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Europe in chapter and verse

The title of Mark Greengrass's wonderful new book is well chosen.

Early-modern Europe was a time of phenomenal scientific advance, and Mark Greengrass describes how Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei impressed everyone with his microscopesPhotograph: Getty
Early-modern Europe was a time of phenomenal scientific advance, and Mark Greengrass describes how Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei impressed everyone with his microscopesPhotograph: Getty

The 16th-century Reformation helped to explode the ancient concept of Christendom. At the level of geography, it had sometimes been difficult to determine precisely where Christendom began and ended, but this had hardly mattered. The notion of a community of believers all striving for the same religious goals was regnant throughout the medieval period. It was sometimes more of a myth than a reality, of course. The era witnessed an astonishing escalation of popular heresy, and challenges to the power and role of the papacy were abundant, but none of this did too much damage to the dream of Christian unity. If anything, that dream was in unusually good health at the end of the 15th century. Most of those medieval heresies had been vanquished and the devotional life of Europe was flourishing. No-one, absolutely no-one, could have predicted the coming cataclysm.

And yet, just 100 years later, Christendom had, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. The continent was bitterly divided along confessional lines, religious wars were raging, and it would take several centuries for anyone to take the prospect of Christian unity particularly seriously. In Christendom's stead there was now something called "Europe" and, as Greengrass explains, it "claimed no unity beyond the geographical landmass that it represented and an emerging sense of the moral and civilising superiority of the different states and peoples which occupied it."

Many books have been written about this puzzling transformation, but Greengrass's version of events is among the finest I have read. Emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield and a leading expert on the history of early-modern French religious history, he covers a staggering amount of ground. If you have ever wanted to know more about the houses inhabited by 16th-century Europeans, the postal services at their disposal, or their obsession with the occult (a random sample) then buy this book. It also covers the momentous religious, cultural and political changes with the lightest of scholarly touches. The explanations of the Reformation's doctrinal challenges are first rate; the accounts of the consequences of global exploration and enterprise are thought-provoking; and the guided tours around the era's baffling dynastic shifts and battles are clear, reliable and highly entertaining.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it captures the confusion and contradictions of early-modern Europe. It was an age of phenomenal scientific advance. We are taken, for instance, to early 17th-century Rome and the exploits of the Academy of the Lynxes. This was a hive of specimen collecting, scientific demonstrations and encrypted scholarly correspondence. Galileo was a member and impressed everyone with his microscopes: "I have seen those little animals in the grains of cheese, in truth a stupendous thing." For all this, however, the era's culture also mistrusted unfettered curiosity: was too much confidence in humanity's intellectual capacities not a sign of overweening pride? Likewise, the period offered unprecedented economic opportunities, but some contemporaries worried about the urban sprawl and social dislocation.

There was much to be grateful for (all those plants and foodstuffs flooding in from the New World) but the military conflicts were becoming increasingly devastating, as any of the 400,000 casualties of the Thirty Years War might have attested. Print, meanwhile, was a marvellous innovation but the "extraordinary pluralism of contact and communication ... challenged old loyalties and senses of belonging". And then, of course, there was religion. What was the best way to cope with the chaos? In some places it made perfect sense to enforce conformity in the interests of social coherency. Elsewhere, learning to live with religious diversity, however much this appalled the champions of rival orthodoxies, was the wiser strategy. Greengrass tackles all this, and much else besides, with great skill.

I gush, but why would I not do so? I was enchanted by the sections on how early-modern Europeans conceptualised the weird creatures that sometimes appeared in nature: were the monsters created by the devil or warning signs from God? I never imagined that a subject like early-modern poor relief could be interesting but, in Greengrass's hands, it is gripping: the interplay of revulsion, fear, guilty consciences and the urgent need to sustain social peace. I learned new things about the emergence of the modern nation state which, helped by the crises of Reformation, erected a paradigm in which "public authority structured and monitored peoples' lives and behaviours".

The period between 1517 and 1648 had a glow about it, not least because of the 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver that arrived from the Americas. It was also a time of savagery and violence. It was not much fun living in the Low Countries in 1566, when iconoclasm raged and even the children could be seen staging mock executions of religious statues. Greengrass writes that "nothing is harder ... than discovering what people really thought about religion" and this is assuredly true of the 16th century. One of the glories of recent scholarship is that it has allowed us to make much better guesses. We now take the opinions of the masses seriously, we no longer look for easy explanations of the most puzzling event in Western history (the Reformation), and prior to this book Greengrass did a great deal to help this cause. He has now completed that most unenviable of labours: writing an original, dynamic survey of early-modern European history.

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