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I am a physicist by training and inclination and as the biologist Hans Zinsser noted in “Rats, Lice and History“, physicists often have a strong interest in theology or as he might have put it “often go off the deep end”.

Reformation Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a magisterial review of European history in the broadest sense. He covers everything from transubstantiation to attitudes to love and sex.

It is difficult to pick out a few themes from such a broad ranging book but one of the highlights for me were learning that today’s religious pluralism arose by almost by accident.

The natural desire of both Roman Catholic and Protestant hierarchies was to eliminate any dissent and in their own time they could not conceive of any other way. So just as the Catholic inquisitions eliminated protestants and non-conformists from southern Europe by sword and fire, so did the first protestant settlers in the USA choose to hang Quakers. The difference was one of scale, not principle.

The practical impossibility of imposing uniformity of religion in the USA, and the pragmatic views of the English people, established religious pluralism on the ground long before anyone thought it might actually be a good idea.

Other major themes include, the relationship between sacred and secular power, and the power of ideas in print. This gives me new ways to think about everything from Turkish politics to the Internet.

At 700 pages it is not a light read but those interested in this period of history and its continuing influence on the world today it is an excellent purchase.

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