Illustration by Sebald Beham from the sixteenth-century pamphlet A New Saying: The Complaint of the Clergy and Certain Professions Against Luther

It is a rare and in this case curious event for a major university press to reissue an unrevised forty-year-old college textbook, in a field that has undergone radical transformation since the book’s first edition. Steven Ozment, who died in December 2019, enjoyed a distinguished academic career that took him from Tübingen, Germany, to Harvard, via Stanford and Yale. He published more than a dozen monographs, characterized by deep learning and lucid exposition of complex ideas. Following the lead of his doctoral supervisor, the Dutch intellectual historian Heiko Oberman, Ozment’s early writings focused on the relationship between late-medieval religious thought and the early Protestant Reformation. From the mid-1970s, however, while still insisting on the primary role of ideas as drivers of religious change, he increasingly turned his attention to the social context of the early Reformation and to the history of the early-modern family, in particular the effect of Protestant teachings on marriage, sexuality, and lay and clerical lifestyles. His last book, The Serpent and the Lamb (2013), was a study of the crucial contribution of Luther’s friend the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder to the Lutheran revolution.

Ozment’s most influential publication, however, was The Age of Reform, 1250–1550, this newly reissued 1980 textbook based on his lecture notes for two survey courses at Yale, one on the intellectual history of the Middle Ages and the other on Reformation Europe. Handsomely printed on good paper and illustrated with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century prints and paintings, The Age of Reform quickly became a staple of college reading lists throughout the Anglophone world. One of the book’s principal attractions was its unusual chronological starting point, 1250, reflecting Ozment’s (and Oberman’s) insistence that the Protestant Reformation could be properly understood only in the light of the tensions and transformations within late-medieval Western Christianity.

The first half of Ozment’s book was devoted to discussion of developments before 1500, in particular the drastically opposed “scholastic” theologies of Saint Thomas Aquinas (which Ozment saw as propping up the claims of the Church to authority over the secular world) and William of Ockham (whose insistence on God’s absolute and indeed arbitrary power Ozment saw as undercutting such claims to control), the burgeoning of charismatic spiritual and apocalyptic movements that seemed to threaten the stability of the institutional Church, and the mounting theological and political challenges to the centralizing authority of the papacy. Much of this was unfamiliar territory to students of the Reformation: Ozment’s remarkable gift for exposition was rightly acclaimed, and his “splendid and masterful survey” hailed as “the best…introduction now available to the religious history of western Europe between 1250 and 1550.”

Reviewers, however, were not uniformly favorable: as a textbook aiming to encapsulate an entire era, Ozment’s book had obvious shortcomings. His Reformation was emphatically centered on Luther, whom he called “the age’s most brilliant theologian” and who dominated the second half of the book. By contrast, Ozment devoted just a single chapter to the formidable synthesis of Reformation theory and practice hammered out in Calvin’s Geneva and subsequently exported across Europe; in Eastern Europe, France, Scotland, and England, it was Calvinism, not Lutheranism, that became the normative form of international Protestantism. But that development took place after Ozment’s terminal date of 1550; choosing such an early cut-off point arguably distorted the story Ozment claimed to tell.

There were other gaps: Ozment had only scattered and inadequate references to the English Reformation, while Christian humanism, the most important reforming current within the Catholic Church from the late fifteenth century to the convening of the Council of Trent in 1545 and beyond, was dispatched in a single chapter on the bitter dispute between Erasmus and Luther over freedom of the will, together with a short account of the influence of humanist educational ideas on Protestant pedagogy. Other major Catholic humanists, like Thomas More, were largely ignored, and the Counter-Reformation, a vast and complex topic that ranges over centuries, was dismissed in a mere twenty pages, half of them devoted to the emergence of the Society of Jesus.

These omissions were pointed out by several reviewers. What was less discussed was the polemical agenda underlying Ozment’s whole account of late-medieval Christianity. The choice and handling of themes in the first half of his book were designed to portray an oppressive institution in cumulative breakdown, a bias signposted by allusions to Thomism as a system that “justified ecclesiastical paternalism and self-aggrandizement,” to “the presumptuous, seductive vision of high medieval theology,” to medieval religious institutions as “built on the credulity of the educated as well as the uneducated,” to the laity seeking consolation “in vain” from a piety “based on the penitential practices of monks,” and to “the oppressive religious culture of the later Middle Ages,” which, Ozment claimed, “no longer served the religious needs of large numbers of people.”


All this was, of course, highly tendentious, and Ozment’s characterization of medieval Christianity was focused entirely on what he thought dysfunctional in it. He discussed one of the most potent forces in medieval Catholicism, the Franciscan movement, exclusively in relation to the apocalypticism and radical theories of poverty that made a minority of fundamentalist Franciscan friars suspect to the papacy. Ozment had nothing to say about the remarkable success of the friars—Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians as well as Franciscans—in building and sustaining a vibrant urban lay religious culture stretching from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Sensationally popular friars like Saint Bernardino—whose preaching swept the cities of Spain, Italy, and beyond, leading to mass religious revivals and the public conversions of heretics, Jews, and Muslims—didn’t even make it into the book’s index, or, like Saint Vincent Ferrer, were mentioned by Ozment only because he supported the Avignon antipopes of the late fourteenth century.

Similarly, Ozment discussed the great fifteenth-century Catholic reformer and theologian Nicholas of Cusa only in connection with his repudiation of the Conciliar movement—which claimed that the Church’s highest authority was not the pope but an ecumenical council—and his “flattering vision of the church as the unfolding of the power of Peter,” while dismissing the impact of his reform writings and campaign as papal legate to purify popular religious practice and institutions in the Germanic world.

In the same way, Ozment made only a couple of glancing references to the single most successful religious institution of the late Middle Ages, the lay confraternities found in most towns and many villages in Western Europe. These attracted vast numbers of both male and female members and officers; were largely self-governing; frequently employed clergy, musicians, and singers to enhance lay religious experience; organized plays, processions, and communal intercession for the dead; and funded many charitable activities—none of which Ozment discussed. In fact, he compressed his entire account of traditional religion—that is, religion as it was practiced by actual people—into just two brief paragraphs, in which his comically mistaken claim that in “the Lord’s Supper” medieval priests elevated the consecrated Host (the eucharistic bread) while “shouting out the name of Jesus” undermined confidence that he was altogether master of his material, since one of the most distinctive features of the medieval canon of the mass was that it that was recited silently by the priest.

The heart of Ozment’s critique of the “failure” of medieval piety lay in his account of the sacrament of penance, the “very demanding penitential system” in which the medieval Church “touched the lives of the laity most intimately” but which, he maintained, offered at best only “temporary relief” from the crushing burden of guilt created by the Church’s teaching on sin. Ozment believed that the obligation to confess “every conceivable thought and deed, from oversleeping to masturbation” was profoundly psychologically damaging, but so intrinsic to the entire structure of medieval Catholicism that “effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety…would have meant the end of medieval religious institutions.” This claim about the psychological harm inflicted by confession was not, however, based on any actual evidence about the psychological state of the average Herr or Frau in the pews.

Ozment’s claim was based instead on what medieval penitential manuals maintained the laity should do, but probably rarely did do, and above all on the account Luther himself gave of his quite certainly atypical experience. The young Luther notoriously suffered agonies of anxiety about his own sinfulness, obsessively confessing his sins over and over again despite the kindly attempts of his confessors to restrain and reassure him. Such anxieties were recognizable symptoms of a spiritual malady known in the penitential literature as “scruples,” but the experience of a morbidly introspective monk is a poor guide to the mentality of average medieval believers, most of whom confessed their sins only once a year in preparation for their parish’s annual Easter communion, lining up with everyone else in the community to do the same, a hectic social event far more likely to encourage routinized conformity than agonized self-examination.

Ozment’s account of confession contested or ignored some important recent scholarship on the subject. The standard modern work on medieval penitential practice, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation by Thomas N. Tentler, was published in 1977, three years before Ozment’s textbook. Tentler not only set out the rigorous requirements of the canonists and pastoral theorists but also maintained the more pragmatic and consolatory effect of confession as actually practiced. And one of the most brilliant historians of late-medieval Christianity, John Bossy, had published in 1975 a hugely influential article arguing that, for most ordinary people, confession was about the maintenance and repair of community relationships rather than the anxious introspection of the lonely soul. Medieval confession, Bossy argued, was for most penitents “a face-to-face encounter between two people who would probably have known each other pretty well…in the not-so-remote presence of a large number of neighbours,” so that, as medieval confessional manuals complained, “the average person was much more likely to tell the priest about the sins of his neighbours than about his own.”1


Ozment sharply rejected Tentler’s account of the consolations of confession, insisting on its oppressive and anxiety-inducing character, and he seems to have been unaware of Bossy’s article. His indictment of the alleged deficiencies of the medieval penitential system was essentially a recycling of Reformation polemic, not a conclusion derived from solid historical evidence.

Ozment’s book appeared against the background of a radical shift in the writing of Reformation history. From the early 1970s historians writing about religion in sixteenth-century France, Spain, Germany, and England—including Bossy, Keith Thomas, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jean Delumeau, and William Christian—had begun to draw fruitfully on the methods and insights of sociology and anthropology, and so to move away from simplistic teleological narratives in which the Reformation was explained as the replacement of a superstitious and erroneous form of religion by something simultaneously more modern, more rational, and much truer to the Gospel. Instead of dismissing the piety, beliefs, and practices of medieval men and women as a tissue of foolish superstitions, these historians were newly alert to the role of traditional religious practice in making sense of and managing both daily life and the effects of religious and social change and conflict.

They were also increasingly conscious of the need for detailed local studies in explaining why different social groups as well as different individuals opted for particular religious choices. A central figure in the new interpretation of the German Reformation in particular was Bob Scribner, a brilliant young Australian historian who in the mid-1970s published pioneering studies of the very different outcomes of the Reformation in Erfurt and Cologne. Scribner showed that religious allegiances reflected the complex makeup of those communities and the interaction of religious and social identities within them, and did not depend merely or mainly on the content of the Reformation message itself.

In both cities, Scribner argued, the maintenance of civic unity against outside interference from local princes or the Holy Roman Emperor was a primary concern of the city elites. In conservative Cologne there was tight oligarchic control of artisan and laboring organizations, the university was funded by the city and staffed by men with close links to the city council, humanist intellectuals in the university were few and uninfluential, and the dominant discipline was theology, whose practitioners strongly opposed the new ideas: these factors combined to prevent the Reformation from taking hold in the city.

In Erfurt, by contrast, there was a far more independent university harboring many scholars sympathetic to Luther’s reforms and, crucially, there was a far more volatile and independent artisan class, dangerously drawn to the language of liberation and equality in the evangelical message. To prevent this turbulent situation from spiraling out of their control, the governing elites in Erfurt decided to rapidly embrace the Reformation, outlawing the old religion and placing themselves at the head of a movement that might otherwise have led to social breakdown or revolution. So, Scribner insisted, “the Reformation was as much a social as a religious phenomenon…brought about not simply by a mounting aggregation of individual convictions, but because it struck roots in communal and corporate forms of the society.”2

Scribner moved on to equally groundbreaking explorations of ritual and mass visual culture in popular receptions of the Reformation, in the process dramatically shifting and deepening our understanding of the religion of “simple folk.”

Though Ozment would later make useful contributions to the history of the early modern family, he remained less than enthusiastic about the growing prominence of the methods and questions of the cultural and social sciences in the writing of Reformation history. Certainly, readers of The Age of Reform were left in no doubt about its author’s commitment both to Luther’s own message and to an older set of assumptions about the reasons for the reception or rejection of that message. He argued in the book’s brief final chapter on “the legacy of the Reformation” that its impetus had faltered and failed not from any mismatch between Luther’s great breakthrough and the nature or needs of the society to which it was proclaimed, but because of the intrinsic resistance of human nature to the demanding but liberating grace of God.

The reformers, Ozment claimed, had naively imagined that “the majority of people were capable of radical religious enlightenment and moral transformation.” In dismantling what Ozment portrayed as the rickety and delusive fabric of medieval religion, they had attempted to “ennoble people beyond their capacities,” demanding “that they live simple, sober lives, prey not to presumption, superstition, or indulgence, but merely as human beings.” This aspiration had proved impossible, and the Reformation had ultimately foundered, not because of any mistakes or imperfections in the way its message was preached or implemented, but because of “man’s indomitable credulity.”

This was a theological opinion masquerading as a historical judgment, and its confessional and, indeed, elitist subtexts, apparently unnoticed in 1980, look positively quaint in 2021 and raise issues concerning the publisher’s claims about the “crucial and timely” reissuing of the book as “a classic.” It was in its time a superior textbook, valuably reminding students of Reformation history that Christianity was not invented in 1517, the year Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, and that understanding the religious divisions of the sixteenth century demanded a long perspective. Its persistence as a valued pedagogical aid for forty years is a testimony to the quality of Ozment’s writing and Yale’s production values.

In his foreword to this reissue, the distinguished Reformation historian Carlos Eire (himself a Roman Catholic) characterizes Ozment’s book as a “classic” whose interpretation of the past “rings true.” Not everyone will agree. Since The Age of Reform’s first appearance there has been both a revival of Protestant interest in and appreciation of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and a correspondingly negative assessment by the influential “Radical orthodoxy” movement of the role of Ockham in the evolution of secular modernity—developments that, though themselves controversial, make Ozment’s account of those thinkers in the first half of his book at the very least highly debatable.3 More seriously, Ozment’s confessional and intellectual presuppositions, the absence from his book of real engagement with the questions and insights brought by Scribner and others in the course of forty years of scholarly research and debate, and the resolutely intellectualist nature of his methodology, make The Age of Reform a distinctly old-fashioned guide to understanding both the origins and the outcomes of the Reformation.