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August 31, 2013 9:21 PM   Subscribe

What are some good historical sources on the Reformation?

Growing up the token Protestant at Catholic school, and also having aced the European History AP exam once upon a time, I felt like I got a good foundation on the history of the Reformation.

But suddenly I realize I've gotten hazy on it, and in fact have no real understanding of pretty much anything that happened in Europe from 1500-1789 or so. Some keywords are lodged in my brain: the Thirty Years' War, Treaty of Westphalia, ninety-five theses, Ulrich Zwingli, New Model Army, but otherwise, nothing. I also find that I have a piss-poor grasp of German geography, and only the remotest concept of what the Holy Roman Empire was even about.

I'm looking for historical material on the Reformation. I'm not terribly concerned with theology -- I'm not religious and to be frank I think my block on the history of all this is partially due to learning about it in religion-based courses in parochial schools. Books, documentaries, particularly comprehensive podcasts, and really any non-fiction media recommendations would be wonderful.

If it's books, in terms of history I have loved: Fatal Shore, The Embarrassment Of Riches, Gotham, A Distant Mirror, and almost everything Mark Kurlansky has done. I can deal with stuff on the heavy side, but I'm not that interested in primary sources or things that are going to be actively difficult to make my way through.

Resources on the Reformation: give me them!

(FWIW I big part of this noticed lack is the recent Hardcore History podcast on the Munster Rebellion. So it would be great if everyone didn't chime in that I should check that out.)
posted by Sara C. to Education (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I too aced my European History AP a zillion years ago so when I looked up the recommended books for the current incarnation of that AP history class, I found this -- The Reformation : a history by Patrick Collinson.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:52 PM on August 31, 2013

I'll let other people recommend the big stuff and give you this lagniappe: The Return of Martin Guerre is a microhistory about a curious case of mistaken identity in France. It's not strictly Reformation history in the classical sense, but Natalie Zemon Davis's argument is a speculation about how Reformation ideas might have affected ordinary people. (I THINK the general historical consensus on her argument ranges from, "Nope" to "Strong argument, field still wide open.") It's very short but has some theory/historical rigor, and I recommend it all the time.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:56 PM on August 31, 2013

Will Durant wrote an 11-volume history of Western Civ called "The Story of Civilization". Volume VI is "The Reformation".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:10 PM on August 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: One type of media I'm interested in but didn't mention: about a year ago I listened to the iTunes U lectures from a Yale course on Europe in Late Antiquity. I could totally go for something like that for Europe from the Black Death to the French Revolution.
posted by Sara C. at 10:52 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wedgwood wrote a good book on the 30 Year's War. Ta-Nahesi Coates blogged about it while he was reading it a year or so ago.

You also might have a gander at William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:43 AM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation is a really well-written, recent one-volume overview.

I'll second C. V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War and also recommend episodes of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time podcast--for example, The Diet of Worms.
posted by jfbeatty at 4:11 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is a solid single volume biography of Martin Luther, and while not always the easiest read, is well worth your time in setting not only the specifics of the life of Luther, but explaining the background of history, theology, and politics (including church politics) which constrained Luther's life.
posted by paulsc at 5:52 AM on September 1, 2013

Best answer: I teach Renaissance and Reformation Europe, and my favorite single-volume work on the Reformation is Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation, which jfbeatty mentioned. A useful, more textbooky treatment that sets the early Reformation in its late medieval intellectual context is Steven Ozment's The Age of Reform, 1250-1550. Collinson's book has the virtue of being short but is often a little too concise if you don't already have a sense of what's going on.

C. V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War is a fine narrative, and is in print again through the NYRB series with a nice intro by Tony Grafton. For more recent historiography, you can turn to Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy.

I would not recommend Will and Ariel Durant, nor William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire. Manchester regurgitates an outdated view that contrasts a backwards Middle Ages with the brilliance of the Renaissance. And in the hardcover edition, he made the extraordinary claim that the first circumnavigation of the earth proved Copernicus right. That was silently edited out of the paperback. If you want an older, pro-Protestant account of the Reformation that is readable and, within limits, reliable, Preserved Smith's history is the place to go.

You are going to have to grapple with theology to some extent in dealing with the Reformation. MacCulloch's book does a good job of explaining key concepts, including their subtlety, and how they could be reconciled or not. And although it is perhaps too concise in parts, John Bossy's Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 provides a useful overview of how Christianity changed in early modern Europe in ways beyond the Protestant/Catholic division.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

re: above: Curious why you wouldn't recommend Will and Ariel Durant? Is it because they're not particularly Academically-oriented, outdated compared to more recent studies, or their personal left-humanist bias? I find that their accessible style and engaging tone makes up for this, but I could see how this might not work for everyone.
posted by ovvl at 9:04 AM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Diarmaid MacCulloch's Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 is the best general history of the Reformation currently available. It's comprehensive and up-to-date, it isn't limited to the German heartlands of the Reformation but ranges over less familiar territory as well (e.g. Poland-Lithuania, Hungary/Transylvania), and isn't afraid to confront the darker side of the Reformation (e.g. Luther's anti-semitism). However, it's a long book (800+ pages) and can be heavy going at times. MacCulloch wears his learning lightly but you still have to be prepared to grapple with a certain amount of theology.

Other contenders? C. Scott Dixon's Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania 1517-1740 isn't quite so comprehensive as MacCulloch, but has a more transatlantic flavour. Brad S. Gregory's The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society is a more polemical history of the Reformation and its modern legacy. The wild card in the pack is Craig Harline's Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America, a microhistory of how the Reformation tore one family apart, interwoven with a parallel story about -- no, I won't give away any spoilers; read it and see.
posted by verstegan at 11:27 AM on September 1, 2013

Can't go wrong with the Penguin History of the Church. The entire series is great (seriously, read the whole thing), and Volume 3 is about the Reformation.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:07 PM on September 1, 2013

Response by poster: OK guys I cracked and downloaded Diarmid McCulloch's Reformation. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

It's now occurring to me that I'd also like something on the geography of the Reformation, or maybe just a good historical map. Saxony? Nuremberg? Munster? I will probably be reading McCulloch's book with Google Earth open next to me.
posted by Sara C. at 9:05 AM on September 2, 2013

Maybe it's too light for your purposes, but I found The Reformation for Armchair Theologians extremely fun and memorable. (Note: I listened to the audio version, which was read with wonderfully wry delivery.)
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:01 PM on September 16, 2013

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