Friday, February 05, 2010

B.J. Kidd, The Counter-Reformation. London: SPCK, 1958.

Arnold Toynbee once derided those historians who think that “history is just one damned thing after another.” They may have had Kidd’s book on the Counter-Reformation in mind. Light on any kind of historical analysis, this is essentially a chronology of significant events in the movement to turn back the tide of Protestantism in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. As one might expect, the Jesuits, the Roman Inquisition and the Council of Trent figure prominently, each being given a chapter of its own (the Jesuits in fact get two chapters). Other than these thematic chapters (and a few others) the rest of the material is arranged on a more or less geographical plan, beginning with Italy and Spain, and extending as far as Britain, the Netherlands and the Baltic states. Germany of course figures prominently.

The first edition of this work appeared in 1933 so naturally a study of the Counter-Reformation would need to be supplemented by more recent works such as John O’Malley’s Trent and All That (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) or Martin Jones, The Counter Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Even an older work such as A.G. Dickens’ The Counter Reformation (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969) will yield a lot more reading pleasure than Kidd whose tone is for the most part a dry recitation of events.

Though Kidd is dry I would not say he is impartial. Warden of Keble College, and canon of Christ Church at the time of this edition’s publication I read the SPCK edition of 1958 not the 1980 reprint by Greenwood Press), his disdain for the fracturing tendencies among Protestants is thinly veiled, and there are one or two passages where he almost becomes interesting in praising the beauty and resilience of Catholic resurgence. It is more than a little frustrating that not until a footnote on the very last page of the book (p. 262, fn. 4) does he provide a definition of the word “Protestant,” and when it comes it is very narrow (though historically accurate enough). “Protestant” to Kidd means only “Lutheran” and “Reformed” means “Calvinist.” This is fair enough, but what is really interesting is the brief excursus he provides in the same footnote into the nature of his own Church of England, which he is keen to insist is neither “Protestant” nor “Reformed.” He cites the decision of the bishops at the Savoy Conference in 1660 to reject the term “Protestant” and the insistence, in 1689, of the Lower House of Convocation that the Church of England could not be termed Protestant without associating it with Socinians, Baptists and Quakers (!). Clearly Kidd was one of those Anglicans for whom the very Protestant (and perhaps even “Reformed’) Thirty-Nine Articles could only be likened to the “forty stripes minus one” received by Paul.

The book’s most interesting chapter for me (also its longest) was chapter 4 on the Council of Trent. A helpful summary of important decisions of the Council is given and the way in which different visions of Catholic reform were set forth provides an interesting record. It would be the reforming zeal of Pope Pius IV that would be the most determinative factor and Trent is really his most important legacy. His successor Pius V continued in a similar vein with a special zeal for the repression of heresy. It was the insistence on an educated, literate and articulate clergy, and the establishing of universities and seminaries in order to bring this about, that did more than any other single initiative to promote genuine reform of the Church. Chapters 6 and 8 on “The Great Powers” and “The Forces behind the Revival” make it clear that there could be no reforms without the willing participation of the princes (especially in light of the established rule cuius regio, eius religio) and the special genius of religious thinkers and activists with a passion for organisation. Ignatius Loyola was only the most conspicuous of the latter, whose ranks included others such as Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, and the earlier mentioned Popes Pius IV and V. In case the reader should think that religious reforms are solely the result of the prayers and labours of the saints, Kidd wisely reminds us that behind the reform stood also Phillip II of Spain’s “great scheme to crush out Protestantism in Europe.” (p. 160)

Those wanting an introduction to this period should probably not begin here. But those who are already somewhat familiar with the lay of the land, and who are looking for a detailed chronology, could do worse. Two and a half stars.

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