This really needed to be a series, rather than a single programme. David Starkey, who can sometimes be a bit dry but wasn’t this time, did a decent job with what he said, but an hour really didn’t give him time to say very much. I’m amazed that none of the TV channels have commissioned a full series to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. Come on, we’re talking pretty major stuff here!
The programme started by trying to put a modern spin on things. Why do so many documentaries do that these days?! OK, it’s better than Lucy Worsley dressing up, but surely we can study the past without always having to try to draw parallels with the present day. Comparing the Islamic fundamentalism in the 21st century with Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century – which would have worked a lot better if there’d been some proper coverage of Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century. And flashing up “#Luthersreformation” on screen. Oh dear.
However, once he actually got on to talking about the 95 Theses, it was very good. It really is incredible how Luther’s ideas spread. “Went viral”, as the programme put it. I mean, he wasn’t a prince, or a courtier, or an archbishop, or a renowned international scholar: he was just some monk in a university city a very long way from Rome or Vienna. Starkey made a lot of familiar but still interesting points about the importance of the growth of printing and the use of the vernacular. Whatever anyone’s views on doctrine and practice, the use of the vernacular in religion is so important. No offence to anyone who prefers their services or religious books in Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Arabic or whatever, but it is rather helpful if you can actually understand what’s being said. Even taking that into the account, the impact of the 95 Theses and the follow-up writings is incredible. There’d been reformist movements before – the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, etc – but their impact had been short-lived and restricted to a particular area. With Luther, it all just took off.
Then we had the Diet of Worms. It still makes me laugh when I see that written down! The appeal of Luther’s ideas to local princes. Schmalkaldic League. The Peasants’ War. Annoyingly, no mention of the Twelve Articles of Memmingen – but I’m only saying that because I once stayed overnight in Memmingen. But then we switched to England. Now, the English Reformation is extremely interesting, and obviously extremely important, but did we really need yet another programme about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn? Henry, Anne, Catherine, Wolsey, the Dissolution of the Monasteries … yes, it’s fascinating, but it’s been covered so many times, and the title of the programme suggested that it would have much wider geographical scope than that.
And off we went again with having to try to put a modern spin on things. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was “the Tudor Brexit”, David Starkey informed us. Er, hardly. The break with Rome was, whatever the spread of Protestant feeling in the country, the choice of Henry VIII and his ministers. Brexit is the result of the democratic will of the people. And, whilst the pre-Counter Reformation Catholic Church was, like the institutions of the European Union, very good at grabbing everyone’s money, it didn’t try to micro-manage and uber-control the whole of Western Christendom.
However, as Starkey pointed out, there are parallels in terms of the importance of the sovereignty of the national parliament. The Reformation was one of the best things that ever happened to England/Britain. As one of my university lecturers used to say, Britain isn’t a very Christian country but it’s a very Protestant country. In the best of ways, unlike some of what’s gone on in the US and South Africa.
It was all getting very interesting, with the talk about the influence that the Reformation had on national identity and self-confidence. But there it stopped. I know the BBC’s obsessed with Henry VIII, but surely it must acknowledge that the story of the English Reformation didn’t stop with Henry VIII! What about Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism? The swing to more radical Protestantism in Edward’s reign? The Elizabethan Settlement? And, if you’re going to talk about religious books being written in the vernacular, then surely you need to mention James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible?
And it wasn’t even just supposed to be about England. If you’re going to call a programme “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” then you need to go a long way beyond the 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms. It didn’t even get on to the Peace of Augsburg! And, as an example of iconoclasm, Henry VIII’s minions smashing up the monasteries was a pretty poor one. That was mainly about money: there were far better examples on the Continent.
What about Zwingli, and Calvin? What about Thomas Muntzer (whom, as a result of spending too much time thinking about tennis whilst I was doing my A-levels, I always want to call “Thomas Muster”)? It only really mentioned Germany and England. What about the Nordic countries? What about the French Wars of Religion, St Bartholomew’s Day and all that? What about the growth and repression of Protestantism in the Habsburg crownlands? And Protestantism in Poland – now there’s a story that very rarely gets told! What about the Netherlands, where the Reformation arguably had more impact than it did anywhere else? And, for crying out loud, surely a British Broadcasting Corporation programme about the Reformation should have mentioned Scotland! It needed to go beyond the 16th century and well into the 17th century, to the Thirty Years’ War, and to Oliver Cromwell and co – and maybe right up until the Glorious Revolution. And, given that they started by going on about radicalism, the Anabaptists, or at least the Puritans, really needed to be in there.
It was an interesting enough programme, but it was just short. “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” is a very ambitious title. It wasn’t possible to come even close to doing it justice in the space of an hour. More, please, BBC!