I was once asked by the late Sir John Templeton to join the panel of judges that awards the munificent annual Templeton Prize, which was then known as a prize for ‘progress in religion’. I declined the invitation, saying that I thought there could not be any objective measure of such progress. ‘Tell me, John,’ I said, ‘was the life and work of Luther a great leap forward, or was it a terrible catastrophe?’
This massive and remarkable book presents convincing evidence that it was both at the same time. Of the many histories of the Reformation period on the market, this may well be the most even-handed available. Carlos Eire’s concern for impartiality is already exhibited in his choice of title. Both ‘Reformation’ and ‘Counter-Reformation’, he points out, are Protestant coinages betraying Protestant bias. He aims to tell the story of parallel reform movements that long antedate and postdate Luther’s Wittenberg theses. His narrative starts in around 1450 with Pope Nicholas V’s project for rebuilding St Peter’s in Rome and ends just before 1650 with the Peace of Westphalia, which brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War.
Eire presents three principal arguments. The first is that there were multiple Reformations that cannot be fully understood in isolation from each other. The second is that ‘we cannot begin to comprehend who we are now as Westerners without first understanding the changes wrought by the Reformations of