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  • The Imaginative World of the Reformation
  • Susan C. Karant-Nunn
The Imaginative World of the Reformation. By Peter Matheson. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 153. $15.00 paperback.)

The unifying theme of this small book is sixteenth-century people's dreams of freedom here on earth. Made up of the Gunning Lectures that Matheson presented to the Divinity Faculty at the University of Edinburgh in 1998, the volume examines several ways in which this aspiration found expression. The author asserts that the so-called enchanted world, the liminality between telluric and divine, of late medieval Catholicism was no longer satisfying. He rejects the premise that "Protestants appear content with an impoverished imagination" (p. 2). Instead, the Reformation altered prevailing metaphors, away from the Mass with all its layers of meaning, toward liberty in this life. In order to achieve this shift, the Reformers had to be destructive. They desired to transform, Matheson says, the images in the heart (p. 14). Assisting them was widespread anticlericalism and the iconoclastic power of humanistic criticism. Pamphlets, sermons, woodcuts, and paintings disseminated the images of awakening to a new dawn (p. 47). They constituted an iconography of an inseparable spiritual and earthy freedom. With their competing utopias, both urban magistrates and peasant warriors were partisans in this quest for liberation.

The "great shattering" that marked the birthing throes of the new vision gave way to tyranny and violence. Those in power, including Reformers themselves in some territories, found the peasants' egalitarian aspirations intolerable. The dream became a nightmare. The new symbolic world remained, but the limitations on its concepts stood revealed. And, Matheson admits, the old, the Catholic, ways of living and thinking died hard. He holds up Thomas Münzer and Argula von Grumbach as advocates of a fundamental empowerment of the laity as disciples of Christ. Christians must take up the gritty tasks of this life, including, for women, those of subordination.

Matheson refers regularly to current historiographic discussion, such as the debate between Peter Blickle and Tom Scott. These essays may echo certain premises of Blickle, but they are not derivative of it. The author delicately expresses his skepticism toward "social history" and its "negative" conclusions about the Reformation. This is a learned, reflective, gentle, and very Protestant analysis of early Lutheran leitmotifs and their short-term fate.

Susan C. Karant-Nunn
University of Arizona


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