The name Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) feels like an unlikely answer in a particularly difficult pub quiz. The question might be: Who led the Reformation in Zurich? Who founded the tradition of Reformed Protestantism? Or, who is the only major European theologian to have been killed in battle? Zwingli is known to students of the Reformation, of course, but even here, according to Bruce Gordon, he has ‘long been cast as a lesser man than Martin Luther and as the warm-up act for John Calvin’.
Gordon’s engagingly readable new life aims to give the half-remembered Zwingli his due. It is appropriately empathetic, but never hagiographical, and it successfully resists what Gordon sees as a characteristic failing of biography, ‘over-valorizing a single individual, casting everyone else as spear-carriers in an opera’. Gordon succeeds wonderfully in locating Zwingli within a network of personal and theological relationships, and within the culture and values of the world he inhabited.
That world was the strange one of late-medieval Switzerland, a loose and querulous confederation of rural cantons and small city-states that punched above its weight internationally by supplying the major powers with an endless stream of tough mercenary troops. As a young village priest in the small Alpine