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The Transformation of Europ 1300-1600.

David Nicholas, The Transformation of Europ 1300-1600

London and New York: Arnold of the Hodder Headline Group and Oxford University Press, 1999. 486 pp. $80. ISBN: 0-340-66208-5.

Robert Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment OF the Counter Reformation

Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999. vii + 231 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8132-0951-X.

Although the two general studies here reviewed overlap chronologically, surprisingly, they share little thematically or interpretatively. David Nicholas, a medieval historian of Flanders, has written a general history of Europe in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries under the guiding rubric of political and institutional history. For the author, the real beginnings of modernity, by which he means principally the development of the bureaucratic state, occur in the fourteenth century during the period of the Hundred Years' War. He avoids the traditional periodizations of the Renaissance and Reformation, even early modern, for in his view, the one places undue emphasis on cultural and religious changes and the other, one infers, on the economic and social. Occasionally he employs Braudel's "long sixteenth century," though truncates it in 1600. He seems happiest invoking Maitland's seamless web of history, thus minimizing interpretive implications of periodization. He characterizes his three centuries as "the transformation of Europe," reminiscent of Wallace K. Ferguson's designation in the 1960s of Renaissance Europe as an age of transition from the medieval to the modern. Like the older text, Nicholas divides his work into two parts, hinged in 1450. Whereas Ferguson thought the social and cultural contributions of the Italian Renaissance largely defined the age, Nicholas dismisses the Renaissance as atavistic: "We find that the Renaissance was really a backward-looking movement, rather than a progressive one, and that the educational ideals of the Italian humanists ... had a retardant impact in some areas, notably that of science" (148).

The central focus of Nicholas' study is dynastic and institutional. Both parts of the book begin with two chapters on government and politics, divided into subsections for different geographical regions of Europe, which unfold chronologically and thus necessitate skipping back and forth. The strength of the book is clearly its study of the fourteenth century, the author's own area of research. The reader is treated to a bird's eye view of a fragmented Europe, a patchwork of various dynasties and types of rule that were haphazardly inching their way towards more centralized forms of government, not so much by design as by dynastic accident, propelled by the necessities of war that demanded increased taxation and burgeoning bureaucracies to handle the creep of government. His emphasis on local differences that defy generalizations counters notions that the march towards the modern state was inexorable. Terminology is sometimes imprecise, for the term nation-state, which most historians reserve for a later peri od, is used together with national monarchy, with the former already present in the fifteenth century. Nicholas refers, for example, to "the nation-state which could and after 1494 did marshal resources that compromised the integrity of the Italian city-states" (127).

The chapters on politics and institutions in each half of the book are followed by chapters on economic and social conditions, and then by chapters on culture. These latter are the weakest and most uninformed in the book, for Nicholas seems to regard artistic, literary, and intellectual expression as reified. Culture becomes a sports competition where leadership is passed like a football between northern and southern Europe, mostly to the disadvantage of the south: "The north was acutely more precocious in painting than Italy .... Despite the advantage of perspective, the Italians learned more from the Netherlanders than they caught them until the early sixteenth century" (161). Michelangelo's David is "a nude youth with a saucy demeanour" (160) and Petrarch and the early humanists were "slavishly uncritical" (148); the enthusiasm of Italian painters and writers "naively uninformed" (156). As though to emphasize the derivative nature of the religious contests of the Reformation, Nicholas delegates his discus sion of them to the last chapter, for in his view, by the late sixteenth century "religion was even more defined by political regime than earlier" (410). He revives the old terminology of "Counter-Reformation" for Catholic reform since, in his view, "all significant changes in religious doctrine that were made in the sixteenth century were on the Protestant side. The Roman Catholic reaction was to improve standards and correct flagrant abuses without changing doctrine or even institutions" (402-03).

Nicholas' and Bireley's book contrast starkly in their treatment of religion. In The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700, Bireley argues that the history of the Roman church in the "long sixteenth century" tells a story of accommodation to the contemporary world and of the search for a new spirituality appropriate to it. Practices such as nepotism and pluralism, which reformers had criticized so sharply, are treated as reflective of contemporary practices in European court society, both lay and religious, and in the case of the papacy, as product of the pope's political role as Italian prince, an aspect oddly overlooked by Nicholas. Though by no means an apologist for recognized abuses in the church, Bireley emphasizes an internal perspective on the organic evolution of the Roman Catholic experience. He downplays older notions of Counter Reformation and Catholic Reform by de-emphasizing the Council of Trent as the governing spirit of the Roman church in the sixteenth century. Instead he looks to the spirit ual renewal and "updatings" that the church underwent to address the realities of a changing world and its growing secular concerns. He prefers John O'Malley's use of "early modern Catholicism" as more encompassing, also because it downplays confessionalization with its stress on institutional aspects of religion and social discipline, in contrast to Nicholas' older, anti-Roman interpretation.

Bireley organizes his discussion around five major changes that he identifies in early modern Catholicism: 1) a decline in medieval notions of a united christianitas and of the moral authority of pope and emperor that accompanied the growth of the state and expanding reach of government into people's lives; 2) economic and social changes that exacerbated economic differences in Europe, creating increased poverty and vagrancy that in turn prompted the foundation of new religious orders such as the Capuchins, Jesuits, and Ursulines who emphasized ministry in the world and became important educators and agents of Christianization; 3) a new missionizing zeal sparked by sustained contact with non-Christian peoples occasioned by overseas expansion; 4) the profound impact of Renaissance culture and humanism, with its emphasis on human potential and its fascination with Antiquity, that helped generate demand for a new type of Christianity that attended to individuals and the world around them; and lastly 5) the Prote stant Reformation which highlighted the need for reform and the problems of a papacy embroiled in Italian politics at a time when expressions of popular piety were requiring a more activist and personalized religious experience in both Catholic and new Protestant communities. Bireley concludes that by the end of the seventeenth century Catholic men and women had indeed developed a spirituality suitable to a Christian life in the world. Catholicism had become more universal in focus, although the church remained highly Euro-centric, and following both Protestant and Catholic missionizing within as well as outside Europe, the knowledge and practice of Catholic Christians increased and they had become a more disciplined people. Students of early modern Europe and general readers alike will welcome the measured tone and admirable clarity Bireley employs to give a fresh, updated assessment of religious life in the early modern Roman church.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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