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About this book

Over the past twenty years, new approaches to the history of the Reformation of the Church have radically altered our understanding of that event within its broadest social and cultural context. In this classic study R. W. Scribner provided a synthesis of the main research, with a special emphasis on the German Reformation, and presented his own interpretation of the period.

Paying particular attention to the social history of the broader religious movements of the German Reformation, Scribner examined those elements of popular culture and belief which are now seen to have played a central role in shaping the development and outcome of the movements for reform in the sixteenth century. Scribner concluded that 'the Reformation', as it came to be known, was only one of a wide range of responses to the problem of religious reform and revival, and suggested that the movement as a whole was less successful than previously claimed.

In the second edition of this invaluable text, C. Scott Dixon's new Introduction, supplementary chapter and bibliography continue Scribner's original lines of inquiry, and provide additional commentary on developments within German Reformation scholarship over the sixteen years since its first publication.

Table of Contents

1. Some Reformation Myths

Abstract
For most of us, the Reformation is ‘Luther’s Reformation’, a massive response among the German people to a new faith proclaimed by Martin Luther and centred in Wittenberg. It is common to regard it as having begun in 1517, when Luther allegedly posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Despite much scholarly debate, it remains uncertain whether the theses were ever posted; the real significance of the alleged incident resides in the fact that much later in the sixteenth century a myth was created that this was how ‘the Reformation’ began. This myth is typical of a number of myths about the Reformation. It involves a teleological view of history, an arrangement from hindsight of the course of events into an inevitable pattern, in which no other outcome is envisaged than ‘the Reformation’ as later ages understood it.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

2. Religion and Reform

Abstract
Historians have always believed that an understanding of the religious dimensions of the Reformation could be found in the ‘state of religion’ of the age preceding it. Exactly what that ‘state of religion’ was, however, has been a matter of controversy, with at least four different analyses of its nature.
(1)
There was a profound religious malaise in the century before the Reformation (22). This view seems to be confirmed by a broad range of fifteenth-century literature criticising religious abuses and failings, as well as by the criticisms of the sixteenth-century reformers. There is also evidence of low levels of church attendance, infrequent practice of the Sacraments and poor knowledge of the faith (20, 27).
 
(2)
There was a strong sense of devotion to the church and a powerful revival of piety for at least two generations before the Reformation (25). In support of this thesis one can point to the growth of interest in mysticism and asceticism, to movements of lay piety such as the Devotio moderna, to the popularity of lay confraternities, to an increase in mass endowments, to a steady stream of devotional literature produced by the new art of printing, to new religious cults such as that of St Anne or the Rosary, and to a considerable revival of preaching.
 
(3)
The problem was not too little religion, but too much (30). The demands of religious observance had become a spiritual burden, creating anxiety where religious comfort was sought. This was certainly the view held by Luther, who spoke of his own repeated attempts to find consolation in the confessional, only to find that its rigours further ensnared his conscience, instead of easing it.
 
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

3. The Reformation as an Evangelical Movement

Abstract
For some time now it has been common for scholars of the Reformation to speak of it as an ‘evangelical movement’. The term captures the tone of the upsurge of religious enthusiasm that swept through Germany in the early 1520s. In its broadest manifestations, it was a movement of biblical renewal. Many felt that the genuine Christian message, the ‘pure Word of God’ as it was recorded in the Bible, had been rediscovered after it had lain hidden or obscured for many generations. Religious fervour was certainly the dominant characteristic of this movement. For those involved, the biblical revival offered a new meaning to many areas of life, a changed perspective of their relationship to God and the world. An important feature of the movement was the conviction that religious revival was not just the work of mere human beings, but the result of a direct intervention of God into human history, the work of the Holy Spirit. Many, including Luther, saw this as a decisive sign of the imminence of the Last Days. The catchword of this movement was ‘the Gospel’ or ‘the Word of God’: one was either for the Gospel or against it, one agreed to ‘stand by the Gospel’ and to ‘uphold the pure Word of God’.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

4. Social Location of the Reformation

Abstract
We are now well accustomed to asking about the social composition of such movements of change, and this chapter will provide a brief sociology of the reform movement. To say that it found adherents among all social groups is an unhelpful truism. What we need to know for an adequate sociology is whether its adherents were drawn disproportionately from one social group or another, and whether there were significant differences in how each group understood its message. We should also examine any differences between leaders and followers, and whether there was any differential appeal in terms of age, gender, occupation or profession and wealth. We should also ask questions about different degrees of participation: were some people only lightly touched by its message, as opposed to more fervent adherents? Were different categories of adherents characterised by different forms of behaviour? Can we draw any significant distinction between active or passive adherents? At this stage of the research, it is difficult to provide firm answers to all these questions (see 55), but we now have enough case-studies to risk a crude sketch.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

5. Politics and the Reformation

Abstract
From the very beginning, the question of religious reform was so inextricably linked to political issues that it could never give rise to an unpolitical Reformation. Politics created complications at three levels, most of which overlapped: ecclesiastical, communal, and territorial-imperial politics.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

6. Varieties of Reformation

Abstract
One of the least edifying features of the reform movement was the way in which many of its participants were stigmatised and condemned by their fellow ‘evangelical Christians’. From the end of the 1520s, an emergent ‘Protestant’ orthodoxy consistently denigrated many who held evangelical ideas with which they did not agree, labelling them as ‘fanatics’ (Schwärmer), as obstinate and malicious deviants who fomented unrest and disturbance (92). Modern historiography discusses these stigmatised groups under the heading of Anabaptists or Radicals, and although they are now accorded more attention than they were in the past (96, 101–3), they are still seen as somehow marginal to the development of the ‘mainstream’ Reformation. This is a measure of how far the confessional historiography produced by erastian churches has influenced views of the Reformation, obscuring the fact that there were many strands in the original evangelical movements. These strands will not be discussed here using the labels created by confessional historiography. It will be more fruitful to single out the issues on which the various tendencies began to diverge, in order to understand how different groups of reformers began to separate themselves from one another.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

7. The Impact of Reform

Abstract
Historians have often made very sweeping claims about the impact of the Reformation on religion, society and the state. These range from practical matters such as the reshaping of marriage laws, or the emergence of new forms of poor relief, to broad political developments such as the growth of the absolutist state, and vast generalisations about the emergence of capitalism or the development of ‘secularisation’ or ‘modernisation’. Some of these latter claims display par excellence the teleological view of history, and bristle with so many question-begging prejudgments that they cannot be adequately discussed in so brief a space as is available here. It does seem certain, however, that recent research is leading us to such a different understanding of the Reformation, that many of these common notions about its impact should be drastically revised.
R. W. Scribner, C. Scott Dixon

8. Supplementary Chapter

Abstract
In the years since The German Reformation first appeared, many of the themes discussed in the text have found their way into the mainstream narratives of Reformation history. Scribner spoke of the need to imagine the Reformation as a ‘complex, extended historical process, going well beyond the endeavours of one man or one tendency, and involving social, political and wider religious issues’, and most modern studies of the German Reformation are guided by a similar spirit. The retreat from narrowly confessional religious history is largely complete, and it is now more or less commonplace for sociological and anthropological studies to appear in the same bibliographies as church histories and theological analyses. Schools of interpretation remain, but most scholars move between genres without giving it much thought, and most surveys of the period take in a broad range of ideas and approaches (19, 46, 74, 95, 138).
C. Scott Dixon
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