The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World

The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World

by Heiko A. Oberman, Donald Weinstein

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In this last collection of his vital, controversial, and accessible writings, Heiko A. Oberman seeks to liberate and broaden our understanding of the European Reformation, from its origins in medieval philosophy and theology through the Puritan settlers who brought Calvin’s vision to the New World. Ranging over many topics, Oberman finds fascinating connections between aspects of the Reformation and twentieth-century history and thought—most notably the connection to Nazism and the Holocaust. He revisits his earlier work on the history of anti-Semitism, rejects the notion of an unbroken line from Luther to Hitler to the Holocaust, and offers a new perspective on the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism and its murderous result in the twentieth century.

Oberman demonstrates how the simplifications and rigidities of modern historiography have obscured the existential spirits of such great figures as Luther and Calvin. He explores the debt of both Luther and Calvin to medieval religious thought and the impact of diverse features of “the long fifteenth century”—including the Black Death, nominalism, humanism, and the Conciliar Movement—on the Reformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130348
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

The late Heiko A. Oberman, one of the twentieth century’s great historians of the Reformation, was at the time of his death Regents’ Professor of History at the University of Arizona. He was the author of many books, including the definitive biography of Martin Luther, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Donald Weinstein is professor emeritus of the Department of History at the University of Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

The Two Reformations

The Journey from the Last Days to the New World


Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09868-5

Chapter One



From one perspective the fifteenth century appears as the calm before the storm of reformation, revolution, and the wars of religion-the lady gravid, awaiting the fullness of time. In this view, Martin Luther and the Reformation will open a new era in European history, initiating a world destined to become totaliter aliter. Often referred to as Protestant triumphalism, it is a perspective deeply rooted in nineteenth-century German scholarship, personified by the works of Leopold von Ranke and reflected in Bernd Moeller's characterization of Luther as "Person der Weltgeschichte," a prime mover of global history. When I took up the theme of the forerunners of the Reformation and insisted on the vitality of late medieval reform in all segments of life, I suggested that Luther's radical reorientation invested him with the high office of Counter Reformer. At the time I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as yet unaware that I would pass the next eighteen years in Tubingen, Germany. There, Reformation scholarship was still solidly in the hands of the students of Karl Holl, revered as an impeccable and infallible Luther interpreter. Holl's favorite disciples, strategically appointed to such major chairs as Tubingen, Heidelberg, and Munster, had all evolved, as it too slowly dawned on me, into uncritical supporters of the Third Reich. In their ranks the German nationalist component in Hitler's message found fertile soil and fervent support (often in articles I found hard to trace because they had been ripped from journals dating from the 1930s and 1940s). The face-saving, apologetic cleansing and attempted rehabilitation of such unconverted Nazi Luther specialists as Emanuel Hirsch in Gottingen and Werner Elert in Munich should not be regarded as marginal, academic dramas. They are part of a concerted effort to reestablish a nineteenth-century Luther-centered worldview. Erlangen's Berndt Hamm has courageously raised his voice, not by coincidence making a new exploration of the fifteenth century a priority in his investigation of the creative vitality of the later Middle Ages. On the Catholic side, Nazi-oriented scholars included Joseph Lortz, who in 1939 made his name with a two-volume assault, to this day undocumented, on the church of the fifteenth century. The Protestants who responded to Lortz romanticized his critique as an effort at "ecumenism," and in its place they set a benign rewriting of the pre-Reformation era. In this wide-reaching view it was an age of flowering piety without oppression, martyrs, or inquisition-a structural foreground for the Luther event.

A second, competing perspective on the fifteenth century derives from the new social history of early modern Europe, the most important and visible new direction of our field, with major representatives in the English-speaking world. By moving from established political history to cultural and mentality studies, historians reestablished the crucial importance of religion, although they frequently marginalized it under the misleading category of popular religion. The latter concept, with its corollary of a two-tiered world upside down, could not stand up under the probing investigation of the past decade. Whereas Bismarckian Protestantism was dedicated to the Reformation miracle, with its perception of discontinuity, the best of our social historians have been working toward a paradigm of continuity that treats the Middle Ages and early modern times as one epoch, challenged but not disrupted by Luther and the Reformation. One of its finest spokesmen, Thomas A. Brady, Jr., is turning increasingly to the study of the resourcefulness and flexibility of the Holy Roman Empire, able to cope with the short-lived tragedy-as he is inclined to believe-of the Reformation. With his assumption that the rural Peasants' War was the most significant feature of the Reformation betrayed by Luther, Brady early on grasped the untenability of Bernd Moeller's romantic City Reformation thesis: a thin distillation of sixteenth-century religious propaganda and polemical sermons, it was unsubstantiated by archival reconstruction of social support among the citizenry. In this second master narrative, the Reformation appears as an interlude, soon losing its potential, caught between the interests of lords and serfs, while weakened inside its own ranks by fighting between the two factions of zealots and politiques.

A third grand perspective, whose most prominent spokesman is Heinz Schilling, would have been much easier for me to reject had not Schilling just published a comprehensive study of Europe from 1250 to 1750, which complicated matters. Elsewhere I have expressed my considerable reservations concerning Schilling's structuralist view of history as an inevitable process, often attended by the connotation of progress. This appears to me to marginalize cultural history and mentalite and does not allow a place for religion other than as a subservient factor to state formation. In his new, broader vision of Die neue Zeit, however, Schilling succeeds in putting his process approach in better perspective. It is a comprehensive interpretation that deserves immediate translation into English.

In the meantime, however, a formidable number of German and American historians have followed the call of the earlier Schilling and continued to work within the confines of confessionalization and state formation, with such vigor and yield that this school should be addressed as a separate approach. It has the great advantage of bypassing the whole debate about continuity and discontinuity by taking Luther and the Reformation seriously as one of the confessions that will put an indelible stamp on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. Unfortunately, however, its very preoccupation with modernity feeds into a presentism that I regard as one of the major weaknesses of recent historiography. A case in point is Richard Marius's book Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. Instead of attempting to understand the time or thought of Martin Luther, Marius presents a series of revealingly modern reactions to Luther, basically casting him as a fanatical twentieth-century fundamentalist.

Although such presentism may entertain, it cannot sustain. As to the alluring notion of process, however, it has strongly influenced our understanding of the fifteenth century. When the so-called process is derailed or contradicted by the actual course of events, either a crisis or a failure is stipulated, depending on the metahistorical position of the author considering it. In spite of promising avenues of research as well as the sober reconstruction of gradual change, which other scholars as well as myself have amply documented, fifteenth-century studies are rife with crisis and failure theories, mistakenly cast in terms of a process that led from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of modern times. Medieval legend knew it was the devil who wanted the chronicler to recount history as a process by presenting a straight line between cause and effect, between sequence and consequence. The fourteenth-century preacher's handbook Fasciculus morum taught that only the devil could measure the distance between heaven and earth, since he alone, in his fall, followed a straight line. It is revealing that the Western mind has changed the original meaning of "devious" into "erring," so that which literally meant "departure from a straight line" took on the meaning of "deviant." Only by exorcizing this devil can we advance our understanding of history and recover a fresh awareness of unexpected turns of events on the contingent intersection of lines that are not straight. In short, the good historian is bound to be devious.

In what follows I intend to deal with four cultural clusters, which I will call "trends" so as not to fall into the terminological pit of describing them as a single dominant process. I will treat each of these trends equally rather than as subordinate elements in a preestablished grand narrative, and I will trace them through what is fashionably called the long fifteenth century. Some forty years ago, in order to gain an untrammeled perspective freed from Lutheran or Catholic confessional lines, one had to insist on the study of the later Middle Ages in its own right. Today, however, we may draw on scholarly advances in all four of these clusters. With them we can stay on course without resorting to the blinders once needed for protection against the distracting glare of later events. By venturing well into the periods of the Renaissance and the Reformation-the long fifteenth century-the concept of the late Middle Ages is able to withstand partisanship and prejudice and establish its legitimacy. Late medieval studies have come of age.

Almost twenty-five years ago, I presented what I called a premature profile of major currents in the fourteenth century. I intend to take up the same quest here by examining new challenges, events, and trends, taking into account the impact of the Black Death, the rise of the Third Estate, the decline and survival of conciliarism, the monastic mission to the masses, and the rising tide of anti-Semitism, touching finally on Renaissance humanism and the cutting edge of the New Learning.


Although we no longer describe the impact of the Black Death on Europe in terms quite as stark as we once did, there is no disputing its severe demographic repercussions. In its first horrendous phase from 1347 to 1351, the bubonic plague raced through Europe from Marseilles throughout France, Italy, England, the Low Countries, Germany, and Russia, killing one-third of Europe's population of some 75 to 80 million people. Not until the end of the sixteenth century would the population return to its pre-plague levels. It is therefore understandable that historians like to refer to the aftermath of the plague in the fifteenth century as a period of demographic depression. The problems begin, however, when we have to specify the economic and social impacts of the steep decline in rural and urban populations. Even the effect on mentality as expressed in the ars moriendi, the dance macabre and Totentanz, is no longer a matter of course in view of the findings of Jan de Vries that "death rates rose in a period that saw the final disappearance from Europe of the bubonic plague." Recent scholarship has turned its interest to the patterns of recovery and accordingly has shifted its emphasis from doom and stagnation to the revitalization of Europe by innovative crisis management. As Bartolome Yun put it, "From the vantage point of the rest of the world, this era marked the birth of Europe." We are confronted with a whole complex of factors with widely differing regional variants and shaped by such historical contingencies as state formation and warfare.

With respect to our first cluster, the intellectual climate of the fifteenth century, it is helpful to take a closer look at a study of the plague by David Herlihy. Herlihy deals successively with the medical dimension, the new economic and demographic system that broke the "Malthusian deadlock," and finally, in the part which concerns us here, with the new modes of thought and feeling. Whereas the medical history of the Black Death would perhaps be written today with other nuances, the conclusion of the second part stands, accurately summarizing the salient characteristics of the post-plague recovery as a more diversified economy, an intensified use of capital, a more sophisticated technology, and a higher standard of living. Problems, however, emerge when these new findings are grafted onto the old tree of Etienne Gilson's end-of-the-road notion of the late Middle Ages. Herlihy invokes a Saint Thomas-driven caricature of late medieval nominalism to explain the emergence of a new mentality: "The human intellect had not the power to penetrate the metaphysical structures of the universe. It could do no more than observe events as they flowed. Moreover, the omnipotent power of God meant in the last analysis that there could be no fixed natural order. God could change what He wanted, when He wanted. The nominalists looked on a universe dominated by arbitrary motions. Aquinas' sublime sense of order was hard to reconcile with the experience of the plague-unpredictable in its appearances and course, unknowable in its origins, yet destructive in its impact. The nominalist argument was consonant with the disordered experiences of late medieval life."

Whereas David Herlihy is remembered with respect and gratitude for his signal contribution to medieval family history and, as in this case, for the all-too-rare effort to chart the interplay between intellectual and social history, his admiration for Thomas Aquinas as "this great Dominican" with his "sublime sense of order" may well explain why such an eminently critical scholar uncritically perpetuates assumptions of the past that in the past thirty years have been shown to be caricatures. Ironically, Herlihy's final conclusion can readily be accepted: "The nominalist argument was consonant with the disordered experiences of late medieval life." The experience of the plague may in fact help us understand the fifteenth-century ascendancy of nominalism, its innovations in the whole field ranging from theology to science, and its successful invasion of schools and universities, where it was firmly established as the via moderna. What must have seemed to conservative Thomists of that time to be a threat to the hierarchy between heaven and earth was actually a fact-finding search for order by demarcating the distinct realms of faith and reason. In the domain of faith the epochal shift from God-as-Being to God-as-Person allowed for a fresh reading of the sources of the church in Scripture and tradition as attesting to the personal God of the covenant. At the same time, in the realm of reason the new quest for the laws of nature could be initiated once physics was liberated from its domestication by metaphysics, the speculative welding of Aristotle and the Scriptures. In any account of the transformation of the West, the crucial metamorphosis of the capital sin of curiosity into the nominalists' bona curiositas validated the exploration of the real world and is therefore to be given a high place in the range of factors explaining the "birth of Europe."

Not even in the Cambridge History of Late Medieval Philosophy would Herlihy have learned of the new findings, for that authoritative work only occasionally touches on the fifteenth century.


Excerpted from The Two Reformations by HEIKO A. OBERMAN Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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