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Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800.

Kaspar von Greyerz. Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ix + 307 pp. index. bibl. $25. ISBN: 978-0-19-532766-3.

Any attempt to describe such a complex, diverse, multifaceted, and ephemeral topic as religion and culture in early modern Europe from approximately 1500 to 1800 is doomed to fail. This recognition is perhaps a major reason why no scholar has attempted such a feat until Kaspar von Greyerz. Von Greyerz's Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe is a translation of his Religion andKultur published in 2000. While failure in an absolute sense is unavoidable, it is hard to imagine a more successful attempt. Von Greyerz proves himself a master of the sources and secondary literature, though his interpretive essay is based for the most part on the works of modern scholars, as the endnotes testify. Yet there is something to be said for attempting the undoable, and Von Greyerz's work will serve as the standard for further discussion, research, and interpretation for years to come.

After an introductory chapter setting out his theoretical approaches, Von Greyerz proceeds topically and chronologically from the outbreak of the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Asserting his approach to the history of mentalites over against the confessionalization and rationalization these of the origins of modernity, Von Greyerz argues that "religion must be seen and understood, always and without exception, as a cultural phenomenon," and that "cultural experience in premodern, estate-based society always has a specific social locus" (4). The Reformation eventually gave way to the privitization of piety and the process of secularization, which Von Greyerz interprets as an individualization in opposition to the established church(es). This development was not a result of the Enlightenment, but rather took place "on the level of mentalities, rather than within the context of a conscious embrace of the Enlightenment" (211). Interpreting such phenomena as the established state churches, Protestant and Catholic, witches, Jews, and separatists, and the various micro "-isms" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Von Greyerz attempts to chart the influence of "religiousity as a central aspect of the history of our ancestors" (226), to remind "the reader of the special effort he or she ha[s] to make in order to grasp the central role of religion in the cultures and societies of early modern Europe" (vii).

Citing Thomas Luckmann, Von Greyerz considers religion as a "socially constructed, more or less solidified, more or less obligatory system of symbols that combines a stance toward the world, the legitimization of natural and social orders, and meanings that transcend the individual with practical instructions on how to live and with personal obligations" (4, citing T. Luckmann, "Einleitung," in B. Malinowski, Magie, Wissenschaft and Religion and cindere Sehnften [1973], ix). What such a definition omits is how individuals in early modern Europe defined religion for themselves. As insightful as Luckmann is, he is by no means the only scholar to define religion, and one can only question the extent to which such a definition hinders, as well as illuminates, religious phenomena in early modern Europe. How would have Von Greyerz's interpretation differed had he adopted, for example, John Hick's definition of religion as humans' relating themselves to transcendence, a term that does not appear in Von Greyerz's study (though the word transcend does, as quoted above)? With his emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the group, Von Greyerz might have profited from Nobert Elias's individuals and Society, though Elias, like Mircea Eliade, makes no appearance, and neither does "the Holy." Moreover, Berndt Hamm's concept of normative centering with respect to the late Middle Ages, might have served Von Greyerz well, though Hamm is not cited. There is no attempt to chart the changing meanings of religion from the Middle Ages on into early modern Europe, even though this was a period when to be a religious was expanded as a technical term to include all Christians, not just those entering religious orders. Indeed, monasticism as a religious phenomenon is notably absent, even though Von Greyerz devotes much space to the analysis of new Protestant religious groups that were phemonologically not all that dissimilar from the Catholic religious orders, even if, practically speaking, they were worlds apart. Nor does the semi-monastic Oratory of Divine Love, for example, make an appearance.

While Von Greyerz has an informed definition for his interpretation of religion (albeit one that can be questioned), he is less definite regarding his definition of culture, and there is no discussion of textuality, even though he makes clear time and again that many of the new, Protestant religious groups were in so many ways textual communities. Nevertheless, Von Greyerz has offered a work of immense learning and one can only marvel at his achievement. It is not the last word on religion and culture in early modern Europe, but it is a most fruitful and erudite point of departure.


Indiana University, Indianapolis
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Author:Saak, Eric
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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