That Was the Reformation That Was

Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe

by A.G. Dickens
Harcourt, Brace & World, 216 pp., $5.50

Reformation Europe, 1517-1559

by G.R. Elton
Harper & Row, 324 pp., $6.95

One of the more striking features of Christianity has been its perennial tendency to fission. With difficulty held together throughout the Middle Ages, it suddenly split asunder in the early sixteenth century. Not only were a number of new and independent churches thrown up by the earthquake—Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anglican—but through the cracks in the fabric of medieval society there oozed a host of strange new sects with alarmingly revolutionary beliefs and aspirations. The story of this great convulsion has often been told, but never better than in the two books under review. Although the tone and the interpretation differ in many respects, both are fine examples of synthesis and compression and are models of what a good textbook should be.

Professor Dickens is the more subtle and philosophic, and he treats his theme in a broader perspective. He lays principal stress on popular undercurrents of religious emotion and faith, and sees the Reformation as a series of responses by men in authority and by institutions to pressures and demands from below. His strength lies in his sympathy for and understanding of the ideological tensions and conflicts which were at work in late medieval Europe, and his appreciation of the deep undercurrents of history which were sweeping along even the most powerful princes, like Charles V, and the most charismatic prophets, like Luther. As he rightly comments, this gigantic upheaval in the values of Western Civilization “should not be made narrowly to revolve around a few great figures.” Like others in the series, his book is very lavishly illustrated, with nearly 150 little pictures, excellently reproduced, both in color and in black and white. The purpose of grafting this wealth of visual material on to the text is not entirely clear. Portraits of the leading reformers, panoramas of contemporary Zurich, Geneva, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, scenes of religious atrocities and executions, of mercenaries at play and a printing shop at work, all add something to the reader’s sense of immediacy, his awareness of the physical appearance of sixteenth-century Europe. But one may reasonably question whether this spatter of tiny pictures on almost every page, rather than a few well-selected, large-scale illustrations, is the right way to use the opportunities opened up by cheap reproduction techniques in both black-and-white and color: blasting away in the general direction of the target with a sten gun is no substitute for accurate marksmanship. In this case the illustrations tend to get between the reader and a brilliant piece of writing.

DR. ELTON’S GREAT MERIT is clarity. He says what he thinks, and says it in a way which is immediately understandable. You may disagree with him, but you never fail to get what he is driving at, as is sometimes the case with more sophisticated minds. He writes with verve and energy, and his book is a triumph of well-organized compression. As befits an administrative historian, he tells a detailed narrative story, and places his main emphasis on the outstanding personalities and their use…

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