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Readers should not be misled by the title of Lee Palmer Wandel’s new book. The Reformation: Towards a New History is neither a textbook nor a conventional narrative history of the Reformation. Instead, it is an extended interpretive essay that presents “a history of Christianity as European Christians redefined it in the sixteenth century and the consequences of that redefinition for all aspects of their lives" (10).
Wandel frames her essay with two provocative statements. In the opening pages, she states that all one had to do in 1500 to be a Christian was to be baptized, “nothing more” ð17Þ. Near the end, she asserts that “by 1600, Europe was no longer ‘Christian.’ . . . Even if we recognize them all as Christian, they did not” ð256Þ. In between, she argues that over the course of the sixteenth century, Christianity changed from a culture that characterized all of Europe to a belief system not linked to any specific place. Taking a deliberately post confessional approach, Wandel says little about Luther, Calvin, or Loyola and focuses instead on the cultural impact of religious change.
Wandel builds her argument in three steps. In part 1, “Beginnings,” she describes how thoroughly Christianity permeated Europe in 1500, organizing time, space, work, and family relations. She then discusses those developments that would prove corrosive to Christianity’s cultural hegemony. The first was contact with the New World, which confronted Europeans with peoples not described in the Bible and, accordingly, raised the question of what it meant to convert them to Christianity. Meanwhile, the invention of printing gave more people access to the Bible and encouraged divergent readings and multiple interpretations.