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Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Carlos M. N. Eire
Yale University Press, 2016
920 pp., $40.00

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Mark Noll


The Contarini Angle

Reformations, plural.

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But the tone does shift for at least some Catholic reformers. Of these, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros comes across as the most attractive figure in the book. This Franciscan friar who became archbishop of Toledo convened synods of Spanish bishops in the 1490s in order to promote better preaching and more faithful general exercise of their duties. He cleansed Spain's monasteries by dismissing hundreds of indolent or immoral monks. He sponsored the printing of devotional works for lay Catholics, many of them in the Castilian vernacular. He founded the University of Alcalá in order to train a dedicated and learned clergy. Most notably, in a great effort that seemed to have "proto-Protestant" written all over it, he sponsored the Complutesian Polyglot, a critical edition of the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Latin that productively exploited the Renaissance's appeal for returning ad fontes (to original sources). In more explicitly Christian terms, Jiménez de Cisneros prepared the edition with the hope, as he wrote in its preface, that "every student of Holy Scripture might … be able to quench his thirst at the very fountainhead of the water that flows unto life everlasting." The Polyglot was printed in 1514, two years before Erasmus' Greek text of the New Testament enthralled Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli with momentous results. But publication was held up until 1520, or three years after Jiménez de Cisneros had died.

Eire's chapter on the Jesuits as the most effective agents of Catholic reform likewise hints at the book's general stance. The flurry of new or renewed Catholic religious orders that, in effect, answered the Protestant challenge, revealed, according to Eire, "the peculiar genius of Catholicism to reinvent the monastic calling in this time of crisis and its ability to mold it in so many different ways to fit particular needs." For their discipline in following the piety of founder Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, their success as educators throughout much of Europe, and their far-flung missionary ventures well beyond the confines of Europe, Eire suggests that this one order "commands a special place … as unique and arguably the most extraordinary, innovative, and influential of all the new clergy."

Like Gasparo Contarini, in other words, Eire understands clearly, and even approves, Protestant efforts to reform corrupt church practices and clarify theology that had been neglected or perverted. Yet also in Contarini fashion, his narrative highlights the Catholic reforming movements that were gaining momentum before Luther and Calvin appeared and that increased in strength during the decades of theological conflict. While Eire notes excesses in later efforts, particularly in exaggerated responses to perceived Protestant errors, the book intimates that of the several Reformations in early modern Europe, Catholic reform did the most good and with the least damage from friendly fire to supporters and to Europe as a whole.

Many other features of Reformations deserve at least brief mention. By treating as a unit the two centuries from Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 1450s to the Treaty of Westphalia that in 1648 ended the horrific bloodshed of the Thirty Years' War, Eire can demonstrate the irreducibly religious character of the era, but also that influences flowed constantly from other spheres of life to religion as well as in the other direction. The book intelligently modifies George Huntston Williams' properly respected treatment of "the radical Reformation" by suggesting a new term, "alternative," for the extremely diverse cluster of reformers who agreed with Menno Simons and other Anabaptists in rejecting the authority of Protestant regimes as well as Catholic. The book's succinct account of how earnest polemics drove apart the day-to-day Christianity of Protestants and Catholics summarizes themes that Eire has addressed in earlier writing: where Protestant "desacralization" distinguished ever more sharply between matter and spirit, nature and the supernatural, the living and the dead, Catholic spirituality would intermix these spheres with abandon into the 19th century and even beyond. Eire also makes the arresting observation that in that intensely polemical era, musical borrowings among confessions and a common Protestant-Catholic concentration on the activity of Satan remained just about the only ecumenical spheres. As just one more among many valuable insights, an awareness that "the pope figured much more prominently in early Protestant piety—as the sum of all evil—than he did in Catholic piety" effectively summarizes several centuries of Protestant complaint against post-Reformation Catholicism.

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