Adam Snider's Reviews > The Reformation

The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch
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Nov 06, 10

it was amazing
Read in August, 2010

This is simply put the best popular history book I've ever read. The subject is the Reformation, but MacCulloch goes far beyond the traditional "Luther to Westphalia" timeline, using the first few chapters to flesh out the world of Latin Christianity as it existed during the century or so before Luther arrived on the scene. Geographically the book also extends well beyond the borders of what we often view to be the main sphere of the Reformation - Germany, France, and England - to explore how the same forces for reform and spiritual experimentation were alive in Italy, Spain and other countries usually seen as solidly (and stolidly) orthodox Catholic. The lands east, north and south of Germany, including Transylvania, Bohemia, the Balkans and Scandinavia are also given a much more detailed examination than usual.

Nor is this at all accidental. MacCulloch is clearly determined to eliminate what he sees as blank spots and misinterpretations in the popular conception of what the Reformation was and how it came to be. The role of such famous characters as Erasmus and Loyola, Bethlen Gabor and Archbishop Laud, are reexamined, and pains are taken to give those who are often dismissed as bit characters or historical peculiarities - Zwingli, for example, who is so often overshadowed by the more well known Calvin - are given back their true significance. The book is thick with detail - if there is a flaw to it, it's that some readers may well be exhausted by the book, but it's all put together so skillfully that most readers will, I think, end up working their way through the whole massive tome in record time.

Despite all this detail within the main text, MacCulloch sets aside a few chapters at the end to deal with specific questions - gender roles and sexuality, for example - in a more specific manner. These are excellent resources, and ones which would have been difficult to include in the main text without either having to dilute them considerably in order to fit with the more chronological narrative of the rest of the book or breaking up the flow.

All in all, an excellent piece of work. Considerably better, in my opinion, than his (nevertheless quite good) History of Christianity, which suffers from the sheer vastness of the subject set into a single volume. The Reformation, on the other hand, shows what MacCulloch can do with a rich but temporally more limited subject, and the result is a thing of beauty.
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