The Jews and the Reformation

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Kenneth Austin
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is a wealth of books on the history of Jews and Judaism in the medieval and early modern periods. There are classic monographs on Christian anti-Judaism, including R. Po-Chia Hsia’s The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany (Yale, 1988) and Heiko Oberman’s The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation (Fortress, 1984). There are excellent studies on Christian Hebraism and Jewish intellectual influence as well as standard biographies of major Jewish figures of the 16th century such as Josel of Rosheim. There are even plenty of books on Martin Luther and his violent anti-Jewish polemics, such as Thomas Kaufmann’s Luther’s Jews (Oxford, 2017). But somehow there remains a curious lacuna in the scholarship: there are no books on the general impact of the Reformation on the Jews of Europe.

Kenneth Austin’s The Jews and the Reformation explains many reasons why this may be, such as the practice of narrowly focused confessional historiography or long standing anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism, or even the embarrassment of both latter-day Christians or liberal secularists who downplay the widespread mistreatment of Jews by Reformers because they consider the Reformation as a period of progress for religious freedom. But for whatever reasons that the broader topic was left behind in the past, Austin recognizes the considerable hole in the scholarship, and offers an outstanding and comprehensive study that will surely prove to be the standard on the subject for many years to come.

Through eight substantial chapters, Austin charts a course through the story of the effects of the Reformation on European Jews. The account is chronological, beginning with Judeo-Christian relations on the eve of the Reformation and ending with the first half of the 17th century and the Thirty Years’ War. While the major events and movements of the Reformation are all there, Austin shifts them from the usual, standard timelines, beginning with Spain in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews instead of Luther in Wittenberg in 1517. This is not some strange, sui generis claim on Austin’s part, nor one without justification: this book joins other prominent Reformation scholars in making this compelling but controversial claim. For Austin, however there is crucial point added: by starting in 1492, the Reformation begins with one of the most consequential persecutions of Jews in early modern history.

Throughout the book, Austin’s chronology is replete with the Jewish implications of Christian church reform: from the early German evangelical enthusiasm for Jewish conversion to the midcentury failures to convert; from the struggles of confessional hardening and the precarious status of Jews in many realms and cities to the mid-17th -century’s war-torn Holy Roman Empire and the English Commonwealth’s readmission of Jews (who had been barred from the realm since the decree of Edward I in 1290). For many students and scholars of the Reformation, Austin’s book will be largely familiar historical territory; its value comes as we are brought to see the whole Reformation as a Jewish history.

This is not to claim that the book is just another Reformation history but with highlights on the effects on Jews—far from it. It is full of new insight and fresh analysis. Austin’s treatment of the Reformed movement and the Jews is particularly appreciated, as it carefully explains the complicated position of Reformed Christians toward Jews as they, in being persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike, identified themselves with the small persecuted remnant of ancient Israel, and yet at the same time claimed to be the inheritors of the now-superseded Israelite covenant with God. As Austin shows, this made for a fascinating blend of anti- and philo-Jewish attitudes, practices, and policies. It even opened men such as John Calvin up to the charge of being a Judaizer by his Christian enemies and detractors.

Austin also shows how the Tridentine treatment of Jews in the Catholic territories defies any easy summary, as papal policy shifted, priorities over Jewish conversions waxed and waned, and imperial protection of Jews could come and go with changing emperors and dukes. What surprises here is not so much the complexity but the way in which the status of Jews could quickly change: pogroms and mass expulsions could be followed by court protections and privileges. Austin’s treatment of Jewish messianism and millenarianism in this period is also noteworthy, for they are linked to similar contemporary Christian expectations of the world’s end.

Scholars may find several elements in this book with which to quibble: the use and meaning of the term Reformation, the appropriate use of anti-Judaism versus anti-Semitism, the scope in time and place, the underplaying or overplaying of this or that event, and so on. But this book is a well-written and finely researched account of the effects of the Reformation on Europe’s Jews. Its original and significant contribution is beyond dispute: it is now the definitive volume on the topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jarrett A. Carty is professor of liberal arts at Concordia University, Montreal.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth Austin is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Bristol, UK, and the author of From Judaism to Calvinism: The Life and Writings of Immanuel Tremellius.


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