The Reformation in the 1500s was more than a movement started by Martin Luther. He played a crucial role, but there was more to it. Samuel Gregg recently reviewed a book for the Library of Law and Liberty that explains the historical significance of Catholic and Protestant reformations. According to Gregg, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 written by the Yale historian Carlos M.N. Eire “is likely to become one of the definitive studies of this period.”
The year 1517 is considered one of those historical watersheds—like 1789, 1914, or 1968—at which Western societies took a radical turn away from hitherto prevailing political, economic, cultural, or religious settings. Such shifts, however, never come from nowhere. History’s time-bombs are invariably years in the making.
The Reformation certainly didn’t simply spring from the mind of Martin Luther. But as a historical development, it has been the subject of polemics for 500 years: not just between Catholics and Protestants, but also, over the past century, between historians and sociologists with disparate views on how the modern world emerged. Any serious study of the Reformation’s origins and impact consequently requires a willingness to traverse a veritable minefield of longstanding theological and historiographical arguments. In his comprehensive Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, the Yale historian Carlos M.N. Eire does that and more. The book is likely to become one of the definitive studies of this period.
In his preface, Eire modestly states that he has written “a narrative for beginners and nonspecialists . . . an introduction and a survey.” On one level, that is certainly true. Those unfamiliar with the vast array of topics addressed between the covers of this book do not find themselves suddenly plunged into the more intricate debates that characterize Reformation studies. Yet some of these disputes do inform Eire’s narrative, the most important being those concerning the Reformation’s nature and ends and the ways in which it influenced the West’s transition toward modernity. Eire is careful not to argue that the West became “modern” because of the Reformation. Nonetheless, he does hold that “we cannot begin to comprehend who we are now as Westerners without first understanding the changes wrought by the Reformations of the early modern era.”