The Medieval Review 16.11.37

Louthan, Howard, and Graeme Murdock, eds. A Companion to the Reformation in Central Europe. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 61. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. 484. $199.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-90-04-25527-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Reid S. Weber
Fitchburg State University

With 2017 and the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther's 95 theses fast approaching, it is an ideal time to revisit and reconsider our idea of the Reformation or "Reformations." The familiar narrative that often begins with Martin Luther's hammer has over time taken a number of forms and trajectories which influenced the institutions of Western Civilization or the ideals of modernity and progress. In that context, the compelling narrative is of a Reformation in which the ideas of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin provide the bridge between medieval superstition and Enlightenment ideals that find their triumphant fulfillment in the works of Adam Smith, John Locke, and of course Thomas Jefferson. Of course, scholars recognize that history is hardly that tidy, nor do the teleological approaches of decades and sometimes centuries past hold water in modern scholarly discussion. Yet we consider the Reformation, and most significantly teach the Reformation, in a way that comfortably fits into that familiar narrative. Certainly, teaching the Reformation without Luther, Calvin, the Spanish Inquisition or the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre would be preposterous. Yet the authors of A Companion to the Reformation in Central Europe have provided an outstanding gateway to stretch the Reformation farther east and complicate the familiar tales of the Reformation.

To add something to that narrative can often mean one of the hallowed stories of the Reformation would have to be sacrificed, but in this anniversary year, perhaps it is time to tell some less familiar stories. Take the Bohemian example, a kingdom and region that goes through the blood-letting of the fifteenth century to the creation of a multi-confessional and inclusive state in the Bohemian Confession of 1575, only to resist the Emperor and become one of the most dramatic regions of explicit Counter Reformation (34-35). Why not examine or teach the evolution of Reformation thought in the frontier regions of Transylvania or the Balkans where one can examine the reception of Reformed ideas in a frontier zone away from the politics of electors, kings, and emperors? Opportunities abound to teach a story of Reformation that challenges dominant nation-driven narrative and that demonstrates the varied reception of such classic themes as humanism, confessionalism, education, and toleration. Louthan and Murdock, along with their contributing authors, have accepted the task of essentially selling scholars an idea of a wider Reformation that gives Central Europe an intricate role to play. They have chosen to do this in large part by integrating Central Europe into the themes of Reformation Scholarship. As Natalia Nowakowska questions, " these 'western' debates and diagnoses of pre-Reformation religion map onto the churches and populations of Central Europe?" (126) With many worthy contributors and contributions, it is too much comment on each individual chapter, rather I offer a general sense of what the volume has to offer.

Ambitious in breadth and depth the Companion of the Reformation in Central Europe covers content ranging in some cases from the late fourteenth-century until the early eighteenth, and covers a geographical region that stretches from Poland-Lithuania to Transylvania and into the Balkans. Although links and references to German lands are certainly not ignored, Astrid von Schlachta's overview of Austria provides the only one of a predominantly German speaking region. German regions East of the Elbe, such as Saxony and Brandenburg, are generally avoided; rather, this work highlights regions which as a whole have only garnered limited interest from Anglophonic scholars. A notable exception is the 1997 work The Reformation in Eastern and Central Europe edited by Karin Maag, that developed from conference papers by specialists. The Companion on the other hand provides a far more organized entry into the Reformation in the lands and ideas of Central Europe. Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary in particular are growing fields for English scholars, but the German, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian footnotes and citations of the companion serves as a testament to the lack of English scholarship in the region, with some notable exceptions. The editors' ambition to assert such a extensive idea of Central Europe serves not only to demonstrate the numerous connections between the predominant Reformation states and Central Europe, but highlights quite well the distinctive character of reforms taking place to the east of Wittenberg.

The work itself is divided into two separate parts, the first organized geographically and the second thematically. Part one, entitled "Contexts and Confessions", breaks down the distinct context of the dominant political units of Central Europe and broadens to examine various attempts at confessionalization in the region. Breaking down the content in this way has several advantages and disadvantages. Despite examining Central Europe as a whole, the chapters separated by geography tend to place each of the states in de facto isolation. This arrangement makes sense, but does not readily demonstrate the interconnected nature of these kingdoms. These chapters provide an excellent general background by region, but as one might expect in a companion, do not introduce any new methodological approach or distinct research. For those scholars looking for an introduction or review of a specific kingdom these chapters are ideal. Scholars more familiar with the region will no doubt see familiar material and all these early chapters provide a nice update on recent trends in historiography, which have generally fallen along these geographic divisions. For example, Maciej Ptaszyński's surveys recent trends concerning the distinct nature of the Reformation's rapid rise and decline in Poland (40). The concluding chapters of the first part break away from political identities to examine the development of confessional identity throughout Central Europe. These contributions examine how Protestant, Antitrinitarian, Orthodox and Catholic confessional groups navigated the heterogeneous and decentralized nature of the Reformation in Central Europe. Many of these articles focus on the actions and reception of individual preachers spreading ideas through the region.

The second half of the companion holds together due to its thematic approach to a variety of topics. Questions concerning toleration, education, the role of the nobility, urban reform, and printing cross regional identities and spread across central Europe and fit well with growing fields of scholarship in Western Europe. These chapters, in many ways serve as addendums that should be added to traditional Reformation analyses. They also provide examples of how historians can blur typical boundaries. For example, Václav Bůžek's chapter "Nobles: Between Religious Compromise and Revolt" easily crosses national boundaries to create a much broader sense of the status and position of the nobility across central Europe. Where a particular expertise is required, especially in navigating the various languages of Central Europe, the volume utilizes co-authors to cover multiple experiences on the same thematic topic, an excellent example of this is Pál Ács and Howard Louthan's survey of vernacular print bibles in Hungarian and Czech. The combination of scholars gives the article a far greater reach than one limited to a single language. As a whole, these chapters give the Reformation cultural and intellectual milieu of Central Europe a far greater reach and significance.

Overall, A Companion in Central Europe has the potential to serve as a gateway for scholars and teachers who wish to engage with the Reformation in a much bigger setting than traditional narrative. The authors in this work clearly want their reader's to consider their work in the grand framework of the Reformation, and intentionally highlight European-wide connections, such as Michael S. Springer labeling Johannes Lasco as both a Polish and European Reformer (161) or Natalia Nowakowska irritation at Jan Hus's absence from recent European surveys (126). They make a strong cases that examinations of the Reformation without Central Europe are simply incomplete. The work's broad scope, geographic and thematic organization, and wealth of footnotes makes Central Europe more accessible to scholars who wish to push their topics to the East. It also, to some extent, invalidates the excuse that the region is unapproachable because of the formidable language boundaries. Scholars should be aware of this considerable and fascinating area of Europe, and this book is an excellent place to start. This work enriches our understanding of the creation and reception of Reformation ideas and facilitates a European understanding of the Reformation just in time for the 500-year anniversary.

Copyright (c) 2016 Reid S. Weber

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