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  • Reforming the North: The Kingdoms and Churches of Scandinavia, 1520-1545 by James L. Larson
  • Joseph González
James L. Larson . Reforming the North: The Kingdoms and Churches of Scandinavia, 1520-1545. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

The title of this book and the cross that ornaments its jacket seem to promise an account of the religious changes that swept the North in the first half of the sixteenth century. The reader will therefore be surprised to find that what Professor Larson has produced is nothing so banal. In this case the word "reforming" must be read in its broadest sense. Larson's work is not primarily about the Reformation as it is normally conceived. Rather, his study is focused on understanding the tumultuous and literal re-forming of the social, economic, political, and religious institutions of Scandinavia in the period stretching from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Larson's work is a direct response to the overwhelming majority of scholarship on this period (and the Reformation in particular) that, as he notes in his introduction, tends to a nationalistic focus that separates the experience of the individual Northern Kingdoms both from one another and from events in continental Europe while privileging the religious Reformation as the defining movement of the age. Meanwhile, the huge quantity of documentation that survives from the period and the complexity of the issues that make the sixteenth century so vital to an understanding of the subsequent history of the region have encouraged authors to become ever more specialized and narrow in their focus. While Larson recognizes the impossibility of completely escaping these tendencies, his work is a brave attempt at overcoming these limitations and at providing a broad overview of Scandinavia that demonstrates the complex relationships between the Northern Kingdoms, social and economic change, the consolidation of political power, religious change, and similar trends in continental Europe. His two main goals are to demonstrate Scandinavian integration in the process of European state formation and the process by which the resources of medieval religious and social institutions were appropriated and redirected to the princely state and territorial churches. Larson's approach is ambitious, nonconformist and, yet at the same time, seems occasionally distinctly "old fashioned." Overall it is a work of formidable scholarship that largely achieves its goals and suggests directions for future scholarship.

The author, James Larson, is Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley. His academic focus is language and literature and the cultural intellectual history of early modern northern Europe. His work is of a distinctly interdisciplinary character and much of his focus during his distinguished career has been on early modern understandings of the natural scientific world and, in particular, the work of Carl Linnaeus. This background has provided Professor Larson [End Page 506] with a unique set of tools and perspectives that distinguish his current work on the Nordic Kingdoms from the overwhelming mass of histories of the Scandinavian Reformation. Professor Larson's work is refreshingly unencumbered by an excess of theoretical concerns or paradigms and is unmistakably secular in its perspective. He presents a wide-ranging narrative that places considerable weight on the actors in his drama, the kings of Denmark and Sweden, prelates, nobles, great burghers, villains, and rogues, while at the same time demonstrating their dependence on their context and revealing great chains of cause and effect that at times span the length of Europe. The pace is brisk and, frankly, exciting. This book is a page-turner—even knowing how it ends!

Basing his account on a wide assortment of primary source documents as well as secondary sources, Larson starts with an account of the founding of the Union of Kalmar in 1397 and provides a brief sketch of its history through the end of the fifteenth century. The stage thus set, the author embarks on a detailed account of the forces, personalities, and social and economic changes that led to the Union's de facto dissolution in 1521. He then continues through the period of Reform and the consolidation of royal power by the Oldenburgs in Denmark and the Vasas in Sweden to about 1550, emphasizing the process of...


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