The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation

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Peter Marshall
Oxford Illustrated Histories
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation is a beautifully presented single volume overview of the Reformation, including sections devoted to its medieval background and contemporary legacy. Its seven chapters, authored by leading reformation scholars, are lavishly adorned with reproductions of books, maps, paintings, statues, and relics that bring the text to life. The book is learned, although unencumbered by footnotes, being cognizant of the latest developments in reformation research, and sometimes challenging them. With a few caveats, the resulting work is informative, readable, and authoritative.

The first chapter introduces Christendom on the eve of the Reformation, painting a picture of the vibrancy and diversity of late medieval Christianity, and challenging simplistic narratives of a corrupt and decaying church which was purified by the Protestant reformation. While this balance is welcome, such a positive picture could lead one to wonder what, precisely, needed reforming, and whether the reformers’ polemics were merely rhetorical devices to promote their own brand of theology.

A well-written and entertaining chapter on Luther, which makes no attempt to hide the reformer’s flaws, is surprisingly lacking in discussion of his theology. It is unclear why Luther’s views on Islam and Judaism (65–68) warrant a detailed treatment while his signature doctrines are barely mentioned. The chapter on Calvinism cannot resist the temptation to caricature its subject—a temptation to which many commentators have succumbed. For instance, Calvinism is described as “a theologically based political ideology that would brook no compromise with sin, or ‘idolatry’ and false religion” (83). While Calvinism certainly had political outworkings, this hardly seems accurate. It also describes the Genevan consistory as working “on the assumption that it could be the instrument of God’s election, reproving sinners, forcing them to find Christ’s forgiveness and to mend their ways” (88), a rather tendentious characterization.

Brad Gregory’s chapter on the “Radical Reformation” is the most overtly polemical, utilizing this platform as an opportunity to demonstrate the pernicious consequences that resulted from Luther’s repudiation of the Church and the Protestant approach to scriptural interpretation. Seeking to reintegrate the non-magisterial reformation into the reformation as a whole, Gregory argues that the “radicals” were not outliers from a more orthodox protestant tradition as traditionally thought; rather, all who rejected the authority of Rome are best seen as “radicals,” thus presenting a reformation characterized by a bewildering array of divergent and inconsistent claims about Christianity. On this account, defining the radical wing of the reformation becomes simply a matter of power, namely those anti-Romanists who were not able to secure political support for their programs (120, 146). Rather than a ‘radically different perspective on the Protestant Reformation as a whole’ (117), this is a well-worn trope in Gregory’s writings: for example, see The Unintended Reformation (Belknap Harvard, 2011) and Rebel in the Ranks (HarperCollins, 2017).

The chapter on the Catholic reformation emphasizes the global reach of a vibrant and contextualized Catholicism, in which the New World came to re-Christianize the Old. The European Counter-Reformation saw “the triumph of the idea of the global reach of Rome, and that of its universal pastor – the pope,” laying the foundations for a global Roman Catholicism in the 20th century (163). As with other chapters, surprisingly little attention is devoted to Counter-Reformation reform efforts or theology. The chapter on Britain’s Reformations integrates “high politics” and social history, shattering many myths in the process. The final chapter tackles the contested legacy of the reformation, avoiding simplistic generalizations and arguing that “the consequences of the Reformation were contradictory” (267).

As noted, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation is somewhat inclined to downplay theology, to which more attention could profitably have been devoted. As the editor puts it, the Reformation “is a decidedly untidier phenomenon than it used to be: it is a long-term process (or set of processes) rather than an event; it is plural and multi-centred, and frequently paradoxical and unpredictable in its effects” (ix). This aptly captures the flavor of the book, which succeeds in providing an accurate narrative and a cohesive overall assessment of the Reformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin B. Saunders is senior lecturer at Deakin Univerity, Australia.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Marshall was born and raised in the Orkney Islands, and educated at Oxford University. Since 1994, he has taught at the University of Warwick, and has been Professor of History there since 2006. He is a specialist in the history of the Reformation, particularly its impact in the British Isles, and has written seven books and over fifty articles around these themes. He is a winner of the Harold J. Grimm Prize for best article in Reformation History. An editorial board member of Sixteenth Century Journal, he is a co-editor of English Historical Review. He also appears regularly on TV and radio to discuss the Reformation and history of religion, and is a frequent reviewer for a range of periodicals, including the Times Literary SupplementLiterary Review, and The Tablet. He is married with three daughters, and lives in Leamington Spa.


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