Monday, January 24, 2005

Good book watch #1

One of my gifts on the Christmas before last was a copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided. Owing to various other commitments, I only finished reading the book today. It’s an impressive accomplishment, and it’s been very widely praised — including on the excellent Talking Points Memo web site. MacCulloch’s book also appeared on a ton of year-end best lists in both 2003 and 2004, and it’s well worth the recognition.

It’s a 700-page history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, covering the years from 1490 to 1700. That’s a lot of material to pack into such a short space, and MacCulloch does a fine job keeping things organised. There’s no fat in the book at all. That said, he does act as a responsible historian and has no hesitation about short-changing drama for the sake of brevity. It’s not a very anecdotal book, nor does it spend much time on defining individual personalities. So it can feel somewhat formal, somewhat distanced from events. Ultimately, this is a necessary price to pay in order for MacCulloch to accomplish his task.

The first 300 or so pages chronicles the advent and growth of Protestantism through to about 1570. The next 300 carry the story of Protestant and Catholic tensions to the end of the 30 Years’ War. The War itself gets surprisingly short shrift; I’d have liked to have seen more about it. The last hundred pages of the book provide a sort of social overview of Europe through these crucial two hundred years, examining how attitudes changed or stayed the same with respect to magic and science, sex and death, and, ultimately, toleration and doubt.

There’s a lot of information in this book; in that sense, it’s extremely dense. Major trends and individuals often can’t be spared more than a page, or even a paragraph, of detailed description. Sometimes less. Keeping all the factions and sects and splinter groups straight is a challenge to your concentration, and constant cross-references are a great help even if you’re reading it straight through.

In the end I think a greater focus on narrative, at least on an overall scale, might have helped unify the book. The outlines of a narrative are certainly there in the structure of the book overall, and I find it too bad MacCulloch wasn’t able to bring to that organising principle through to the level of the page and the paragraph as well as to the level of the chapter. But then it is difficult to tell a coherent story over such a vast stretch of time and space; especially a story of ideas, since ideas by their nature drift over wide areas and pop up where you least expect to find them. Still, I would have liked a greater chronological sense, and especially a stronger sense of the apocalyptic feel of the times — MacCulloch mentions that this was an age when much of the population lived in expectation of the apocalypse, but that doesn’t come out in his retelling of their history. That said, it must be admitted that MacColluch writes with a keen grasp of religious psychology, both in the mass and in the case of specific individuals.

I find myself with only one question after having read the book (other than wondering why MacCulloch finds Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms “not entirely helpful”). That is this: MacCulloch makes a convincing case for the idea that American religious identity derives from the fervent Evangelical identity of the Reformation period. In other words, the heat of contemporary American fundamentalism descends from Reformation-era conviction and intensity. That’s fair enough. But why then does the English Canadian religious identity differ so much from the American? Much of English Canada comes, or used to come, from United Empire Loyalist stock — Americans turned refugees after the Revolution. Why do they, and we in Canada nowadays, not share the American taste for steaming-hot religion? One of the most obvious of the many cultural and political differences between the US and Canada is the fact that Canadians don’t like seeing politicians mixing their politics with their religion, while Americans practically demand it. MacCulloch doesn’t mention this division, which, to be fair, must have developed sometime after his period of study.

Still, it’s something to think about.

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