Belloc On the Reformation


The event through which everything in the last 500 years of European history needs to be seen is what we now call the Reformation’. (What we now call the Renaissance’ was in fact a period of decay — religious, moral, aesthetic, economic and intellectual. It gets its name merely from the fact that if you focus narrowly on the recovery of Greek learning in Europe — which owes more to the fall of Constantinople and consequent fleeing of its intellectual class to Italy, than to any merit of the European culture — it looks like a great emancipation, but the fact is that everything else about it was regressive.)

Belloc’s How the Reformation Happened is a piece of partisan history well worth reading. One can almost imagine it written by a 17th-century Jesuit who had learned to write in modern English prose; Belloc’s prejudices as a militant Catholic are about as transparent as it is possible for them to be, and consequently easy to bracket off. The book’s most salutary effect is the culture shock: history looks rather different through the eyes of someone who thinks of Islam as a heretical Christian offshoot, and given that most of the history of the Reformation has not been written by Catholics one does not quite get the picture one expects to get.

Belloc is fast and loose with his rhetoric, but his characterizations of personages, while often mean, are neither ignorant nor lightly formulated. The book is of value mainly as a prophylactic against the usual lazy ways of interpreting the Reformation, and for its true-to-life picture of the event as something nobody really wanted but which was produced largely through the efforts of a petty nobility using popular anticlerical sentiment as a vehicle to legitimize their systematic looting of the Church. In this vein, his characterization of the schism of the Anglican from the Roman Church as The English Accident’ has the humor of truth, and that chapter is well worth the price of admission all by itself.

– Protestantism’s rise was inevitable, as was it’s decline: once you make commercial success a virtue unto itself and usury a matter of course, the accumulation of mobile capital becomes unstoppable and you get all the things Marx talks about; just as inevitably, when you begin by lionizing individual conscience you end up with blanket skepticism and no general agreement on anything but the most banal facts of life. It is autotoxic, but nothing of comparable force appears to be rushing in to fill the void.