Religion and Reform

  • R. W. Scribner
  • C. Scott Dixon
Part of the Studies in European History book series (SEURH)


Historians have always believed that an understanding of the religious dimensions of the Reformation could be found in the ‘state of religion’ of the age preceding it. Exactly what that ‘state of religion’ was, however, has been a matter of controversy, with at least four different analyses of its nature.
  1. (1)

    There was a profound religious malaise in the century before the Reformation (22). This view seems to be confirmed by a broad range of fifteenth-century literature criticising religious abuses and failings, as well as by the criticisms of the sixteenth-century reformers. There is also evidence of low levels of church attendance, infrequent practice of the Sacraments and poor knowledge of the faith (20, 27).

  2. (2)

    There was a strong sense of devotion to the church and a powerful revival of piety for at least two generations before the Reformation (25). In support of this thesis one can point to the growth of interest in mysticism and asceticism, to movements of lay piety such as the Devotio moderna, to the popularity of lay confraternities, to an increase in mass endowments, to a steady stream of devotional literature produced by the new art of printing, to new religious cults such as that of St Anne or the Rosary, and to a considerable revival of preaching.

  3. (3)

    The problem was not too little religion, but too much (30). The demands of religious observance had become a spiritual burden, creating anxiety where religious comfort was sought. This was certainly the view held by Luther, who spoke of his own repeated attempts to find consolation in the confessional, only to find that its rigours further ensnared his conscience, instead of easing it.



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Select Bibliography

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    R. W. Scribner, ‘Ritual and Popular Religion in Catholic Germany at the time of the Reformation’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, XXXV (1984), 47–77. Defines ‘popular religion’ in terms of liturgical practices.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    R. W. Scribner, ‘Luther-Legenden des 16. Jahrhunderts’, in G. Vogler (ed.), Martin Luther. Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Berlin, 1983). Examines myths built around Luther from beginning of the Reformation.Google Scholar
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    R. W. Scribner, ‘Incombustible Luther: the Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany’, Past and Present, 110 (1986), 38–68. Discusses persistence of the view of Luther as saint and miracle-worker until the eighteenth century.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© R. W. Scribner 2003

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  • R. W. Scribner
  • C. Scott Dixon

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