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Historically Speaking November/December 2004 The Long European Reformation: A Proposal for a New Interpretive Model Peter Wallace In the spring of 1776 the Catholic pastor for the small town ofMunster in Upper Alsace, Antoine Maurer, petitioned his religious superior, the bishop of Basel, to orderMaurer's patron, the Benedictine abbot in Munster, for an increase in wages. Maurer served Munster and a half-dozen hamlets pepperingthe surrounding ridges. The petition listed the religious services which the priest performed to meet the spiritual needs of his flock. One duty was to bring the consecrated host, the viaticum, to sick and dying parishioners day or nightin all weather. Maurer would ride a donkey while the churchwarden preceded him with an illuminated lantern and a hand bell. When theyencountered someone on the road, the churchwarden rang the bell so that the mountain folk would kneel to honor the real presence ofChrist as it passed. Maurer commented that, because itwas a "new practice," Lutherans needed to be told what it was about and that he had "not yet met a single one who has refused to [kneel] after having been instructed."1 Except for the presence of Lutherans, Maurer's frustrations with his ecclesiastical superiors and his experienceswith the mountain folk could easilyhave occurred in 1376. For centuries pastors and patrons had bickered over fees and obligations, while rural Christians relied on town-dwellingpriests to provide religious instruction and spiritual services. Martin Luther and other 16th-century reformers had sought to shift the religious leadership's focus away from fees and payments as partofa renewal ofthe medieval Church. More important, the reformers hoped to restore and clarify the core tenets offaith, which theywould then make accesEngraving of Martin Luther being inspired by Satan. © Bettmann/CORBIS sible to all Christians. Maurer's experience, 260years after Lutherhad posted his theses, suggests that the realization ofa reformed Christianity was gradual and incomplete. Great distances still separated the vision of coherent pastoral blocks of indoctrinated Catholic or Lutheran subjects, harbored by spiritual and secular officials, and the reality oflocal conditions. Most students, when asked to describe some aspect of the European Reformation, recall dramatic events such as Luther's obstinate self-defense at the Imperial Diet of Worms, Henry VHI's quest for a divorce and a male heir, or the bloody repression in 1535 of the Anabaptists at Münster in Westphalia. Their stories begin with Luther's "nailing" of ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg and end sometime in the 155Os with the religious peace ofAugsburg or the Elizabethan Settlement .2 This traditional model normally assumes that the late medieval Catholic church was institutionally corrupt, spiritually bankrupt, and theologically muddled until courageous reformers, such as Luther and later Calvin, offered morally grounded and theologically coherent visions of reformed religious practice, which promised to restore their followers to the pristine state ofprimitive Christianity. In this traditional accountProtestants sweptawaythe Church's decadent "popish" structure and replaced it with a more disciplined ecclesiastical order. In preaching God's word, the reformers aimed to root out the barely Christianized and superstitious practices of folk religions and pour the foundation for modern individualized and rational faith. November/December 2004 * Historically Speaking Much ofReformation history has been written from the Protestant reformers' perspective and has embraced this historical model, yet even sympathetic studies of the 16th-century Catholic Reformation have emphasized its distance from medieval faith and its role in instituting modern Catholicism .3 Thus, whatever their own religious background, historians have taken the reformers at their word and viewed 15th-century Christianity as in need ofreform, and from that perspective have emphasized the differences between post-Reformation religiosity and the practices ofunreformed medieval Christians. In addition, the focus on the reformers themselves, including Catholic leaders, has resulted in closingthe accountof the Reformation with the confessional statements , conciliar decrees, parliamentary acts, or peace treaties that defined or sanctioned officialreligious movements. Inthislong-held historical model, the 16th-centuryReformation ushers in modern Christianity. Recently, however, a vast and growing monographic literature has tested this model in local and regional archives, and the result is a much more complex religious landscape characterized bymultifold trajectories ofreligious modernization. Scholars ofthe European Reformationhave challenged...


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