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  • Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe
  • Cary J. Nederman
Benjamin J. Kaplan . Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. viii + 415 pp. index. illus. map. bibl.$29.95. ISBN: 978–0–674–02430–4.

During the last twenty-five years or so, the mainstream historiography of religious toleration in Europe has undergone dramatic and profound changes. A generation ago, historians (with very few and generally marginalized exceptions) took it as an article of faith that tolerance in theory as well as practice only emerged in a post-Reformation context. The practice arose from a reaction of the horrors of religious war in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the theory appeared with the development of a liberal and essentially Enlightenment understanding of the human condition. Scholarship also implicitly endorsed a related geographical point that toleration (conceptually as well as practically) constituted a distinctively Western European phenomenon —with due recognition of its transplantation across the Northern Atlantic in the 1600s —limited to ideas and institutions originating in England, France, the Dutch Republic, and perhaps Germany and the Swiss cantons. The impression left by conventional historians of tolerance was of Whiggish triumphalism: the ineluctable march of "enlightened" theories and practices spreading into a world of increasing toleration.

Both chronological and geographical premises have been challenged and largely qualified (if not quite demolished) over the course of the past few years, [End Page 942] however, even if a few lingering Whigs, such as Perez Zagorin in 2003's How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, continue to recount the story of the "rise of tolerance" in more or less traditional form. Some recent historians have emphasized the complexity and ambiguity of on-the-ground practices of toleration during the Reformation and its aftermath. Others have investigated the growing extent of tolerance in regions outside the core countries of Western Europe. Still others have broken down the assumed great divide between medieval and early modern attitudes toward the toleration of heretics, infidels, and other deviant beliefs and rites.

What has been lacking up to this point is a synthetic and synoptic statement of these vast historiographal changes, a lacuna that Benjamin Kaplan attempts to fill in Divided by Faith. Commencing with a clear and concise survey and critique of many of the standard myths about tolerance, Kaplan reconstructs the history of toleration between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries as a set of localized conflicts the outcomes of which were by no means assured. In his view, the emergence of forms of tolerant practices constituted less a single movement confined to Western Europe than the result of a series of widespread yet specific controversies conditioned by immediate circumstances occurring across the entire continent. While his book is not exactly an application of all the tools of micro-history, Kaplan demonstrates a high degree of contextual sensitivity to regional variations in political, social, and religious identities, yielding a more nuanced and multilayered approach to the topic of toleration than has often been displayed. He is not overtly hostile to those scholars who view tolerance as either an idea or a political phenomenon —in other words, a creation of elites —but he argues that, in addition, the evidence for toleration must be sought in the daily lives of "all people who lived in religiously mixed communities. For them, tolerance had a very concrete, mundane dimension" (8). This affords a valuable addition and supplement to the existing literature on toleration, not least because Kaplan's prose is so accessible and he conceives his audience as extending beyond a small cadre of specialist academics.

Without detracting from the manifest accomplishment of Divided by Faith, I would offer a couple of relatively minor reservations. First, as the scholarship of Carol Lansing, Susan Taylor Snyder, and other historians has revealed, what was true of early modern Europe was also true of the Middle Ages, namely, that the interactions between orthodox Christian and the nonorthodox (heretics as well as infidels) were far more ambiguous and complicated that has been suspected. Kaplan seems to have been somewhat too...


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Archived 2009
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