Longreads + Open Thread

Shorting, Archegos, Journalism, Mercenaries, Rust, Moonshots, AI, Reformation



The Reformation: A History: one of the complaints people sometimes have about history is that it's just a bunch of dates, but an equally valid complaint is that for the reall important phenomena, it's frustratingly hard to put a specific date on it. The Reformation, for example, is easy to date: 95 theses, 1517. But, as with lots of other striking events, there was plenty of buildup to it, and the consequences clearly mattered past 1648.

This book does exactly what a good history book should: it puts an event in context so it's hard to imagine a different world where it hadn't happened, and then forces the reader to consider how much that they take for granted that turns out to be cost by that same event. Part of the pressure building ahead of the Reformation was between governments and the church (as the book notes, things like the purchase of indulgences were a local phenomenon—much more common in the places that aligned themselves with Luther! The oldest English document printed on paper, for example, is a form for recording an indulgence). And within the church, there was a long-simmering conflict between local priests and traveling friars: the priests knew their community, but weren't well-educated, and the friars tended to add a bit of showmanship to their sermons.

Meanwhile, places where the Reformation didn't catch on had a few different factors: in Spain, there was already a recent history of religious conflict with both Muslims and Jews—Spanish Catholics had plenty of heathens to worry about and didn't have time for heresy. In Habsburg territories, the government saw Catholicism as a way to bolster their own legitimacy (something they had in common with Reformation participants—Henry VIII and various German princes saw a break with Rome as a way to solidify their own power).

Back when I was attending a Jesuit high school, our history teacher emphasized that the Catholic church changed after the Reformation, and for the better (but that this didn't mean Martin Luther had a good excuse!). And that's true; things like taking communion more than a few times a year, praying the rosary, or having lots of religious-affiliated early education options were much more common in Catholicism as a direct response to the Reformation. The Jesuits themselves amassed influence by teaching kids, advising rulers, and pushing back against Protestants.

Given how many modern beliefs share roots in either literally Christian thinking or at least a milieu where Christianity was the default framework for understanding the world, it's very helpful to look at how it's changed over time.

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