The Varieties of Memory: The Historiography of the German Reformation

Ute Lotz-Heumann on How Historians Grapple with the German Reformation

Two (If Not More) Historiographies of the German Reformation

The German Reformation has at least two vibrant historiographies that sometimes intersect and sometimes go their separate ways: German historiography, which itself was split when Germany was divided during the second half of the twentieth century, and the Anglophone, especially North-American, historiography of Germany. The two often overlap, but they have also had different priorities. In the following, I will summarize some of the major developments since the Second World War.

What to Call the Period

The Reformation period broadly conceived encompasses roughly the time between 1500/1517 and 1650/1700, i.e. the first part of the so-called early modern period (if one includes the Enlightenment in early modernity). But even this vague definition has been debated in historiography and there is by no means a consensus on the periodization of the Reformation.

In nineteenth-century German historiography, not least through the influence of Leopold von Ranke, the doyen of modern historical research, whose opus magnum German History in the Age of the Reformation was published in 1839-47, “Reformation” and “Counter-Reformation” were established as two distinct historical periods in the sixteenth-century, with the Protestant Reformation occupying the earlier half and the Catholic Counter-Reformation the latter half. Building on earlier Protestant interpretations of the Reformation, Protestant Prussian historiography regarded the Reformation as a breakthrough to modernity, a German event that changed the course of world history. This view was still reflected in the modified subtitle of the leading journal in the field, the Archive for Reformation History, after it became a German-US collaboration in 1951: “international journal concerned with the history of the Reformation and its significance in world affairs.” In contrast, the term “Counter-Reformation” implied a mere reaction to the new Protestant movements of the early sixteenth century.

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this view of the sixteenth century with its clear Protestant bias was much debated. With regard to the term “Counter-Reformation,” historians pointed to the fact that there were numerous Catholic reform movements during the late middle ages which in turn made it clear that the Counter-Reformation was not only a reaction against Luther and other reformers, but an early modern “Catholic Reformation” in its own right. This discussion culminated in Hubert Jedin’s suggestion for a compromise term in 1946: “Catholic reform and Counter-Reformation.”

Twentieth-century scholars also cast serious doubt on the use of the Reformation as a marker of a new era and a breakthrough to modernity. Ernst Troeltsch argued in 1906 that the “Old Protestantism” of Luther and the other reformers was deeply embedded in the middle ages and only the “New Protestantism” of religious groups like Baptists and Spiritualists had brought about modernity.

Later historians emphasized long-term trends and comparatively stable structures in society and economy (for example, the social hierarchy or the household as the basic social and economic unit), which, in their view, minimized the significance of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century. For example, the German-American historian Dietrich Gerhard suggested replacing the idea of a historical break occurring around the year 1500, with the Protestant Reformation as the major component of that rupture, with a period instead called “Old Europe,” which lasted from the eleventh until the end of the eighteenth century.

Since the 1960s, and especially the 1980s, these discussions have continued, with new historiographical concepts throwing different light on the question of periodization. In terms of the Reformation as an epochal break, Marxist historians in East Germany—taking as their starting point Engel’s interpretation of the German Peasants’ War as a revolutionary event—considered the Peasants’ War with Thomas Müntzer as its leader and the radical Reformation an “early bourgeois Revolution.” This interpretation of the Reformation largely ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

In contrast, it became a consensus among historians in the West (albeit with some variation and different emphases) that the Reformation should be regarded as part of a longer period of change encompassing the late middle ages and the beginning of the early modern period. Heiko A. Oberman described the Reformation as the culmination of a long, late medieval reform process that, however, did not culminate in the Lutheran, but in the western European, Calvinist Reformations. The German church historian Berndt Hamm has argued that a process of “normative centering” was underway in this period. In Hamm’s view, the Reformation was a theological rupture, but, overall, it was part of a much broader process of centralization and concentration in all areas of late medieval and early modern life (politics, society, economy, the arts).

All in all, German historiography has probably been much more preoccupied with questions of periodization than English-language historiography. As the English historian C.H. Williams once joked, “German historians have an industry they call ‘Periodisierung,’ and they take it very seriously. It is not unknown to English scholars, but they, with typical Anglo-Saxon levity, treat it with less reverence, for they look upon it as a recreation rather than a science, and when they engage in it, they do not consider they are on oath.” This is, in fact, an accurate analysis of historiographical differences. While the English-language historiography of the German Reformation has certainly engaged with questions of periodization, its answers have generally been more pragmatic, less characterized by new terms and concepts, and more by the flexible usage of generally accepted terminology.

For example, Heiko Oberman co-edited, with Thomas A. Brady Jr. and James D. Tracy, a seminal two-volume overview, Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation (1994-95), that asserted the transitional nature of the time between 1400 and 1600. But the editors did not invent a new term for the period. Rather, they simply used the three established historiographical terms together to make their point. Similarly, the terms that are currently used in Anglo-American historiography about early modern Germany are “the Long Reformation,” or, most prominently, “the (Age of) Reformations” (plural), a term encompassing both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and taking a flexible approach to dating when this age of Reformations was actually over. With regard to Catholic reform, most historians now use either “Catholic Reformation” or even “Counter-Reformation,” the latter in a pragmatic and neutral way, without the previous negative connotations. And John O’Malley’s suggestion for a new terminology is equally pragmatic, chronologically broad, and open to different thematic emphases: he advocates for “early modern Catholicism.”

The Social History of the Reformation: Urban History, Communalism, Popular Religion, and Gender History

The social history of the German Reformation developed in the 1960s and 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic, and one of its most vibrant and enduring research subjects was urban history. This field was practically founded by one book, Bernd Moeller’s Imperial Cities and the Reformation (first published in German in 1962). Moeller, a German church historian, argued that the identity of the late medieval German burghers was uniquely suited to the message of the Reformation, and that their conception of the town as a “corpus christianum” seeking salvation led to their collective embrace of Protestantism. While historians were variously influenced by sociological theories, Marxism, and the French Annales School, a whole generation of Reformation historians, among them Thomas A. Brady Jr., Miriam Usher Chrisman, Kaspar von Greyerz, and Heinz Schilling, produced major studies in urban social history. In the beginning, historians focused on the southern and south-western Imperial and Swiss cities, but increasingly northern and Hansa towns were also researched. As a result, Reformation historiography was able to gain a clearer picture of the various conflicts, especially between the council and the guilds, in early modern towns, as well as of the different dynamics that lead to the introduction of Protestantism in an urban setting.

As mentioned above, research into the Peasants’ War was a vibrant field in East Germany. In West Germany, Peter Blickle developed the concept of “communalism” to describe how peasant communities adopted the Reformation. According to Blickle, the Reformation was integrated into peasants’ communal traditions and led to a “Revolution of the Common Man” during the Peasants’ War. At the same time, research into the Anabaptist tradition—“the radical Reformation”—also changed, as a denominational historiography that focused on an original, authentic Anabaptism was gradually changed and replaced by a social history, one that increasingly acknowledged the multifaceted origins and dynamics of Anabaptist and dissenter movements.

During those same decades, social history also broadened its thematic approach to include popular religion and women’s history, but more so in English-language than in German historiography, an observation that was true until at least the 1990s. Starting in the late 1970s, social historians started to criticize the thematic limitations of their field and eventually broadened it into a history of popular religion and gender in the age of Reformations. This was, however, a gradual process.

In the area of popular religion, Bob Scribner was the most influential scholar. His For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda in the German Reformation (first published in 1981) explored how polemical images brought the message of Protestantism to the illiterate in the Reformation era. In its exploration of Lutheran popular culture and rituals in early modern Germany, the book drew attention to the many ways in which Lutheran communities retained a deeply sacral view of the world. Scribner’s work, which included an article on incombustible Luther portraits, has inspired many historians on both sides of the Atlantic to expand his research, with works on Lutheran prophets; Protestant angels, ghosts, and miracles; and the role of saints in Protestantism, among other topics.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the questions it raised about the role of women in history were also brought to bear on the Reformation. Heide Wunder became more or less a lone voice in German historiography, but female scholars researching the influence of the Reformation and later the Counter-Reformation on women were increasingly heard (and published) in English-language historiography. Especially prominent were Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Susan Karant-Nunn, and Lyndal Roper, who in her book The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (1989) examined the role of women after the Reformation and came to the conclusion that women were not “liberated” because convents were abolished by the Protestant reformers. A new generation of historians on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Ulrike Strasser, Amy Leonard, Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Anne Conrad, have also turned their attention to the role and agency of women during the Reformation era, in particular that of nuns.

Writing the History of the Second Half of the German Reformation: The Concept of Confessionalization

Ernst Walter Zeeden fundamentally changed the trajectory of historical research in Germany when he observed in 1958 that Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism each started to build a modern, clearly defined church centered on a specific confession of faith during the second half of the sixteenth century. He literally called this process “confession building” (“formation of confessional churches” is probably a better translation), a neutral term that could be applied to all churches.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two scholars of the next generation, Wolfgang Reinhard and Heinz Schilling, reinforced this historiographical change by developing the concept of “confessionalization.” This concept dominated discussions in German historiography for the next twenty-five years and resulted in a shift in research interests. While the historiography of the 1960s and 1970s had focused on the first half of the sixteenth century, from the 1980s onward, historians shifted their attention to the second half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The concept of confessionalization countered the negative and anti-modern implications of the term “Counter-Reformation” by replacing it with the idea that the “confessional churches” of the early modern period underwent parallel developments. As a result, Schilling and Reinhard suggested replacing the terms “Lutheran orthodoxy,” “Second Reformation” (for Calvinism), and “Counter-Reformation” with the parallel terms “Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic confessionalization.”

Heinz Schilling and Wolfgang Reinhard understand the concept of confessionalization as a broadening of Zeeden’s concept of “confession-building” into a paradigm of societal history. As a result, they regard confessionalization as a “fundamental process of society” in which all confessional churches, in close alliance with the early modern state, homogenized the population, intensified social disciplining, and solidified confessional, political, and cultural identities. They argue—in clear opposition to the earlier implications of the term “Counter-Reformation”—that all churches thereby underwent a (partially unintended) process of modernization, and that, rather than focusing on doctrinal differences as the older historiography did, the concept of confessionalization reveals the “functional similarities” between the early modern confessional churches.

In this context, Wolfgang Reinhard has identified seven methods, or mechanisms, of confessionalization, used by church and state to try and establish confessional homogeneity. First, the definition of “pure doctrine” in a confession of faith meant that a church was clearly delineated vis-à-vis other confessional churches. Second, these norms then needed to be imposed on the personnel of the church, for example through confessional oaths. Third, church and state used the printing press for propaganda and tried to put in place a system of censorship. Fourth, by establishing educational institutions on all levels, church and state attempted to influence the younger generations. Fifth, through different measures of social control like visitations and church discipline, church and state aimed at creating a confessionally homogeneous population. Sixth, religious rituals were cultivated as markers of a confessional church, and participation was monitored so as to ensure the loyalty of the faithful. Seventh, Reinhard refers to the confessionalization of language, for example, the choice of first names in different confessions.

Confessionalization and Periodization

Heinz Schilling has developed a periodization of the process of confessionalization in the Empire between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Thirty Years’ War. He identifies four phases: first, a “preparatory phase” starting in the late 1540s; second, the “transition to confessional confrontation” in the 1570s, when all three churches acquired clear confessions of faith and began a process of identity formation and defining boundaries; third, the “apogee of confessionalization” between the 1580s and the 1620s, when the hardening of religious lines continued and was reinforced by political conflicts in the Empire, leading to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War; and fourth, “the end of confessionalization under the conditions of war and on the basis of the Peace of Westphalia” starting in the 1620s. In this phase, the devastation and suffering of the war led to the realization, resulting in the Peace of Westphalia, that compromise was the only realistic option.

The debate about the concept of confessionalization has led many scholars, especially those who work on Catholic areas, to doubt Schilling’s periodization. Reinhard has extended the process of confessionalization much further, starting with the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the first Lutheran confession, and ending with the expulsion of the Salzburg Protestants in 1731-32, an act that was, according to Reinhard, the last confessionally motivated expulsion in the early modern Empire. Others have argued that the thesis of parallel developments—and thus a periodization applying equally to all confessional churches—cannot stand, particularly in view of the fact that Baroque Catholicism continued to shape Catholic confessional identity and culture well into the eighteenth century.

The Debate About the Concept of Confessionalization

The concept of confessionalization resulted in an intense and long-lasting historiographical debate that started in the early 1980s and is still ongoing, although it has significantly lessened in intensity since the mid-2000s. This debate has focused on elements of the concept that many historians have regarded as too rigid or limiting.

Above all, the concept of confessionalization has been described as the product of German history in the ’70s, with its focus on modernization theory following Max Weber. Social and cultural historians have rejected the concept on the grounds that its claim that confessionalization had modernizing effects is teleological and that it does not do justice to the complexities of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century developments. In a similar vein, historians and church historians have criticized the concept for its emphasis on parallel developments in all major confessions. In their view, this detracts from the specific characteristics of each confessional church and reduces religion to its social and political functions.

Another major criticism of the concept pertains to its claim that confessionalization was a fundamental social process, affecting all areas of early modern life. There has been much debate on just how deeply confessionalization reached into different areas and aspects of life, and critics of the concept have emphasized its limitations, for example with regard to changing popular religion on the one end of the social spectrum and the supra-confessional nature of the humanist republic of letters on the other.

Finally, the close relationship between confession building and state formation postulated by the concept of confessionalization has given rise to major discussions. In recent historiography, there is a consensus that Reinhard and Schilling have overemphasized the role of the state in the process of confessionalization, thereby describing it as a top-to-bottom process which does not take into account agency from below, various forms of resistance, and self-confessionalization.

When a Reformation historian randomly picks up books on his or her shelf today and looks for “confessionalization” in the indices, he or she finds that in the last fifteen years or so the term is invariably referred to by early modernists, especially in introductions, in order to differentiate their own approach from the concept. However, there can be no doubt that the concept of confessionalization did not have the same significance in English-language scholarship as it did in German historiography where the debate was more intense.

The New Cultural History of the Reformation and the Anniversary of 2017

Before and during the debate about confessionalization, English-language historiography emphasized broader aspects of social history as described above, and gradually developed a new cultural history of the German Reformation. These fields have been for some time and still are the main drivers of early modern English-language historiography, and in recent years the new cultural history has become the leading approach in German scholarship as well.

The cultural history of the Reformation is inspired by anthropological approaches and therefore concerned with a broad set of questions. Historians like Susan Karant-Nunn, Bridget Heal, and Andrew Spicer focus on rituals, the emotions, space, sound, and the visual and material cultures of the religious movements and churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In doing so, these practitioners of the new cultural history have moved beyond the issues that earlier generations of historians struggled with.

Other historians, inspired by the debate about confessionalization and driven by a desire to understand better how people in the early modern period lived together, analyze the interactions of Protestants and Catholics “on the ground” without currently discussing macro-historical questions of modernization, state formation, or social control. A new strand of research has evolved in recent years that focuses on “practical toleration” and “regimes of coexistence.” Starting with Benjamin J. Kaplan’s European overview Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (2007), David Luebke (the author of Hometown Religion: Regimes of Coexistence in Early Modern Westphalia, 2016), Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Jesse Spohnholz have pushed these questions forward.

The 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017 has also not been without consequences for historiography. As I write this essay, it is not yet clear how the Reformation anniversary will affect research on religion in the early modern period overall. However, two trends are already discernible: research interests are clearly shifting back to the period of the early Reformation. And there seems to be a growing interest in the biographies of the central figures of the Reformation, above all, of course, Luther. The last few years saw the publication of major works on Luther’s life, by among others Heinz Schilling, Lyndal Roper, and Susan Karant-Nunn. These biographies take very different approaches, and the works by Roper and Karant-Nunn show the clear influence of cultural history on this traditional genre.

In addition, there is a developing trend in the early modern history of Germany, so far mostly focused on the Catholic Reformation, to examine early modern religious cultures in a global context. As Ulrike Strasser and Renate Dürr have shown, German Jesuits and other missionaries participated in the global expansion of Christianity in the early modern period. This subject has, without doubt, great future potential.

Several aspects of German Reformation history warrant further research, among others the history of masculinity in the Reformation, the history of generational change, and the history of refugees and exiles (other than the Huguenots). Some of these themes have already been taken up by the historiography of other European countries and are currently starting to be explored in the history of Reformation Germany. It remains to be seen what lies ahead.


Ute Lotz-Heumann is Director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies and Heiko A. Oberman Professor of Late Medieval and Reformation History in the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies and the Department of History at the University of Arizona. She is the author of a monograph on religious and political conflict in early modern Ireland, and she has co-authored or co-edited eight volumes in Reformation and early modern history. Currently, she is working on two books about spas and healing waters in early modern Germany between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

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