Reformation Disenchantment?

Since at least Max Weber, historians and sociologists have assumed that the Reformation contributed to what Weber called the “disenchantment” of the world. The thesis has inspired rich historical, sociological, and philosophical studies, from Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. As Alexandra Walsham puts it, the notion that “the religious revolution launched by Luther, Calvin, and other reformers played a critical role in eliminating assumptions about the intervention of magical and supernatural forces in the world has proved remarkably resilient.”

Walsham makes this statement in a review article that summarizes recent historical studies of the Reformation and post-Reformation era. Beginning with “iconoclastic” articles by Robert Scribner, she shows that “the notion that the Reformation was a powerful catalyst of ‘the disenchantment of the world’ has been seriously questioned and qualified.”

Walsham’s is a long and detailed article, and I’ll highlight only a few points. 

By focusing on the religious life of Protestant people, rather than the treatises of Protestant theologians, Scribner discovered that the Reformation “modified and curtailed, rather than wholly rejected, the traditional ‘economy of the sacred’: it did not entirely dispense with holy persons, places, times, or objects; it engendered rituals and even a magic of its own.”

Studies of the centuries after the Reformation make it clear that “the supernatural” didn’t pack up and leave Europe after 1517. Research into the 

…occult in Hanoverian and Victorian England are rendering the notion of a decisive cultural rupture in this sphere increasingly contentious and pointing to the possibility that the apparent resurgence of magic and alternative cosmologies in modern British society may represent less a new departure than the re-emergence of vigorous older traditions that previously lay beneath its surface.

Investigation of the Catholic Reformation have also raised questions about Weber’s stark contrast of Protestant rationalism and Catholic superstition, a trope that Weber, wittingly or no, borrowed from the Reformers. Recent studies have emphasized the continuity between the Protestant and Catholic reforming agendas: 

Both movements grew out of a common set of impulses and shared many priorities. Both sought to intensify and spiritualize the piety of the populace and to prune away the dubious accretions and corruptions Christianity was perceived to have accumulated in the course of its entrenchment and institutionalization in the preceding half millennium. . . . Both wanted to eradicate ‘superstition,’ to police the boundaries between sacred and secular more tightly, and to intensify the interior faith and moral fervour of the laity. 

If “disenchantment” there was, it wasn’t a purely Protestant phenomenon.

From the other chronological end, studies of the medieval world have undermined the common conception of “an enchanted middle ages.” Walsham observes that, once again, historians and sociologists adopt the polemical stances of the early modern period they’re studying when they perpetuate the “polemical contrast between ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ that has been the invidious legacy of this movement, in combination with the Renaissance, and which remains fossilized in the conventional academic division drawn between ‘medieval’ and (early) ‘modern’ history.”

Walsham doesn’t think the disenchantment thesis wholly mistaken: “Protestant theology did in many respects constitute a significant and original assault upon the assumptions that buttressed the medieval economy of the sacred.” She makes some good observations here, but the whole discussion is skewed by her continuing use of categories that may be anachronistic. She writes of the “radical rejection of the immanence of the holy” that emerged in iconoclastic movements during the Reformation. But were the axe-wielding Protestants worried about abstractions like “the immanence of the holy,” or fearful of the wrath of a jealous God? As a sheer question of historical accuracy, the difference between the two matters.

Overall, the trend that Walsham documents is a welcome development. Something very big happened around the time of the Reformation, but that very big Something isn’t captured very well by terms like “desacralization” or “disenchantment.” John Bossy’s image (picked up by William Cavanaugh) of “the migration of the holy” has much to say for it. And perhaps there’s something to my thesis that fresh sacred boundaries have been erected over the past few centuries (a theme I attempt to develop, impressionistically, in the latter sections of Delivered from the Elements of the World). 

In any case, there’s new space for a more accurate narration of the Reformation and its effects, which means a more accurate understanding of our own place and time.

(Walsham, “The Reformation and ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed,” The Historical Journal 51:2 [2008] 497–528.)

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