The Historical Journal

Historiographical Reviews

THE REFORMATION AND ‘THE DISENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD’ REASSESSED

ALEXANDRA WALSHAMa1 c1

a1 University of Exeter

ABSTRACT

This essay is a critical historiographical overview of the ongoing debate about the role of the Protestant Reformation in the process of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. It considers the development of this thesis in the work of Max Weber and subsequent scholars, its links with wider claims about the origins of modernity, and the challenges to this influential paradigm that have emerged in the last twenty-five years. Setting the literature on England within its wider European context, it explores the links between Protestantism and the transformation of assumptions about the sacred and the supernatural, and places renewed emphasis on the equivocal and ambiguous legacy left by the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Attention is also paid to the ways in which the Reformation converged with other intellectual, cultural, political, and social developments which cumulatively brought about subtle, but decisive, transformations in individual and collective mentalities. It is suggested that thinking in terms of cycles of desacralization and resacralization may help to counteract the potential distortions of a narrative that emphasizes a linear path of development.

Correspondence:

c1 Department of History, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ a.m.walsham@ex.ac.uk