Book Review: Carlos Eire’s “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650”

Eire, Carlos M. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 758 pp. $21.00.

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Biographical Sketch of the Author

Carlos M. N. Eire is T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.[1] Eire’s areas of research have focused on early modern Europe, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious history, and the protestant and catholic reformations.[2] Prior to his appointment to the faculty at Yale University, Eire held faculty appointments at St. John’s University and the University of Virginia.[3] Additionally, he serves as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.[4] He is also a past president of the Society for Reformation Research, the American Catholic Historical Association, and the American Society of Church History.[5]

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Eire earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Loyola University, Chicago, in 1973.[6] Following completion of his undergraduate studies, he earned a series of graduate degrees, including the Master of Arts (1974), Master of Philosophy (M. Phil., 1976), and the Doctor of Philosophy in History (1979), all received from Yale University.[7] He has presented numerous papers, lectures, and symposia at conferences and invited talks, published copious amounts of research articles, and authored several books.[8] Eire’s published books include The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography, A Very Brief History of Eternity, Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Jews, Christians, Muslims: A Comparative Introduction to Monotheistic Religions, From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth Century Spain, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin, and the present work, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1700.[9] Eire also has a forthcoming title under contract with Yale University Press, A History of the Impossible: Levitation and the Miraculous in the Age of Reason.[10]

Summary of the Contents

Eire’s work provides an expansive history of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and the various changes these momentous events initiated. The book is divided into four major sections detailing these consequential events. Notably, each section begins with an approximately two-page prelude examining the historical context and condition of Rome, the center of Roman Catholicism, at various points in history, including the years 1450 (1-2), 1510 (131-132), 1564 (367-368), and 1626 (523-524). In part 1, “On the Edge” (1-130), Eire examined the historical context of the mid-15th century, exploring religion in late medieval Christendom, reform and dissent in the late Middle Ages, Italian humanism, humanism in geographical and cultural contexts beyond Italy, and the forerunners of the Catholic Reformation.

In Part 2, “Protestants” (131-366), Eire explored the historical context of the early 16th century and the most important figures that would emerge during that era. Specifically, Eire examines the life and spiritual evolution of Martin Luther (133-217), giving consideration to Luther’s evolution from student to monk (Chapter 7, 133-157), from rebel to heretic (Chapter 8, 158-184), and from Luther the Reactionary as Luther responded to the events unleashed by his actions during the early years of the Protestant Reformation (Chapter 9, 185-217). In addition, Eire explores the Swiss Reformation (Chapter 10, 218-247), the Radical Reformation (Chapter 11, 248-285), Calvin and Calvinism (Chapter 12, 286-317), and England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland from the time period of 1521-1603 (Chapter 13, 318-366).

In Part 3 of the book, “Catholics,” Eire explores the historical context of the mid-16th century and the state and evolution of Catholicism throughout that era. Eire first explored the Roman Catholic Church’s confrontation with the need for reform in Chapter 14, “Catholic Reform: Facing the Challenge” (369-388). Following this, the process of reconciliation and healing through reform within Roman Catholicism is explored in Chapter 15, “Catholic Reform: Healing the Body of Christ” (389-413). The process of reform within the body of the clergy and church leadership itself is explored in Chapter 16, “Catholic Reform: Fashioning a New Clergy” (414-441). After exploring the process of reforming the clergy and church leadership, Eire then examines changes, reform, and evolution within the Jesuit segments of Roman Catholicism in Chapter 17, “Catholic Reform: The Society of Jesus” (442-465). Eire then examined reformation in the context of Roman Catholic mission work in Chapter 18, “Missions to the New World” (466-497), and Chapter 19, “Missions to the East Indies” (498-522).

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In Part 4 of the book, “Consequences,” Eire explores the aftermath and repercussions of the Protest and Catholic Reformations on successive eras of history following the years of reformation. After the opening prelude examining Rome in the mid-17th century (523-524), Eire then proceeds to explore the “Age of Religious Wars” in Chapter 20 (525-561). Eire then explores the age of orthodoxy in Chapter 21 (562-585). Following this, the confessional age is explored in Chapter 22 (586-617). Eire then examines “the Age of Devils” in Chapter 23 (618-659), followed by “the Age of Reasonable Doubt” in Chapter 24 (660-690). As Eire moves toward and into the 17th century, he then considers “the Age of Outcomes” in Chapter 25 (691-718), followed by “the Spirit of the Age” in Chapter 26 (719-740). While a summary of contents is provided for the entirety of the book to give appropriate context, the critical evaluation section of this review will focus on the last two parts of the work, “Part Three: Catholics” and “Part Four: Consequences.”

Critical Evaluation

The back cover of the book notes that this work and its author are the recipients of the 2017 R. R. Hawkins Best Book of the Year and Best Book in European & World History and Humanities PROSE awards. These awards, given by the Association of American Publishers, recognize excellence in scholarship and outstanding scholarly works in all disciplines of the arts and sciences.[11] Given the extraordinary quality of writing and scholarship Eire displays in Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, the reader is left in no doubt as to the worthiness of this remarkable history for the recognition it has received. Eire’s work strikes a rare balance between thorough and comprehensive scholarship and easy readability in surveying the Protestant and Catholic Reformations from the mid-15th century through the mid-17th century. In addition to its readable and engaging style, the work also contains 73 pages of bibliographic material, furnishing the reader with a comprehensive and profitable reference resource. The book is also beautifully illustrated, with useful and engaging illustrations dispersed throughout the pages of each section. While illustrations are often precious few in scholarly works of the magnitude of Reformations and, thus, any illustrations arrest the attention of the reader to some degree, the present author found himself frequently captivated by the engaging nature and breathtaking detail of many of the illustrations included, as well as pragmatic and well-constructed captions both summarizing the nature of what is illustrated and its relevance to the narrative at hand.

In the preface, Eire notes that he set out to construct a narrative of the epochal change brought on by the momentous events of the years surveyed in the work and of the particular role played in those events by religion (viii). Eire also advances a thesis in the work arguing that what happened from ca. A.D. 1450-1650 has had an enormous impact on modern Western society (xvii). This thesis becomes an overarching theme of the work and is particularly evident in Part 4, in which Eire examines the consequences and implications of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. In understanding Eire’s objectives and the overarching thesis of the work, its contents can be understood in light of three central features of Eire’s scholarship. First, Eire argues that religion was a material factor in the history of individual nations, as well as the wider world and the global community. Second, Eire posits a framework recognizing the existence of multiple reformations throughout the roughly two centuries surveyed rather than the more commonly held conception of a Protestant Reformation and a Catholic Counter-Reformation. This framework is alluded to from the very cover and title of the book, which invokes the plural noun “Reformations” rather than the singular “Reformation. Finally, Eire argues that the consequences and impacts of religion and the reformations studied are pervasive and can be traced to modern-day Western society and culture.

In section three of the work, Eire explores reforms that occurred within Roman Catholicism during the period examined. While virtually all histories of the era encompassing the Protestant Reformation grant some degree of treatment to what is frequently termed the Roman Catholic “Counter-Reformation,” Eire pushes back against that notion by examining the various reformations and changes within the Roman Catholic Church independent of the Protestant Reformation itself. While Eire explores the impacts and connections between the events of the Protestant Reformation and the reforms which took place within Roman Catholicism, Eire also draws out changes that occurred within the Roman Catholic Church itself, focusing on healing in the aftermath of numerous traumatic events, the reform, evolution, and redirection of the Roman Catholic clergy, and the changes within and contributions of the Jesuits. While the last two chapters of the section concerning the missionary activities of the Roman Catholic Church in the New World and the East Indies may seem somewhat out of place given the broader theme of this section, the present author finds their inclusion both logical and appropriate given the Eire’s broad objectives and underlying theses: not only examining the events, context, personalities, and forces of the reformations of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries themselves but also examining the implications and repercussions of those reformations. Accordingly, the present author finds Chapter 18, “Missions to the New World,” and Chapter 19, “Missions to the East Indies,” fitting and appropriate given the theme of this particular section.

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In Part 4, “Consequences,” Eire surveys the various impacts of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on wider Western society. While the content of this section is fascinating and enlightening on a number of levels and provides fruitful analysis for reflection, Eire’s approach in this particular section appears to depart from his earlier methodology. In Part 4, Eire’s conclusions throughout the section largely seem to aggregate Protestantism and its consequences. While Eire does a brilliant job exploring a variety of Reformations in various contexts throughout the earlier sections of the work, he largely departs from that approach in his treatment of the book’s final section. It should also be noted that, while he acknowledges fragmentation as a multi-faceted consequence generated by a variety of catalysts, Eire charges the Reformations, collectively, with considerable responsibility for the fragmentation marking society in the centuries following their occurrence. That is a weighty assertion subject to both qualification and challenge on the basis of Eire’s earlier points and contributions. While the impact of the Reformations surveyed in the work likely magnified the fragmentation previously existing, Eire’s work in the first section of the book established that societal fragmentation was already evident prior to the advent of the Reformations. Accordingly, Eire’s line of reasoning in Part 4, in contradiction to points so well established in earlier sections, appears somewhat misaligned.

In sum, Eire’s work in Reformations is a magisterial treatment of both the historical context of the period from A.D. 1450 to 1650, as well as the deeply complex and highly controversial events summarized as the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The work is readable and extraordinarily well written while simultaneously serving as a thorough resource constituting a profitable reference. Eire’s work is to be commended to any serious student of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and will continue to serve the church and those who labor in Reformation-era scholarship for many years to come.


[1] Yale University, “Carlos Eire,” Faculty, Department of History, Yale University, October 15, 2022. https://history.yale.edu/people/carlos-eire

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Ibid.

 

[8] Yale University, “Carlos Eire.”

 

[9] Ibid.

 

[10] Ibid.

[11] Association of American Publishers, “R. R. Hawkins Award,” The Association of American Publishers, proseawards.com, October 17, 2022. https://proseawards.com/r-r-hawkins-award/

Bibliography

Association of American Publishers. “R. R. Hawkins Award.” The Association of American Publishers. proseawards.com. October 17, 2022. https://proseawards.com/r-r-hawkins-award/

Yale University. “Carlos Eire.” Faculty. Department of History. Yale University. October 15, 2022. https://history.yale.edu/people/carlos-eire

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