Both Delumeau and Bossy feature in Eire’s bibliography, but he has little sympathy with these attempts at an overarching morphology of “Reformation.” For him, what characterizes the religious transformations of the sixteenth century, and their out-workings in the seventeenth, is not a single unifying energy, good or bad, but their variety and multiple incompatibilities. The occasion of his book is the upcoming Luther anniversary, and he does justice to Luther’s unique role in triggering the collapse of the medieval religious synthesis. But he is keen to emphasize that Luther was just one, if the first, of the agents of the dramatic upheavals of the period, and in the long term, by no means the most important. Zwingli, a former humanist whose abandonment of medieval Catholic orthodoxy predated Luther’s, gets extended treatment, as does Calvin, who built on Zwingli’s initiatives to create the disciplined structures and alliances with civic society which would become the normative form of Protestantism. So, too, do the leaders of the more radical, apocalyptic, or rationalizing alternatives to Catholicism and to what became “mainstream” Protestantism. Eire does not give much away in his personal assessment of Luther, though alongside a meticulous analysis of the theology we get ample quotation illustrating Luther’s disconcerting penchant for scatological insult and a preoccupation with excreta aimed indiscriminately at Catholics and the devil.
Eire’s final chapter on the great Reformer is headed “Luther the reactionary” and deals with Luther’s violent repudiation of the apocalyptic radicalism of former disciples like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas MÃ¼ntzer, and especially with the Wittenbergers’ savage reaction to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525….
Read it all.