Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Peter Marshall - The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction

Peter Marshall is the author of a number of significant and important works on the Reformation, including his book on the English Reformation which I recommended a few years ago. This, one of the excellent Very Short Introduction series, is a straightforward introduction which covers the main events and in the broadest way. Readers who know Reformation history will no doubt find their particular interests or favourite bits are covered, but superficially, but it is a good broad overview of events.

Marshall is good on some consequences of the Reformation. For instance he explores sexuality and society, including the position of women. He argues the Reformation "reinforced patriarchy", because it reasserted the role of the family, the "Protestant social institution par excellence, the building-block of the Christian community". Consequently he argues that the Reformation left women in a diminished position, offering "women on the dual package of marriage and motherhood".

The problem is that Marshall doesn't really offer much deeper analysis. He opens (and indeed finishes) by saying that the Reformation created the world we live in today. Which is a bit obvious really. But what created the Reformation? Here he rejects those "Marxists, as well as subscribers to treny sociaological and literary theories" who want to "deconstruct" the real "political, class-based or economic motivations" behind the Reformation. Here he suggests that "any approach which beings with a rigid... distinction between the religious and the secular is unlikely to get us very far". But Marxism didn't do this. In fact, it notes that social and economic changes were precisely what created the tensions that allowed Luther's ideas to get a mass holding.

In fact I suggest that Marshall is wrong to imply that Marxists have only seen the Reformation and the German Peasant War as being "secular". 

By avoiding the wider social drivers behind the Reformation, Marshall ends up suggesting that it was the ideas that drove events forward. This is, of course, partly true. But the ideas got a resonance because of their context.

While I was frustrated with this aspect of this short book, it is a valuable book in terms of how it summarises the evens of the Reformation and the ideas at its core. In particular Marshall is very sharp on what happens in areas outside of Germany, and the religious consequences (in terms of religious organisations) of the Reformation. If you need a quick introduction this is good, but it is limited. 

Related Reviews

Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation

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