Europe is a culture with an ancient wound, a fault line which has divided it since the sixteenth-century Reformation. The division between Catholic and Protestant Europe still runs deep even where religious practice has become a marginal activity: wretched news from Belfast picks at the scab every morning when we turn on Radio Four. In Peter Ackroyd’s richly enjoyable book, we are transported back to the moment when the wound was inflicted; it was the last golden season of a society unified in a single Western Church, where jokes cracked by gentle scholars and urbane politicians could circulate from Cork to Cadiz or Cracow in the universal language of Latin. Well-informed, well-educated Europeans were self-assured, optimistic that an even better future could be engineered by sweetly reasonable, carefully argued programmes for reform. Instead, their world was ripped apart in order to find the best path to heaven. We may blame selfish and foolish popes and bishops, or an obstinate and neurotic monk called Martin Luther. Our judgement will probably reflect where we stand on either side of the fault line, and we will judge Thomas Mo re with the same resonances in mind.
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