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The Origins of Reformation


In the sixteenth century, western Europe was convulsed by disputes over religion (which came eventually to be called 'the Reformation'). Given the centrality of religion to social, cultural, political and economic life in Europe, there were few aspects of life on which the Reformation did not impact. This seminar asks the question of where the Reformation 'came from', and how it took hold in the middle years of the sixteenth century, especially in Germany. This involves assessing the contribution of Martin Luther, and thinking about whether the Reformation would have been possible without him (a kind of case-study in the significance of individual agency in history). Many, probably most, scholars do not now think that the Reformation was inevitable, or that the late medieval Catholic Church was failing catastrophically in its mission - this makes accounting for the causes of the Reformation arguably more tricky, but also more interesting!



  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Catholicism in Western Europe at the start of the sixteenth century.
  • Why did Luther’s ideas find such a receptive audience in Germany in the early years of his protest against Rome?
  • What was ‘new’ about Martin Luther?
  • Why did religious reform not remain united, under Luther’s leadership?



Cranach the Younger, Difference between the Protestant and Catholic service

(Another, coloured version of the image here)

Questions about the source:

  • what is 'going on' in this busy image? (how many different religious activities can you spot!?)
  • why do you think Cranach chooses to use symmetry and mirroring in constructing this picture?
  • do you think this image makes effective propaganda? Why?



R. N. Swanson, ‘The Pre-Reformation Church’, in A. Pettegree, (ed.), The Reformation World (2000), chap 2, pp. 9-30 (ebook)



Gregory, Brad, ‘The Radical Reformation’, in P. Marshall (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation (2015), pp. 115-51.

Roper, Lyndal, ‘Martin Luther’, in P. Marshall (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation (2015), pp. 42-75.

Kolb, Robert, ‘Martin Luther and the German Nation’ in R. Hsia (ed.), A Companion to the Reformation World (2006) (ebook) pp. 39-55.

Stayer, James M., ‘The German Peasants’ War and the Rural Reformation’, in A Pettegree (ed.), The Reformation World (2000) (ebook), chap. 8, pp. 127-45

Truman, Carl, ‘Luther and the Reformation in Germany’, in A. Pettegree, (ed.), The Reformation World (2000), chap 5, pp. 73-96 (ebook)



Late Medieval Church:

Aston, Margaret, Faith and Fire: Popular and Unpopular Religion, 1350-1600(1985), esp. chap. 6 (scan here)

Brown, Andrew, 'Civic religion in late medieval Europe', in: Journal of Medieval History42, no. 3 (2016)

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580(1992; 2nd edn 2005) (ebook).

Duggan, Lawrence ‘The unresponsiveness of the late medieval Church: a reconsideration’, Sixteenth Century Journal9 (1978)

Moeller, Bernd, ‘Religious life in Germany on the eve of the Reformation’, in G. Strauss (ed.), Pre-Reformation Germany (1972)

Ozment, Steven, The Age of Reform 1250-1550(1980) (ebook) chs. 1-5

Rubin, M., and W. Simons, eds, The Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 4 Christianity in Western Europe, c. 1100-1500 (Cambridge, 2009) (ebook)

Scribner, Bob, 'Ritual and Popular Religion in Catholic Germany at the Time of the Reformation', in Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (1987), pp. 17-47.

Swanson, R.N., Religion and Devotion in Europe c.1215-c.1515 (1995)

Taylor, Larissa, ‘Society and Piety’, in R. Hsia. (ed.), A Companion to the Reformation World(2002) (ebook)

Wallace, Peter G., The Long European Reformation (2003) (ebook), esp. chs 1-2.


Luther and the Early Reformation:

S. Bauer, The Art of Disagreeing Badly: Religious Dispute in Early Modern Europe (I-II) (online exhibitions), click HERE

S. Bauer (ed.), The Uses of History in Religious Controversies from Erasmus to Baronio, special issue of Renaissance Studies, 35 (2021) no. 1

P. Blickle, The Communal Reformation: The Quest for Salvation in Sixteenth-Century Germany (1992)

E. Cameron, The European Reformation(Oxford, 1991)

S. Dixon, The Reformation in Germany (2002) (ebook)

C.S. Dixon (ed.), The German Reformation: The Essential Readings (1999)

H. Hendrix, 'Loyalty, Piety, or Opportunism: German Princes and the Reformation', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994)

D. MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700(2003)

P. Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (2009) (ebook)

P. Marshall, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation (2017)

Matheson (ed.), Reformation Christianity (2006)

A. Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (2005) (ebook)

A. Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (2015)

L. Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016) (scan of Introduction available here)

U. Rublack, Reformation Europe (2005)

Ryrie, Alec (ed.), Palgrave Advances in the European Reformations (2006)

R.W. Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (1994)

Scribner et al. (eds), The Reformation in National Context(1994) (ebook)

Scribner and G. Benecke (eds), The German Peasants War of 1525: New Viewpoints (1979)


Luther's Works - links to works by Martin Luther

Religious Change, 1450-1700: 'how religion and print challenged authority' - a project run by the Newberry Library, Chicago

Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Germany - collection of primary documents

Renaissance Humanism - an introduction by the Newberry Library

Historical Association Podcast Series:
'The ReformationLink opens in a new window' (2010), featuring talks by Henry Cohn, Beat Kümin, Peter Marshall and Penny Roberts