The Medieval Review 12.06.34


Safley, Thomas Max. A Companion to Multiconfessionalism in the Early Modern World. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. xi, 500. $219, 161 EUR. ISBN: 978-90-04-20697-7.



Reviewed by:


David Mayes
Sam Houston State University
his_dcm@shsu.edu

The subject of confessions and their role in the historical process has stood at the forefront of early modern European studies over the past few decades. This collection of essays edited by Thomas Max Safley highlights certain new directions in it. As Lee Palmer Wandel's essay in Part One explains, confessions were written and printed "'professions of faith', the declaration of what the author or authors held to be true, absolutely and unconditionally" (23). They had the intended effect of identifying who was an adherent to "true Christianity" and hence a member of the Christian community, and who not. They also proliferated across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the wake of religious fragmentation, testifying to "the depth and the multitude of divisions among European Christians" (34).

Consequently, many areas became multiconfessional. By multiconfessionalism, as Safley defines it in the Introduction, is meant "the legally recognized and politically supported coexistence of two or more confessions in a single polity" (7). Parts Two through Six each tackle multiconfessionalism in a particular region of Europe: the Netherlands (with individual essays by Jesse Spohnholz, Guido Marnef and Benjamin Kaplan), the Holy Roman Empire (David Luebke, Richard Ninness and Peter Wallace), France (Keith Loria, Jérémie Foa and Penny Roberts), Britain (Bernard Capp, Raymond Gillespie and John Coffey), and Central Europe (Howard Louthan, Graeme Murdock and David Frick). Authors occasionally make reference to another's essay, enhancing the volume's cohesiveness. Examination of places such as Ireland, Transylvania, Poland, and Wilno adds to a welcome trend that weaves the accounts of those that have traditionally received less attention together with those that have received more. However the Swiss regions are notably absent, and the word "World" in the title is a bit problematic because the book's content essentially concerns areas within a fractured Latin Christendom.

Scholars of early modern Europe will find much of the historical record in the book familiar. Noteworthy, however, is the kind of narrative being told with it. By now scholars are well-acquainted with ones that, for example, describe change based on the initiatives of allied ecclesiastical and secular authorities to bring all parishioners, all subjects into line with an adopted confession. By contrast, A Companion to Multiconfessionalism joins a growing body of works that recognize how "religious homogeneity remained an elusive goal in most places" (47), while "across many parts of Europe even the most determined attempts to restore religious unity ended in failure" (393). For many people a multiconfessional world was becoming the "new normal," and they had to reckon with it. For this reason the essays on the Netherlands are given pride of place. While the religious diversity of the Netherlands may have stood out when placed against the backdrop of Europe, it was not, asserts this book, an anomaly. Areas where the Reformation took hold typically became multiconfessional. The difference between the Dutch example and many others was not so much in kind as in degree. In the first instance the Dutch experience should be thought of as neither an exception to the rule nor a harbinger of a more liberal, tolerant age to come, as historiographical trends have had it, but rather a template for understanding the wider world of its own times.

What is depicted here is not a Europe in which people's religious convictions inclined them sharply towards violence and bloodshed. Everyday life was shot through with tensions, nuance and complexities. While confessional adherents may have had antipathy towards an adversary, reality frequently caused the two sides to coexist, even peacefully, and for disagreements to be expressed through accepted channels (e.g. the courts, print and media). While state power at times generated confessional conflict, authorities at other times were compelled to tolerate a group of dissenters or to contain troubles in pragmatic fashion. Opponents in multiconfessional areas generated a host of mechanisms and practices that enabled them to continue sharing the changed world in which they lived. Here they conceded, there they compromised. They did so not out of mutual respect for those of other faiths, as the modern concept of toleration would have it, but out of a practical need to maintain a functioning society. The same argument is even made for France and its volatile Catholic-Protestant composition. The essays on the French case acknowledge the challenges posed by it yet illustrate how the two sides constantly negotiated to limit conflict and promote coexistence. There, as elsewhere in Europe, when one framework for coexistence collapsed, the rivaling parties typically set up another. In this way the book would contend that top-down or bottom-up models are likely to mislead. The nexus of the aforementioned tensions constituted the pulse of multiconfessional Europe, and the ebb and flow of its stability and disruption is the storyline to be followed.

The effect of this analysis opens the door to some intriguing revisionism. For example, conventionally it is imagined that rivaling bodies of confessional adherents sparked the many episodes of so-called "religious" violence and warfare. The essays here, by contrast, would sooner fault an individual or a minority--a mayor, a distant sovereign and his disruptive policies, missionizing itinerants, an invading army with no vested interest in local relations--who disabled the tender arrangement achieved by the parties that made up the majority. The intellectual history of toleration also appears different. Idealist approaches of an older era charted its rise through a chain of progressive thinkers who, it was claimed, came up with the idea and nurtured it amid an age marred by religious militancy. By contrast, the approach in this book posits that intellectuals drew at least some ideas from concrete examples of toleration and coexistence present in the European society of their day. Theory and practice were linked alright, only the latter helped foster the former even as the former may have the latter. Moreover, the writers were not necessarily skeptics anticipating a more modern, secular way of doing things. They could well defend toleration on the basis of religious, godly principles.

The contributors to this volume are to be applauded for providing new ways to think about the dynamic between confessions, early modern Europeans, and the course of European history.



Copyright (c) 2012 David Mayes



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