Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation by Nicholas Terpstra (review)
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Reviewed by
Terpstra, Nicholas – Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. 348.

Much has been written on religious refugees in the early modern period: on Jews, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, on Moriscos, on Anabaptists, Dutch and English Catholics, Moravian brothers (and sisters), Huguenots, Salzburgers, Bohemian Protestants, and many others. Much of this scholarship, however, treats of one religious refugee group and does not look at the phenomenon of [End Page 225] religious persecutions and migrations from a holistic, comparative, and entangled perspective. Therefore, Nicholas Terpstra’s book is a welcome contribution to this research field on persecutions, migrations, religious refugees, and re-settlement in the early modern period, a field that is indeed in need of a more comparative and holistic perspective.

Through six chapters, Terpstra uses the lens of “body politics” to look into a complex phenomenon that represents de facto one of the flip-sides of the Reformation and confessionalisation between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries: persecution of religious groups and mass migration. Chapter 1, “The Body of Christ: Defined and Threatened,” is an analysis of how Europeans looked at the Body of Christ, as the physical body and as the social body in particular; it investigates the threats Christians feared for the Body of Christ and the Corpus christianum. Consequently, chapter 2, “Purifying the Body,” deals with the possible “remedies,” with how Christians aimed at “purifying” and “rescuing” the Corpus christanum: through separation, containment, prosecution, and purgation. The examples provided for containment, prosecution, and purgation are short, sometimes a little superficial, and vague in their treatment; they do not always represent the current state of research. In chapter 3, “Dividing the Body: People and Places,” Terpstra presents in an eclectic way how the “remedies” played out on the individual level. Here the book becomes biographical. We find short passages on Isaac Abravanel, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or female martyrs such as Elizabeth Dirks. It is not entirely clear why Terpstra uses these examples and not others. Again, the current state of research is not well presented. One could have wished for some of Lyndal Roper’s findings in her great biography on Martin Luther (Martin Luther: Renegade ad Prophet, published in 2016)—but alas it came out too late. However, a first article was available in the American Historical Review in 2010. Research results of more recent publications on Jean Calvin are missing such as the ones by Hermann Selderhuis or Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard—to name two. Chapter 4, “Mind and Body,” deals with the theology behind the need for purity and purgation. Chapter 5, “Reforming the Body: The World the Refugees Made,” is about how refugees used printing, woodcuts, and institutions to promote their views of the “pure” and “orthodox.” It treats these important aspects of refugee life in terms of “Tools,” “Personnel,” “Spaces,” and “Imagination.” Chapter 6 brings the book to its close and tries to connect the early modern period to the twenty-first century.

As much as it is interesting to follow Terpstra in his investigation of the phenomenon of persecution and purgation in the early modern period through “body politics,” so does his narrative sometimes fall short of the complex and contradicting realities of persecution, mobility, and tolerance. Purifying state and society was but one option, at home and within the respective expanding European empires. “Tolerating” (which meant “suffering”) the “religious other” could come with a whole set of advantages in terms of highly desired population growth, benefits for the economy, including craftmanship and manufacturing, and military prowess, language, and culture. Terpstra qualifies these phenomena as “exceptions to the rule” (p. 16). However, a comparative analysis of how imperial [End Page 226] states and cities “used” the “religious other” in utilitarian ways could show that this option was more than “an exception to the rule.” This aspect does not take away the violence of persecution and the multi-faceted dimensions of suffering, religious migrations, and needs for accommodation and re-settlement. However, it shows another flip-side and some of the contradictions of early modern forms of religious “pluralism.”

The volume reproduces a number of...