Luther’s appearance there on the 17th of April 1521, may be considered as the greatest scene in Modern European History; the point, indeed, from which the whole subsequent history of civilization takes its rise.” But the drama did not end there. Having stood fast before the emperor, the German princes, and the papal authorities, Luther returned to Wittenberg and, in a flood of sermons and publications, as Münster wrote, “converted many to his opinions, learned and unlearned, princes and kings, bishops, priests, and monks,” and thereby laid the foundations for the rise of the Reformation. However, as Münster also noted, Luther’s reform initiatives soon faced opposition “greater in number” who condemned the teachings of Wittenberg and rallied in defense of the Catholic church. This division set the stage for the confessional age. “And out of this, discord has arisen, much blood has been shed, and many books have been written, and indeed on both sides.”

Until well into the mid twentieth century, histories of the Reformation that took in the European dimensions of the movement generally followed this plotline. Reformation history originates with Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg and then reaches out to the rest of Europe, where it was then formed and fitted by historical circumstance to become a series of autochthonous (that is, self-contained and self-sufficient) but ultimately derivative, reformation movements. To cite the words of the Göttingen church historian Bernd Moeller, one of the practitioners who has done the most to displace this approach, “to caricature the common description, Luther generally appears as a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left.”

Moeller made this comment in a seminal article published in 1965, but things have changed quite a bit since then. Reformation historians no longer privilege Luther or the German Reformation in this way. Granted, accounts of origins still give pride of place to the events surrounding the Luther Affair. Philip Benedict, for instance, author of the definitive modern social history of the Reformed tradition, associates the “magnificent anarchy” of the early Reformation with the historical energies released after the Leipzig Debate of 1519, where Luther squared off against the Catholic controversialist Johannes Eck (1486–1543), and the Diet of Worms in 1521, both of which “galvanized intensifying aspirations for a reform of Christendom and inspired a tidal wave of treatises, broadsides, and sermons urging the rejection of the authority of Rome and a return to the purity of the Gospel.” The story, Benedict concedes, “begins in Wittenberg.” But Luther as sage and Wittenberg as Jerusalem is no longer considered sufficient as an overarching paradigm, neither with reference to the ideas that shaped the movement nor with reference to the historical dynamic at its core. On the contrary, the central concern of more recent scholarship is to find the proper place for the Wittenberg story within a more expansive and, historically speaking, more accurate narrative of the Reformation as a mid-century movement that had (at least) a triangular sphere of radiation – that is, the area that takes in Zurich and Geneva as well as Wittenberg, not to mention the lesser points on the compass such as Strasbourg, Emden, or London. As a consequence, Luther and Wittenberg have had to give way to a more complex panorama, the result being that historians are now working to piece together a narrative that can accommodate the different trajectories and still provide a unified account of events. As Heiko Oberman urged, “the European phase of the Reformation, for most of Europe the first Reformation, will have to be brought to the centre of a truly grand narrative with a radical marginalizing of German political, cultural, and theological sentiment.”

Of course, revisionist history brings problems of its own, for while it is certainly correct to downplay the role of Luther as the author and architect of a movement so deeply rooted in the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the social, political, and cultural world of its day, it has made it even more difficult for scholars to come up with frameworks that satisfactorily comprehend the movement as a whole. If not Luther, his heroic actions, and his inspired theology, then how do we piece together a meaningful picture of the Reformation?

For better or worse, there has been no shortage of scholars with alternative suggestions. The literature on the European Reformation is legion. No more than a quick glance at the annual survey in the specialist journal Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte is needed in order to see how broad historiographical horizons have become. And while historiographical trends have waxed and waned, knowledge has mounted and become ever more specialist, and new methods, technologies, and preoccupations have transformed our perspective of the past and raised issues that had not occurred to former generations. It has now reached the stage, as Andrew Pettegree has remarked, that “geographically and thematically, it is almost impossible for one individual scholar to do it justice.” And the problem is not just the sheer weight of publications but the historiographical diversity. These days historians do not approach the movement in the manner of the scholars who preceded Moeller, that is in terms of a linear narrative anchored in political and religious turning points. Rather, they tend to cultivate particular fields or sub-fields of the Reformation, fenced off according to methodological, ideological, geographical, or thematic distinctions, where it becomes possible to raise rudimentary questions about the movement as a whole while working within historical or historiographical settings that can be managed by a lone researcher surrounded by secondary texts and caches of archival materials.

This is not to suggest that the modern approach is less ambitious or more modest in its claims. Peter Marshall can still open a recent short survey with the assertion that “The Reformation created modern Europe, and left an indelible mark on the history of the world,” but historians such as Marshall are now more aware that Reformation history tells an ambiguous story, that there is as much regress as progress, as much medieval as modern, and that it is a phenomenon that cannot be satisfactorily captured in a single narrative stream. The grand claims might still be made, and Marshall recounts some of most notable: “Modern individualism has its origins in the unfettered bible-reading the Reformation encouraged; modern capitalism in the industriousness and initiative of Protestant merchants; and modern science in the refusal of deference to ancient authorities. New and potentially liberalizing forms of political organization emerged from the revolt against Rome.” Alongside theories such as these, however, which have been keenly cultivated by historians searching for the origins of the modern western world, there are a like number of theories that seek to demonstrate the opposite, namely how the Reformation placed new fetters on the early modern mind, added little or nothing (aside from guilt) to an economic world that was experiencing the fruits of its late-medieval momentum, turned thoughts away from the raw truths of the natural world and bound them up in physico-theologies, and gave rise to a new type of confessional politics, which at its most transparent was little more than a species of theocracy. And this is just to mention the work that still sets out to tackle “the big questions.” The vast majority of research is made up of smaller, more specialized concerns, though no less crucial for an understanding of the whole.

The aim of Contesting the Reformation is to provide the reader with an overview of this literature from the standpoint of the historians who have contributed to the debates. Necessarily, some sort of order has been imposed on the analysis; necessarily, as well, the themes that have been chosen reflect my own sense of what is important. No doubt a theologian or a church historian would have structured the book differently. But I have tried to situate the works in the proper place and let the authors speak for themselves. Where I have imposed myself, however, in so far as it falls within the reach of my own competence, is in my efforts to get them to speak to each other. For although it is out of keeping with the historical phenomenon they study, many Reformation specialists tend to work within distinct national and linguistic parameters. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from realistic assessments about how best to write lasting works of history to the appeal of established traditions and associated convictions about the singularity of national characteristics. And there is the rather more straightforward reluctance to branch out beyond the familiar. As one scholar has noted, the global dominance of the English language “has ensured a plentiful supply of anglophone historians who find learning languages tiresome and who therefore choose to work on British material.” Of course, there are scholars who move between the communities, but in general, in view of the international complexion of the phenomenon itself, the dialogue is fairly limited. Similarly, while some books of importance have assumed an international standing, for the most part each community has its own set of standard works and its own fields and subfields of research. One of the aims of Contesting the Reformation is to gather together some of these related works in order to give the reader a sense of how similar themes have been addressed by different scholarly traditions – or, to be more precise, by the Western European traditions, English, German, Swiss, French, and Dutch. Much of this analysis has been relegated to the endnotes, but I have tried to fit it into the main text when space allows.

Finally, a few words about the selection of literature. A comprehensive survey of Reformation historiography would not be feasible in a book of this size. Nor would it be of much benefit to squeeze in as many references as possible in the body of the text, as this would disrupt the flow of analysis. Moreover, given that only a sentence or two could be spared for each book, it would not really amount to much more than an extended bibliography. Thus, instead of crowding the paragraphs with authors and texts, Contesting the Reformation highlights a selection of exemplary books and arguments in order to demonstrate how historians have wrestled with the issues at the heart of the discipline. Related works are then cited in the endnotes, and there is a bibliography of core texts divided by chapter at the end of the book. Necessarily, the analysis privileges English-language texts. This is somewhat misleading given the preponderance of literature from mainland Europe, but as the aim is to provide English-language readers with a sense of the field and, hopefully, to encourage them to follow up some of the debates, it makes the most sense to cite those books that are the most readily accessible. On those occasions when important Continental works are cited or discussed, I have tried to make reference to an associated body of English literature where the themes can be chased up.


Translation mine.

See the discussion in Robert Scribner and C. Scott Dixon, The German Reformation (Basingstoke, 2003)2, 1– 5.

Thomas Carlyle’s Collected Works (London, 1896), xii, 158. Like many of the defining moments in Luther’s personal history, these words are a later interpolation, having been scribbled on the margin of the imperial recess by a sixteenth-century hand.

Bernd Moeller (trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards Jr.), Imperial Cities and the Reformation (Durham, NC, 1982), 13; first appeared as “Probleme der Reformationsgeschichtsforschung,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, 14 (1965), 246–57; Moeller’s articles have been gathered together in Bernd Moeller, Luther-Rezeption (Göttingen, 2001); Bernd Moeller, Die Reformation und das Mittelalter (Göttingen, 1991).

CC, 1, 15.

On the importance of London for the English Reformation, see Susan Brigden, London and the Reformation (Oxford, 1991).

Heiko A. Oberman, The Two Reformations (New Haven, 2003), 20; for a grand narrative along these lines, see now Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490–1700 (London, 2002).

Andrew Pettegree, “Introduction: the Changing Face of Reformation History,” in RW, 5.

Peter Marshall, The Reformation (Oxford, 2009), 1, 2.

For a recent rethinking of traditional narratives, see Lee Palmer Wandel, The Reformation: Towards a New History (Cambridge, 2011).

Alec Ryrie, “Britain and Ireland,” in TER, 124. Historians of the English Reformation now regularly refer to what Diarmaid MacCulloch has termed “the complacent insularity that has particularly afflicted the historiography of the Church of England” (Reformation, xxiv) and there is growing interest in, and awareness of, Continental scholarship. Recent attempts at historiographical dialogue include Dorothea Wendebourg (ed.), Sister Reformations (Tübingen, 2010); Polly Ha and Patrick Collinson (ed.), The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain (Oxford, 2010).

For those readers interested in how features of the historiographical traditions discussed in this book might be tied together into a synthetic narrative, my own recent work is one such attempt. See C. Scott Dixon, Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania, 1517–1740 (Oxford, 2010).


Defining the Reformation


One measure of a historical event is the language used to describe it, and this holds true for the Reformation. When the reform movements in Germany and Switzerland first captured the attention of the people of Europe, they were not perceived as complementary parts of an orchestrated movement to reform the church. Contemporaries spoke of Martin Luther (1483–1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), and the other early evangelicals as men who preached a message of reform, but by this they meant reform in the sense of the Latin cognate reformatio common to the late medieval age. It referred universally to a need to effect a former or better state, but it was directed at specific concerns. Scholars called for the reform of academia, natural philosophers called for the reform of the sciences, jurists called for the reform of the law, and a growing mass of public agitators, some dangerously low on the social scale, called for the reform of political relations. Reformatio was applied to religious affairs as well, and often in one of two ways: either as an appeal to a former state of religious purity or as a vision of brief improvement before the Last Days. Clerics preached the need for a restoration of the apostolic faith, religious orders appealed for a return to the original ideals of poverty, purity, and a stricter rule, while humanists railed against the complexities of scholasticism and underscored the need to return to the alleged clarity and purity of early Christianity. The prominent Strasbourg preacher Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445–1510) even spoke of the need for a “general reformation in Christendom”; but having concluded that this was unlikely in his own day, he advised Christians to reform their own corners of the world instead. All of these examples make the same point, namely that the appeal to reform or reformation was a commonplace generations before Luther or Zwingli began preaching. Indeed, as Gerald Strauss has remarked, “without this work of preparation, and in the absence of this climate of urgency, it is difficult to imagine that the events beginning in Wittenberg in 1517 could have followed the course that shaped them into The Reformation.”

But the late-medieval usage of reformatio was not the sense of the term that emerged in the sixteenth century, and that is because the concept took on new meaning once the Protestant reform movements became lasting historical phenomena. It remained a loaded term, for it was replete with the medieval connotations, from the desire to amend, restore, improve, or renew specific features of the secular or spiritual world to the more ambitious late-medieval plea for the reform of ecclesiastical life in head and members (reformatio ecclesiae in capite et in membris). But around mid-century it became the common property of the evangelicals, with the result that all of these meanings and all of this history converged in a single concept. As early as the Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), Luther announced he had “made a reformation which will make the popes’ ears ring and hearts burst.” Luther used it in the traditional sense of amendment or improvement, but his followers picked up on the term and stretched its meaning to include the other connotations of reformatio as well. By the final decades of the sixteenth century, it was common for vernacular historians to refer to the Luther Affair as “the Reformation.” This event, they proclaimed, fulfilled the demands for reform voiced and disseminated in the medieval period. Even Catholics spoke of Luther’s “so-called Reformation” in their first accounts of events. Indeed, in their tendency to invert the term and speak of “deformation” we can get a good sense of its place in the lexicon.

Thus by the seventeenth century, “the Reformation” was fast becoming a fixed historiographical concept. However, it had also started taking on confessionally specific overtones. For Lutherans, it could only mean one thing, namely the movement that began in Wittenberg with the posting of the theses. In 1617, the year of the centennial, jubilee sermons described the history of Luther’s struggle against the papacy as “the Reformation.” Later in the century the influential German historian Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1626–1692) legitimated this association by treating the Reformation as a distinct phenomenon with a beginning, an end (Luther’s death in 1546), and a fixed place in European history. When Seckendorff spoke of the Reformation he meant the history of Lutheranism, and this became the dominant paradigm in the German lands. By the start of the eighteenth century, as historians started to comb through the archives and gather together the unpublished manuscripts of sixteenth-century Saxon chroniclers, they did not hesitate to name their collections histories or annals of “the Reformation.”

But Lutherans were not the only Protestants with claims to the title. Followers of the Zwinglian and Calvinist traditions – collectively known as the Reformed – also thought of their history as being part of “the Reformation,” if not the Reformation. In the opinion of Abraham Scultetus (1566–1624), for instance, the Heidelberg theologian, the Reformation began with Zwingli’s sermons in Glarus in 1517, for that was when the notes of Reformed Protestantism were first sounded, independent of the Wittenberg school. Other Reformed theologians and historians thought along the same lines, from Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, to the French divine and historian Jacques Basnages de Beauval (1653–1723), who simply declared in his History of the Religion of the Reformed Churches (1721) that “Zwingli was the first reformer” due to the fact that he was preaching against Roman abuses as early as 1516. Of course, this was far from the final word from either camp. Protestants in Europe and beyond continued to contest the meaning and application of the word. But one thing had been established at this stage, evident in the work of both Seckendorff and Beauval, and that was the usage of the word Reformation to delineate the ideas and events associated with the churches that renounced Catholicism in the sixteenth century.

As we will see in a subsequent discussion on the writing of Reformation history, the complexity did not decrease over the years, nor did the difficulties facing historians who aspired to capture the full spectrum by way of a single heading. The challenge at present is not to open up the meaning of the term but rather how to delineate it in such a way that the essence of its historical “being” can be treated with sufficient depth and meaning within the compass of a single word or phrase. “The Reformation” is simply too broad and ungainly for some types of analysis, and it does not really capture the diversity of inbuilt contemporary meanings either. As Euan Cameron remarks:

The European Reformation was not a simple revolution, a protest movement with a single leader, a defined set of objectives, or a coherent organization. Yet neither was it a floppy or fragmented mess of anarchic or contradictory ambitions. It was a series of parallel movements; within each of which various sorts of people with differing perspectives for a crucial period in history combined forces to pursue objectives which they only partly understood.

In order to overcome this problem, historians have started to qualify those aspects of the Reformation they wish to accentuate. Over the last half-century or so we have seen the emergence of the magisterial reformation, the radical reformation, the urban reformation, the communal reformation, the princely reformation, the second reformation, the reformation as an early bourgeois revolution, and inter alia the reformation of music, art, image, refugees, rights, death, ritual, charity, suffering, feeling, landscape, and community. We will meet up with many of these again in the course of the analysis.

As confusing as this might seem to the uninitiated, this type of specialization can profit our understanding of the past. Neologisms, as John O’Malley has remarked with reference to the study of the Counter-Reformation, are often a sign of good health: “That multiplicity reveals and vindicates the myriad perspectives from which the past might legitimately be viewed.” That may be true, but it does add considerably to the difficulties of naming and labeling. So where do we go from here? The most recent solution is to speak of reformations rather than reformation, an approach that neatly accommodates variety without jeopardizing meaning. Pluralizing the word has the advantage of letting the past speak to the present in a more diverse and perhaps more authentic manner, but without necessarily eclipsing the idea of a root concept termed Reformation that can be safely anatomized without it fatally pulling apart. Examples of this in English-language scholarship include The European Reformations (1996) by Carter Lindberg, who wrote a history of the “plural reform movements” of the Reformation era; Europe’s Reformations 1450–1650 (1999) by James D. Tracy, who opened his text with the claim that “we can best understand the historical significance of the Protestant movement by viewing it not as unprecedented, but as the high point in a series of ‘reformations’ that convulsed the Latin or western half of Christendom from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries”; and The European Reformations (2006), a volume of historiographical essays edited by Alec Ryrie, who remarks in his introduction that the various reformations “cannot be reduced to a single phenomenon, nor traced to a single hammer-blow on the Wittenberg door.”

Identifying the component parts of the various reformations has also brought home to historians the similarities between the Protestant and Catholic experience. The French historian Jean Delumeau made this point forty years ago when he spoke of the overarching aims of both churches in this period, which essentially was to bring more religion to the people. “In this context the two Reformations, Luther’s and Rome’s, were two processes, which apparently competed but in actual fact converged, by which the masses were Christianized and religion spiritualised.” Subsequent historians have refined this idea to the point where all types of reformation are grouped under a common paradigm and analyzed within a single historiographical field, the most prominent being the exponents of the confessionalization thesis, who point out that in socio-political terms the aims, methods, and timescales of the Protestant and Catholic reform movements are best treated in the singular. In the words of Wolfgang Reinhard: “Regardless of theological opposition and the different instruments employed by different confessions, the process of confessionalization went ahead with remarkable uniformity and simultaneity.” Reinhard still honors the traditional Protestant coloration of the capitalized term Reformation, however, and circumvents the naming-dilemma by speaking instead of “the confessional age.”

In recent years, some historians have embraced all of the plurality – Protestant and Catholic – with “Reformation” in the singular. At the outset of Reformation (2003), for instance, Diarmaid MacCulloch informs the reader that, for the sake of simplicity, his analysis will treat the multiple reformations, including those directed by the pope, under the shorthand term “Reformation.” Similarly, Peter Marshall has gathered the entire range of reformations, including the Catholic Reformation (or Counter-Reformation), under the definite article, arguing that it “makes little sense to consider the Catholic and Protestant Reformations separately from each other” due to the fact that, historically, their “contrasting, and sometimes converging, trajectories” were so closely aligned. This approach has taken much from the perspectives of Anglophone historiography, which conceives of the English Reformation in terms of long-term “overlapping and interweaving cultural and political processes” incorporating the different confessional spectrums of the realm. The central problematic is the struggle over the nature and meaning of godly order – or, when placed in the European context, “the formation of identity by means of division and conflict” –and thus it can readily encompass the full spectrum of religious developments up to the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1640 s. But this degree of conceptual ecumenicity sits awkwardly with Continental scholarship, a point made by Thomas Kaufmann in his critical review of MacCulloch’s book. Defining the Reformation has long been high on the agenda of German scholarship and parameters have been established for the fixing of origins and endings, the nature of the medieval and the modern worlds, and the crucial differences between the Protestant and Catholic worldviews. In such a historiographical framework, grouping together the Protestant and Catholic reformations under the single heading overwrites the dissimilarities and thus the essential meanings of the two movements.

Similar conclusions have been reached in a published dialogue between three prominent Reformation historians over the definition of the term. Although there was no core agreement about how best to describe the “essence” of the movement, all three scholars conceived of it in terms that placed it in juxtaposition to the Catholic Reformation. For Bernd Moeller, for instance, the Reformation, at least in its initial phase, gravitated around the figure of Luther and the unit ideas he developed as part of the Wittenberg theology – i.e. sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura – however they may have been understood. Other reformers emerged with their own interpretations, but the essence of the event was the dialogue about these ideas and their implications for the church. Berndt Hamm is even more explicit in his stress on the centrality of evangelical theology and how it broke with medieval theory and practice. Luther’s thought could not be accommodated within the Catholic scheme, neither before nor after Trent, due to “system breaking” insights such as the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the other principles of belief that set Protestantism on an alternative trajectory to Catholicism. Lastly, in the view of Dorothea Wendebourg, “the Reformation” was a concept that emerged retrospectively, much in the same way as the label of “Protestants,” as a response of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions to the criticisms and threats posed by a resurgent Catholicism. Accordingly, not only is Protestant reform something that should be understood in separate terms to Catholic reform, but the very otherness of Catholicism should be seen as instrumental in the shaping of early modern Protestant identity.

For the sake of clarity, the reader should know that Contesting the Reformation is also based on a definition that preserves the traditional association between the Reformation and the rise of Protestant Christianity. While acknowledging that there were commonalities that bound up, despite themselves, the Catholic and Protestant movements, I believe that it still makes good historiographical sense – especially in a book about historiography – to distinguish between the two. Moreover, it remains the dominant convention in Reformation scholarship. For instance, when French scholars refer to “la Réforme” they are generally taken to mean the Protestant Reformation of the magisterial tradition, meaning the Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist (or Reformed), and Anglican reformations. Parallel reform movements are then qualified, as has been the custom in English – “la Réforme catholique,” “la Réforme radicale,” “la Contre-Réforme.” Efforts to embrace the entire spectrum of religious developments in the early modern period use the pluralized form or fall back on more broadly based headings such as “le temps des confessions,” “le temps des réformes,” or “les affrontements religieux.”

The use of the term in this book follows this traditional reasoning. To be short and to the point, and to paraphrase Parson Thwackum while doing so, when I mention the Reformation I mean the Protestant Reformation, and not only the Protestant Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin but the reformations of all of the groups in western Europe that consciously broke away from the Catholic church in the early modern period in the wake of the Luther Affair, though these will be further qualified to avoid any confusion. That “the Reformation” contained other reformations within itself does not invalidate the use of the definite article, even if it does require closer definition.


Inseparably bound up with the issue of meaning is the issue of time. If we want to understand the Reformation we have to view it in historical context. This seems simple enough; and yet chronology, for all of its clean lines and hard numbers, is a deeply subjective science, for tracing the lifespan of a phenomenon such as the Reformation entails rounded knowledge of its basic nature, from birth to death and beyond. Historians can take some heart from the fact that chronologies are helpful even when they are approximate. As long as the dates accommodate the crucial events or the moments of fundamental change, at least in relation to the type of interpretation being offered, then the idea of a period of time is a useful conceit. Epochs and ages do not have to imply that all of the historical developments ran parallel with one another or shared the same vanishing point. As the French medievalist Jacques le Goff has remarked, there never will be total synchronism within the framework of a perceived epoch, but neither must there be, for it is enough if the dates are able to accommodate the critical mass of ideas at the heart of the concept and the field of studies.

The difficulties with dating the Reformation are further compounded because of its place in the traditional plot lines of the rise of western civilization. The year 1500 has often been taken as the divide between the medieval and the modern worlds. This distinction was developed by scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it was based on the recognition of the density of developments that sat close to this date. This was the era of overseas exploration, the onset of print culture, the highpoint of the Renaissance, the foundations of the nation-state, and the first manifestations of the modern economy, all of which had more general knock-on effects that contributed, fundamentally, to the making of the present age, including the rise of individualism, rationalism, secularism, and the theory and practice of tolerance. The Reformation is firmly ensconced in this medieval-to-modern axis, and indeed with reference to the issues of individualism, merchant enterprise, and intellectual freedom many historians have considered it to be the crucial event in the passage from the medieval to the modern age. In the words of Richard van Dülmen, “[t]he Reformation was a ‘universal phenomenon’, and the advent of modernity cannot be imagined without it.” Dates therefore become extremely important, for if the Reformation is perceived as the catalyst, then it is necessary to anchor the concrete historical details to the wider interpretation. We will return to this issue in the course of the analysis when we take up themes such as individualism, tolerance, and industry.

Chronology, then, even more so than naming, is an inexact science, for it takes its meaning from a particular reading of the past. Periodization follows from interpretation, which is why it is worth drawing attention to the question of dates, for chronologies have serious implications for understanding. Roughly speaking, there are two ways to frame Reformation history: on the one hand, as an event with its own unique array of causes and consequences bound up in its own historical dynamic, and thus an event that has its own unique point of departure and final destination; and on the other, as an event – or series of events – that sat within a broader concourse of associated developments, so that the best way to treat the Reformation is to view it as an episode, albeit heightened in terms of importance, within a historical continuum.

With reference to the first approach, which postulates a distinct and relatively short period, this is usually done by referring to Luther’s famous posting of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 as the beginning of the Reformation. This remains the most popular “starting point,” even if subsequent historians have cast doubt on whether it ever actually occurred (see the discussion in the Appendix). There is less consensus about endings, however. Following in the tradition of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), many historians have used 1555 as the terminus, as this was the year when the Peace of Augsburg legally secured the standing of Lutheranism in the Empire. But other dates have been favored, including 1618, the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (viewed retrospectively, a turning point in the confessional age) and 1648, which marks the inclusion of Reformed Protestantism in the Westphalian peace settlement, and, theorists have suggested, a turn towards a more secular approach to life.

Of course, these are dates that frame the event in the Holy Roman Empire. Studies of the Reformation in others lands or territories quite naturally use dates that are specific to the history, and the historiography, they set out to comprehend. In his study of the Swiss Reformation, for instance, Bruce Gordon frames his survey of the movement with an opening chapter devoted to the medieval preconditions that went into the making of early modern Switzerland, with the defeat of the Swiss forces at Marignano in 1515 serving as something of a crucial starting point. At the other end of the chronological scale he opts for 1566, the year when the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, signed the Helvetic Confession with the other leading figures of the Reformed tradition and thus effectively joined forces with the more dynamic and prominent religious community that took its lead from the works of John Calvin and his reform experiment in Geneva. With this, Gordon notes, “[t]he Swiss churches became part of an international Reformed community, but not as leaders.”

In contrast to framing the Reformation with specific start and end dates, the second approach downplays the idea of abrupt junctures and situates the Reformation on both sides of the projected divide – the medieval and the modern – arguing that it is only feasible to understand the event from the vantage point of a historical continuum. Once historians relativize the role of heroic individuals and contextualize the suddenness of the revolutionary breakthroughs, the Reformation seems less of a radical turning point. Kaspar von Greyerz has made this point in his study of religious culture from 1500 to 1800:

A religious history of the early modern period that is guided by non-evolutionary conceptions of historical change and is, in a sense, saturated with the history of mentalities, would have two effects: first, it would qualify readily employed epochal boundaries of the early modern period, and, equally important, the role of the Reformation as a profound rupture; second, it would relativize the notion of the early modern period as a “pattern book” for understanding and explaining the fundamental processes of modernity.

Working from a similar premise, but reaching back further into the past, Peter G. Wallace’s The Long Reformation (2004) frames the analysis between 1350 and 1750. This not only enables Wallace to demonstrate how the origins of the Reformation relate to crucial episodes and developments of the medieval period, such as the social and economic crises of the fourteenth century and the spirit of reform in the fifteenth, it also follows the movement beyond the traditional timeframes of the confessional age in order to trace the ongoing efforts to inculcate the practices and beliefs established by the Reformation. For this chronology to have meaning, however, the focus must be fairly broad, and thus Wallace has set his sights on “the gradual integration of reformed values into the belief systems of common Christians.” Doing this blurs important distinctions of perception and experience in different historical settings, and it also falls prey to the same problems associated with defining and conceptualizing discussed above. How meaningful is the term “Reformation” if it can be stretched to cover the religious history of the late medieval and early modern age? But it does have the advantage of setting the Reformation in a powerful explanatory framework.

In truth, neither approach to periodization is mutually exclusive, and most historians work in both modes and try to effect a balance between the two. But readers should keep this distinction in mind, for it does affect the way that scholars deal with the people, places, and ideas that make up the content of their histories.

Historical Thought

Before we begin surveying modern Reformation history, it is worth noting the fact that the Reformation, much like the Renaissance, has long been the subject of grand theories and far-reaching, sometimes overreaching, speculation. Both movements have been “contested” in similar ways: that is, if for different reasons, historians have considered both to be fundamentally important for the passage from the medieval to the modern age. In Renaissance studies, the most influential theory in this vein has been that of the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897), who suggested in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) that the men at the forefront of the movement were “the first born among the sons of Europe,” for it was in their philosophies and in their art that we first see the modern virtues of reason and individualism. No Reformation historian has ever towered over scholarship in the manner of Burckhardt, and yet there have been influential figures and critical works that have left a lasting mark on the discipline. A brief survey of some of these historians and some of their works will help us to contextualize the concerns of modern scholarship. My examples will focus on German historiography, not least because of the importance of this tradition for Reformation studies, but they fairly reflect general patterns.

In some ways the first histories of the Reformation were closer to myth than to scholarship, for even though they came with fairly sophisticated academic apparatuses and the professed aim of letting the unfiltered truth speak from the primary materials (which is the Hippocratic oath of modern historiography), the main purpose of writing Reformation history during the confessional period was to articulate a particular worldview, which in this case was the emerging Protestant worldview. History was used to confirm religious beliefs, a point argued in depth by the modern Belgian scholar Pontien Polman and recently revisited in the work of Matthias Pohlig and Irena Backus, the latter having challenged Polman’s (largely) negative assessment by speaking instead of “the creative role of history in the Reformation era as a decisive factor in the affirmation of confessional identity.” Creative or not, there is no doubt that religious identity strongly influenced the writing of the first histories of the Reformation. As Pohlig has noted, throughout the sixteenth century we can discern the gradual march of a “coherent and homogenous sense of self-perception” in the new genre of confessional historiography.