The Early Modern World, 1450-1650

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Carlos M. N. Eire
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     920 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a 2009 interview in the literary journal Dappled Things, historian Carlos Eire reflected with some humor on what it is like to teach as a Catholic scholar “among the infidels here at Yale (laughs).” After he was appointed to the chair of Catholic studies, a colleague reacted with some surprise: “‘Why did they give you the Catholic chair? You’re not Catholic.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ Her jaw dropped, and she said, ‘But you’re so tolerant!’” Readers unfamiliar with Eire’s work—especially his award-winning memoirs, Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami—might experience a similar reaction after reading his latest book, a wide-ranging and deeply learned synthesis of early modern Europe’s religious upheavals. In this case, however, the surprise would be owing to Eire’s intellectual discipline as a historian, rather than to any anti-Catholic bias. Explaining his approach in the same interview, Eire noted that he pursues a “denomination-blind approach” in his work as a historian. “When I’m writing about Anabaptists I get into their mindset; when I’m writing about Puritans I get into theirs. When I write about Catholics—well, I am a Catholic and I see anything I see as a Catholic would.” In Reformations, Eire is as good as his word. The first full-scale, synthetic history of the Reformation era by a Catholic historian in a generation (and, by my reckoning, the first of its kind by an American Catholic), Eire has written a work with all the virtues of an “insider’s history”—intimate familiarity with the primary sources, charity of judgment, and a firm conviction that the story he is telling still matters—but with very few of the usual attendant vices.

In Part 1, suggestively titled, “On the Edge,” Eire gives an unusually rich and textured evocation of religious life in late medieval Europe; one that draws deeply on a generation of revisionist scholarship, yet without capitulating to polemic or nostalgia for “the world we have lost.” Instead, he traces out the lines of a society formed by the rhythms of liturgy and pulsing with spiritual vitality, while also taking seriously the growing sense of crisis that led many reformers (both inside and outside the church’s hierarchy) to conclude that the old order had to change. In an analysis that may seem timely given the upheavals in our current political culture, Eire argues that the difference between the church “on the eve of Luther” and earlier periods was primarily a problem of perception: “The situation was not necessarily worse than it had been for centuries—on the contrary, in some ways the church and religious life were more vibrant than ever.” Then (as perhaps now) the proliferation of new communication technologies preceded a crisis in which the abuses and failings of the establishment became “more conspicuous, more openly discussed, and more deeply resented by a wider spectrum of people” (44). By focusing on perception at the level of literary discourse, Eire neatly avoids the trap of the old “Protestant powder keg” narratives of medieval decline, while at the same time offering a plausible explanation for the widespread appeal of Luther.

A second distinguishing feature of Eire’s account is the way in which he integrates parallel reform trajectories across the arc of his narrative. Confessional Protestant historiography has traditionally assigned the term “reform” to figures like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons, against which the reactionary forces of “counter-reform” were forced to respond. More recently, Catholic and post-confessional historians have sought to redress this imbalance with the term “Catholic reform,” but the story has too often remained one of thesis and antithesis, initiative and reaction. Here Eire makes a major contribution in structuring his account of internal Catholic reform as one that predates the arrival of Luther, not as a “forerunner,” dead-end, or “road not taken,” but as a dynamic set of currents arising independently from Protestantism, developing concurrently, and shaping the course of early modern Catholicism in ways that transcend mere reaction. Some of these figures are well-known to specialists in field, but Eire makes a compelling case that names such as Giles of Viterbo, Francisco Jiménez Cisneros, St. Catherine of Genoa, Gasparo Contarini, Gian Matteo Giberti, and St. John of Ávila all deserve greater recognition as “forerunners of the Catholic reformation”—or better yet, simply as “reformers.”

Readers looking for a comprehensive account of the religious upheavals of early modern Europe will find in Eire a congenial and eloquent guide. It is not entirely clear how this book might be used in an academic context: its sheer size will make it unwieldy for undergraduate courses, while the omission of scholarly literature in languages other than English in the bibliography will limit its usefulness in graduate seminars. Still, the determined neophyte will find Eire’s narrative an excellent point of entry into an alien historical landscape, while even specialists will find much that is worthy of consideration and debate. For example, Eire’s revision of George Hunston Williams’s venerable (though dated) taxonomy of radical movements is a minor tour-de-force of historical synthesis in its own right, while Eire’s consideration of changing responses to purported irruptions of the supernatural (e.g., witchcraft, visions, levitation, bilocation, telepathy, etc.) plays an important part in the book’s larger thesis concerning the role of Protestantism in the desacralization of Western society. And despite the author’s attentiveness to the pluriformity of “reformations” during this period, by the end of the book it is clear that it was still the Protestant Reformation (in the more limited sense) that drove much of the long-term historical change with which the book is occupied. No historian ever gets “the last word” in narrating a story of this breadth and complexity, but I expect that Eire’s account will shape the way we think and talk about “the reformations”—both as diverse and distinct movements of religious renewal, and as a constellation of social, cultural, and religious upheaval—for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Fink is Assistant Professor of Religion at Furman University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carlos Eire is T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University. He is the author of several scholarly books and two memoirs, including Waiting for Snow in Havana, for which he received the National Book Award. He lives in Guilford, CT.


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