We Were Here First: a Medievalist’s View of the Reformation

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 produced celebratory lectures, books and ecumenical services worldwide, but Medievalists, those whose job it is to know what the Reformation was reformed from, were mostly not on the radar.[1] This is nothing new, alas: the name “Early Modern” itself implies, or rather, insists that not much could have happened or been invented before “Early.”  Our irrelevance dates back at least to 1905 when Weber published Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  As Yale’ s Reformation historian, Carlos Eire, noted in his celebratory 2017 lecture:

Over one hundred years ago, Max Weber argued that Protestantism “disenchanted” the world and eliminated “magic” from it. Today, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, … this assertion needs to be reappraised. Did Protestants really vanquish “magic,” and, if so, what was that “magic,” exactly, or the “disenchantment” that accompanied its demise? Exploring the various ways in which Protestantism redefined the sacred might…allow us to appreciate more fully what the Protestant Reformation bequeathed to the world.[2]

Eire’s clarion call to discover how Protestantism redefined the sacred is refreshing, but, as he notes, the ghost of Weber remains a stumbling block, leaving Protestantism misunderstood. So, too, I would add, his ghostly presence leaves the Middle Ages misunderstood, and underestimated, too.  Our period is the “enchanted” world that Protestants allegedly lost, like Adam and Eve all over again,  just a placeholder in someone else’s historiography. So, since these misconceptions are costly for mutual understanding and in shrinking market shares of the Humanities, let’s take a moment to remember what the Medieval era bequeathed the Reformation, and how heavily Luther and all who came after depended on it.

A 1617 broadside on the centenary of the German Reformation, “Göttlicher Schrifftmessiger…,” showing Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg. His over-sized pen knocks off the tiara of Pope Leo X. 

Weber had argued that the “ascetic” strand in Protestant ethics was a major factor in the rise of Western capitalism, and that the “disenchantment”(Entzauberung) so evident in Modernity stemmed originally from a devaluation of mysticism, “magic” and other (supposedly) pre-Modern worldviews.  For Weber, “disenchantment” grew out of mental habits of “rationalization,” which, along with burgeoning bureaucracy and valorization of the scientific, contributed to modern secularism. Little did Weber know that the Middle Ages were rife with their own forms of rationalization, bureaucracy, and secularism (scholasticism, laicization of the civil service, and disillusionment with clerical corruption and schism). In contrast, for traditional societies, Weber argued, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.[3]

Mercifully, Weber’s patronizing vision is mostly behind us, but not far enough. Eire argues, rightly I think, that types of “enchantment” survived on both sides of the Reformation Protestant-Catholic divide, with different emphases in each religious culture, and, I’d stress, different aesthetics: e.g. Protestant painters like Rembrandt painted less medieval iconography, but experimented with inner and outer light; Protestant poets like Spenser reinvented medieval romance’s “enchanted” world as a four-part invention of inner and outer voices. But still missing from this more holistic picture is the recognition that, however many “disenchanting” attitudes one believes Protestants unleashed, they were already unleashed in the Middle Ages, itself as varied and unstable as any other period in history.

Medieval views of the supernatural were complicated at best, and often not naïve. Moreover, many forms of “disenchantment” flourished throughout Middle Ages, not just in the Late Middle Ages, the “age of decline” some Reformation historians conveniently blame. Carlos Eire noted the fact that many atheists were willing to die for their beliefs in the Spanish Inquisition, heralding a newer age, but I’d note that the High Middle Ages, too, saw many doubters who faced parallel dangers  (e.g. in England from 1161 onwards).[4] Books were even written to try to turn doubters: e.g. Peter of Cornwall, an Austin canon and prior of Trinity, Aldgate, tells us c. 1200 that he compiled his massive Liber Revelationum (now London, Lambeth Palace MS 51) to convince “unbelievers”:

“Since there are still some who believe that there is no God and the world is ruled by chanceand many who believe only what they see … I (ego, Petrus ecclesie S. Trinitatis Lundonie) have collected out of the lives and acts of the saints, these revelations and visions… . I have confined myself to those which occurred since Christ’s passion, excluding from my view the Old and New Testaments, to which all have access.”[5]

Whoever these unbelievers were, then, they were highly literate, apparently readers of Latin with access to the Old and New Testament – part of the establishment.  Medieval attitudes toward vision could range widely from the devout, like Peter (who nonetheless verified his witnesses officially) to skeptics, like Archbishop John Pecham (who in the 1270s questioned Hildegard of Bingen’s visions using historiographical methods worthy of later Renaissance humanists), to outright deniers, like John Wyclif (who denounced Hildegard’s visions as “extra fidem Scripture”).[6]

Without this range and complexity, the Reformation’s doubts, queries and changes would have been unimaginable, because their writers and reformers would have had less legal and theological precedent. In fact, I’d argue, Luther himself benefited enormously from medieval academic protections and precedents, achievements hard won via the legal and theological challenges of evolving academic institutions. These are the gifts that Medieval writers offered posterity, too often missed in the rush to pigeonhole the Middle Ages as simply “Other.”

Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum(The “95 Theses”), Nuremberg, Hieronymus Höltzel, 1517

What allowed Luther in 1517, then a Wittenberg professor of moral theology, to commit his famous act (actually a routine act at the time[7]) of nailing up theological propositions for dispute was the fact that medieval universities had rights and privileges. He posted the Ninety-Five Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences) on the door of the Castle church (in fact, often used as Wittenberg’s university “billboard”), an action that depended upon a series of medieval inventions and precedents. First, a university had a right to some degree of self- governance independent of the local bishop, and to some forms of academic freedom (not so large as our own, but worthy ancestors of them). So, for instance, in 1290 Godfrey of Fontaine wrote his Quodlibet VII on whether a master of theology may contradict an article condemned by a bishop (“Utrum magister in theologia debet dicere contra articulum episcopi si credit oppositum esse verum”), deciding, strikingly, that on truths necessary to salvation a theologian should not comply with a condemnation he disagreed with, even if others are “scandalized” by his disobedience.[8]  Those outside of the protection of the university could be less fortunate: Godfrey later wrote an approbation of Marguerite Porete’s mystical work, which, however, did not prevent her tragic execution in 1310. Second, Luther had access to the technologies of medieval book and pamphlet production – like the university, the printing press, too, was a medieval invention,[9] but the pamphlet genre was even earlier, as was the broadside.[10] Third, in medieval university contexts, lists of “points” or topics for disputation were common, while “conclusions,” a related genre, were considered more aggressive. Famously in England, the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were affixed to the doors of both St. Paul’s and Westminster Hall in 1395, though the genre does not itself imply heresy.[11] In fact, medieval universities had developed a very specific set of loopholes for academic freedom, from the famous Paris condemnations of 1277 (which reached even to Thomas Aquinas), through John XXII’s persecutions of dissenting academics, and beyond, resulting in an intellectual tradition of disputations probing the one problem that could override any episcopal censure: the question of what was necessary to salvation.[12] I would argue, then, that it was precisely on such matters of “truths necessary to salvation” that many reformers, including Luther, benefited from a protective umbrella, to some real extent, developed – and not without pain and sacrifice – by academics in the Middle Ages.  Lest we forget.

Medieval stained glass fragments gather after destruction by Cromwell’s soldiers, Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire.

So, when medievalists look at Luther 500 years later, they think not of rupture, but continuities – all the earlier times history came so close. Instead of thinking of the Reformation like the smashed fragments from Ripon Cathedral’s medieval windows (above), we probably think instead of one of the literally thousands of intact medieval windows across Europe, like the one from York’s Holy Trinity Goodramgate (below) of family-friendly saints smiling down upon the altar for centuries, over the Early Modern tablets bearing the Creed and Commandments in English.[13]  What divides us is never greater than what unites us.

15th-c East window of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, with (bottom row) female saints, biblical families and Holy Trinity (centre). For close-ups of each see Corpus Vitrearum.


The same window in situ, with Early Modern tables of Creed and Ten Commandments above the altar.


Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Emeritus Professor
University of Notre Dame



[1]My thanks to Mike Johnston for creating one welcome exception, Purdue University’s The Meaning of the Reformation” conference where this paper was first given Nov., 2017.

[2]I quote here from Eire’s blurb for “Reshuffling the Seen and the Unseen: A Reappraisal of the Legacy of the Reformation,” given Oct. 17, 1017 at University of Victoria for The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation series. See Eire’s, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven, 2016).

[3]Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion(Boston, 1971) p. 270.

[4]See the Chronology Chart in K. Kerby-Fulton, for Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England(Notre Dame, 2006) xix –lii (BUS); and “Skepticism, Agnosticism and Belief: The Spectrum of Attitudes Toward Vision in Late Medieval England,” in Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis, ed. K. Kerby-Fulton (Victoria, 2009) 1-18.

[5]Quoted here from Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe, “Peter of Cornwall, The Visions of Aisli and his Sons,” Mediaevistik(1998): 248, from Peter’s Prologue.


[7]Andrew Pettigree, Brand Luther(London, 2015) 71. The Castle Church functioned as a classroom in the university, and its door was used as a billboard.

[8]BUS, 38-9.  For a similar case involving the privileges and liberties of Oxford (libertatum et privilegiorum universitatis Oxoniensis), see BUS,3.

[9]In Europe, but in China mechanical printing dates from the 8thc. C.E.

[11]Hudson, Select Wycliffite Writings, (Toronto, 1997) 150.

[12]BUS, 35.

[13]Sarah Brown, “Reformation, Iconoclasm and Restoration Stained Glass in England c1540-1830” http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/english-stainedglass/english-stainedglass.htm.


The World is not Flat; It Is Interdisciplinary

This past week, I and a number of my Fulbright colleagues here in Morocco traveled to Amman, Jordan in order to participate in a regional Fulbright conference.

Over three days, Fulbright researchers from Israel and Palestine, Jordan, and Morocco presented a snapshot of our current in-country research, discussed the various issues and challenges we faced along the way with the regional, cultural, and linguistic differences between our respective host countries, and got to know one another over numerous cups of coffee.  We not only came from all across the United States, but we also came from just about all the different academic and professional disciplines:  social work, medicine, sociology, art history, literature, economics, political science, education, and medieval history.  In short, we were living up to the stated mission of the Fulbright Program: to foster international exchange in order to increase mutual understanding and diminish the threat of conflict based upon an inability to see the world as interconnected.

While the architects of the Fulbright Program imagined this exchange happening at an international level in order to lessen conflict and promote peace, it also works on a domestic level.  By offering the grant to those in the sciences and in the humanities, Fulbright illustrates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of our world and how much we rely upon the expertise of each other in their respective fields order to proceed with our own research.  The following sketches are but a few examples of the ways in which each of us Fulbrighters depend upon one another and our various subjects of expertise in order to complete our own projects.

  • One of the Jordan-based grantees is looking at the various hurdles faced by entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Jordan and in Palestine, including the time it takes to register a business, the types of documentation required, the amount of capital needed at the start, and the laws governing ownership.  It turns out that for Palestine, one needs an expert in the Ottoman legal code, the Mecelle, in order to start a business in 2017.  Not only does this mean that potential entrepreneurs need translations of the Mecelle from Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish (which also involves a shift from an Arabic alphabet to a Latin one), Modern Standard Arabic, or English for consultation, but they also need historians and legal scholars to explain how the code functions, what its restrictions are, and its various historical precedents.  This particular Fulbright researcher needs articles summarizing all of this in order to gain a deeper understanding of the various hurdles their colleagues face and proceed with their own research.  In short: to study current business practices in Palestine, someone with a financial or business background has to rely upon the work of historians, lawyers and legal scholars, and translators.
  • On a similar note, one of the Morocco-based grantees who is studying divorce proceedings in Morocco needs to rely upon the work of theologians in addition to historians, lawyers and legal scholars in to order to understand divorce proceedings in Morocco and conduct their research.  Although much of Moroccan law is based on French civil law —which in turn requires them to depend upon the work of experts in French legal history— the family code is based upon Islamic religious law (Shari’a law).  However, the foundation for Morocco’s family code (as well as its name) comes from the Mudawwana, a 9th century book of juridical opinion based upon the legal writings of 8th and 9th century scholars and written in Classical Arabic.  It is also a code that is unique to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, a school that has its origins in the Arabian peninsula rather than North Africa. Like all legal codes and religious texts, the Mudawwana also has numerous compendiums and guides for its interpretation and implementation. Thus, this particular Fulbrighter needs medieval historians (such as myself) to explain how the code came to Morocco and gained favor among the jurists during the Middle Ages, modern historians to explain the creation of a mixed civil and religious code during the Protectorate and post-colonial periods, linguists to help translate and explain Classical Arabic terms in Modern Standard Arabic and in French (the language of civil law in Morocco), and legal scholars to interpret the laws themselves and explain how they influence current rulings on divorce.

Such an illumination of intellectual interdependence needed to answer contemporary questions could not come at a more dire and drastic time.  The release of the the 2018 Fiscal Budget, with its draconian cuts to both the Sciences and the Humanities along with programs and initiatives designed for the public good such as the State Department (which runs Fulbright), is predicated on the idea that grants such as Fulbright and fostering intellectual and geographical exchange among grantees is not a priority.  The proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities is a sign from the US Government — the same institution that created the Fulbright Program in 1946—that the government (and by extension, its citizens) have no role in funding the study of humanity itself. Wrapped up in all of this is the idea that “academics,” especially those in the Humanities, are not “useful” for anyone outside of their narrow specialty, and that funds should be allocated to those fields which promote business and long-term employment.

Yet these ideas did not begin at the federal level, nor did they begin with this Administration.  The shift away from fostering intellectual exploration, research, and an interdisciplinary framework began at the state and local level as a way to resolve budget crises (often not brought about by education spending), and it has been pushed by many in higher-ed including College and University boards and deans.  As colleges and universities continue to push the idea that their graduates are “successful” and that such success is only measured by the imagined direct causation of undergraduate degree and major to one’s income across their lifetime, they re-write their curriculum requirements to discourage interdisciplinary study among the majority of their students.  Cutting or eliminating requirements to take a number of classes outside of one’s concentration while allowing SATII or AP courses to “count” for college credit means that our students will not be prepared to engage in intellectual exchange, much less have the tools necessary to turn to other fields and experts in order to answer their own questions.

Toting the equation of “undergraduate specialty = personal wealth” and “interdisciplinary study ≠ “gainful employment” (an argument that does not hold much water) undercuts the very support needed to answer legal and economic questions posed by these two Fulbright researchers.  If there are no specialists in Ottoman law, medieval history, legal codes, and Islam — to say nothing of language teachers and translators required to make these documents available to your average Anglophone who does not speak or read Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, or French—then it is impossible for these projects to move forward.  Yet in order to have specialists, you must have an education system that allows them to study the materials they need without telling them directly or indirectly that their choices are “economically precarious”  and hold “little to no weight in ‘the real world.’” You also need a civil society that promotes intellectual exchange, that underwrites programs dedicated to interdisciplinary study, and says that spending a (very very very small ) portion of taxes on such programs is necessary in order to create forums of intellectual exchange that lead to international understanding and peace.

The skeptic always asks “What’s the worst that could happen?” when faced with a narrative.  The answer in this case, I believe, lies within Jordan.  As part of the conference, we were treated to presentations by development experts about the various challenges within the kingdom today.  One of the most acute revolves around education and the lack of a robust civil society.  In Jordan, any degree other than one in engineering, medicine, or law is viewed as socially and economically worthless, because there are no jobs other than laborer or service work and because jobs themselves are not determined by aptitude or interest but by your high school exit exam scores, which then determine your university education and subsequent career path.  As a result, Jordanians themselves must depend upon the knowledge, insight, and vast amounts of money and trained foreigners in order to run their own country, understand their past, and answer basic questions.

Unlike Jordan, there is no other country who can underwrite the educational failings of the United States.

The world is interdisciplinary by default. Trying to understand our present relies upon the study of the past and the necessary experts to guide and shape that study.  Institutions such as liberal arts colleges dedicated to a broad education for all of their students (not just humanities majors), intellectual centers such as the Medieval Institute, and government programs like Fulbright not only recognize this inherent interdependence but point to it as the avenue in which additional interdependence can be and needs to be fostered in order to increase mutual understanding.  To insist upon the opposite against all evidence to the contrary and to do so by forcing our students into strict, narrow categories would raise generations against the very grain of their human nature and their environment and leave us utterly unprepared to see the world as it truly is.