The Reformation: A history of European civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564
© 1957 Will Durant
Although titled as a work of religious history, The Reformation is almost more a continuation of The Age of Faith in covering the final two hundred years of the medieval epoch not just in Europe, but in the Islamic and Turkish worlds as well. For Europe, these are centuries of transition: philosophy and humanism have been gaining in strength, and the old feudal kingdoms are becoming increasingly powerful states with masters who resent the power of the Bishop of Rome over their mutual subjects’ lives. The economic revival is well on its way: captialism has already triumphed over feudalism. Soon will come the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the dawn of modernity…but first, the tree of liberty shall be fed with the blood of saints and heretics, and the manure of brain-droppings from such personalities as Luther and Calvin.
I have never liked Luther, and I regard Calvin with even cooler regard: their ideas of predestination are miserable, and their Sola Scriptura doctrine has been a heavy fetter upon the necks of European civilization, keeping backs bent in worship of a book that was written, translated, compiled, and published by men of diverse and sometimes objectionable agendas. Though I will admit the Judeo-Christian literature has some wonderful verses in it, there are also a great many horrific ones, ones that deserve to be cast into the dustbin of history. I regard with contempt many arrogant and sadistic claims made by people using this book as their source. Still, I have given these ‘gentlemen’ a token of gruding respect in that they slew a great tyrant and made it easier for individuals to free themselves. They reduced the power of the Roman church and made religion a local affair: someone could flee John Calvin’s psychotic dictatorship in Geneva as easily as going to another Swiss canton — but before the Reformation, a man condemned by one priest was condemned by all of Europe. However, my reading of The Age of Faith, The Renaissance, and The Reformation has made this view a bit harder to hold. In Durant’s history, I have seen the Church consistently pale in influence compared to the rise of absolutist monarchies, powerful economic forces, and intellectual tides that would lead to the Enlightenment. Its continuing moral corruption and game tolerance of humanism made it increasing irrelevant. But then came Luther and Calvin, re-energizing the populace of Europe about religion, and with them the despicable monsters of Puritanism and biblical literalism.
This is a great book in scope, spanning virtually aspect of civilized life: politics, economics, everyday living, religion, music, art, literature, and architecture. Religion is a consistent thread throughout the text, but as I read this seemed to me a book driven by powerful personalities — Leo X of Rome, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and most of all, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. If you ever need to consider Charles V’s place in history, look no further than this, The Reformation. Charles’ conflicts with Francis and the Roman church essentially create the world of the Reformation — a world in which Luther was protected by German princes, and his religion used to spark a nationalistic fire in Germany that would allow the Empire to exist completely free of Roman influence — a feat more easily accomplished by the fact that Germany was never completely conquered by the Roman empire, never Latinized. Teutonic culture never fell before Rome, and Luther gave it a chance to reassert itself and assert its own completely temporal mastery of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire’s far-reaching politics appear in almost every chapter of the book. What led to the separation of the Church of England from Rome? Not doctrine — not Luther, not Calvin — but politics. Henry’s needs of state led him to seek an annulment of his marriage from Katherine of Aragon — an aunt of Charles. The Pope may have well given that annulment, but at the time he happened to be a prisoner of Charles. Charles isn’t going to let the Pope allow his aunt to be divorced, and so Henry simply has to go around the pope’s authority. Throughout the tome, religion and politics prove to be fiercely intertwined creatures. Using this book as a source, I might well write a paper on the thesis: no Charles V, no Reformation.
This is a thoroughly impressive history which is ended perfectly by Durant’s epilogue, where he assumes the voices of three persons — a Catholic, a Protestant, and a humanist — arguing with one another over the virtues and failings of the Reformation.