To mark the publication of The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe, editor Margaret McGlynn provides some background on the Reformation, as well as the principles that guided the editing of this fantastic new collection.
The Reformation was not an event that happened in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, but a process. 1517 marked a pivotal moment in that process, but it was a moment that was possible because reformers had been calling for change in a number of different ways, because humanists had been altering the way that theologians and scholars and laymen could interact with the Bible, and because the printing press allowed new ideas to travel more quickly than ever before. There was no way of knowing what Luther’s revelation might lead to but it proved to be the opening blast in an astonishing eruption of new ideas: calls for change in church, state, and community which would set Europe ablaze in the century that followed.
Though we can study the Reformation primarily as a religious event, The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe also encourages readers to consider its reverberations through European society. In his declaration of the importance of sola scriptura, Luther unwittingly laid the groundwork for questioning all other forms of authority and his followers quickly, and often to his frustration, pursued all the possible implications of his dictum. The Bible was used as justification for peasants to revolt against their masters, for lords to kill peasants, for new forms of church organization and social organization, for women to claim a new role in the church and for men to deny it to them. Those who found themselves living in the brave new world of a disunited Christendom faced many more choices than ever before as they sought to re-structure their societies.
In the midst of new problems and new opportunities most people continued to grapple with age-old problems: the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children; the desire for wealth and the fear of poverty; the sadness of death and the hope of salvation. Few, however, remained untouched by the vast and sweeping changes of the period, and the texts in The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe allow the reader to see the various interconnections between the new approaches to learning and teaching expounded by the humanists, the new approaches to religious and social life propounded by the reformers, and the new societies imagined and created by men and women of all creeds and stations. Some big themes run through the entire collection, such as legitimate forms of authority and the nature of obedience, but there are lots of sub-themes to explore: the hierarchical structures of society, the role of history in understanding the present, the ways in which knowledge is transmitted and absorbed, the value of experience over book-learning, and the proper—and improper—relations between men and women, masters and servants. And all of these are in the voices of the people who lived through this process, who theorized and argued, recalled and explained, dreamed and imagined. Their views are not tidy or clear cut and certainly not consistent—they were figuring things out as they went along, just like we do today. But the views are authentic: each invites us to consider a slice of a real life and someone else’s experience, belief, hope, fear, or plan.
The first half of our collection is laid out in roughly chronological order while the second half is more thematic. Some of the texts here will be familiar to instructors—a course on the Northern Renaissance and Reformation must have Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Loyola and will probably have Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, but beyond the core there are always options. We wanted a variety of geographical perspectives so we included Conrad Celtis and Juan Luis Vives, both of whom are clearly in the same tradition of Northern humanism as Erasmus but who bring very different perspectives on the reform of both the church and the state. When Celtis declares that Italians and Germans “would never have been restrained from mutual slaughter if provident nature had not separated us by the Alps and by cliffs raised up to the stars” he gives us a whole new perspective on both the transmission of Italian humanism to the north and the kinds of emotions that would feed into the Reformation.
We wanted to explore the role of women in the early Reformation so we turned to Katherine Zell, Argula von Grumbach, and Anne Askew to see how women from different places and social contexts interpreted their own role in the Reformation and its implications for them. Zell declared herself “a church mother, a nurturer of the pulpit and school,” packaging a radical claim in a traditional female box, while Argula von Grumbach asked “Which doctor has made a greater vow in baptism than I have? Which pope, or emperor, or prince?” and Anne Askew affirmed that “those Scriptures that Christ has left here with us are sufficient for our learning and salvation so that I believe we need no unwritten truths to rule his church with.” Their views reflect the attitudes of the male Reformers but also raise questions about the role of women in the new church and how that might affect attitudes to and of women in other contexts, from Marguerite de Navarre to John Knox to Elizabeth I.
We also wanted to explore the importance of economic turmoil and the numerous ways in which it appears in the sources all across Europe, from the articles of the Swabian peasants, which claimed that according to Scripture “we are and will be free” to Fish’s “Supplication” berating the clergy who divert alms from the needy whose “number is daily so sore increased that all the alms of all well-disposed people of this your realm is not half enough for to sustain them,” to the proposals for social assistance put forward by Vives, since “in the state the weak may not be neglected without danger to the strong” and the radical suggestions for the reform of criminal law voiced by More’s Raphael Hythloday. Even the explorers who went both east and west were looking for markets in which to sell the products of their workers as well as markets from which to buy the wonders of the East.
Some of the texts were edited or modernized for this edition to provide voices that often are not heard. William Caxton, for example, lets us hear the musings of an early printer on what he can sell and to whom—not to a “rude uplandish man to labour therein nor to read it, but only for a clerk and a noble gentleman that experiences and understands feats of arms, love and noble chivalry”—taking us inside the business of printing at the very beginning. In contrast, Cervantes gives us a sense of a reading public—and one with clear expectations—in the early seventeenth century. The N-Town Mary and Joseph play gives us a vivid glimpse of what medieval people imagined had happened when the neighbours discovered that Mary “made a vow never to lie with a man, but to live a chaste and clean virgin. How ever it be, her womb does swell and is as great as yours or mine!” This unusual approach to the holy family interacts nicely with the sources on family, gender, and hierarchy as well as the concerns of both the reformers and the reformed. John Shute lets us see the early transmission of Italian ideas on architecture to England while Thomas Elyot helps us understand how, to a humanist, everything, even dance, could be humanism.
Each text comes with a brief introduction, just enough to provide context rather than interpretation, and each text is short enough to be assigned in combination but long enough to give a real sense of the author and the issues it presents. We have taught with some of these sources for close to twenty years. Over that time we’ve re-worked the selections to interact in as many different ways as we could, not just to provide us with a variety of ways to present the culture and the cadence of the period but to also give our students as wide a range of jumping-off spots for their own interests as possible. We hope you’ll find that the sources are rich enough to be mixed and matched in whatever ways suit your style and interests and that you have as much fun teaching with them as we’ve had.
Margaret McGlynn is Associate Professor of History at Western University in London, Ontario.
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