In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern Catholicism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

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Renaissance and Reformation Early Modern Catholicism
Thomas Worcester
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0173


“Early modern Catholicism” is a broad, inclusive term employed by many historians in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The term includes how the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century elicited a critical response from Catholics that involved efforts to restore Catholic belief and practice where they had been supplanted. But Catholicism between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was much more than that. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries historians have also examined internal reform, that is, reform of the Catholic Church in head and members, from popes to average laypeople. And cultural historians especially have done a great deal on global Catholicism, on Jesuits and other European missionaries, and on missionaries’ complex interaction with the native peoples of Asia and the Americas.

General Overviews

There are overviews that focus on internal reform of the Catholic Church, such as Evennett 1970 and Bedouelle 2002. Others focus on the Council of Trent, such as Jedin 1951–1975 on the council itself and Prodi and Reinhard 1996 on the reception, implementation, and consequences of Trent. How Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries changed in relation to what it had been in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is treated in Delumeau 1992, Bossy 1985, and Bouwsma 2000. The historiography and nomenclature of early modern Catholicism is the topic of the magisterial study O’Malley 2000.

  • Bedouelle, Guy. La Réforme du Catholicisme: 1480–1620. Paris: Cerf, 2002.

    Clear and concise exposition of how and why and by whom and by what means the Catholic Church was reformed. With a focus on the period 1480–1620, this work gives less attention to long-term implementation of reform than to its early stages. In addition to the French and English versions, the book also appears in Italian and Spanish. English translation is The Reform of Catholicism (1480–1620), translated by James K. Farge (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2008).

  • Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400–1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Differences between Protestant Christianity and early modern Catholicism are minimized in this book. Instead, the author proposes that medieval religion was one in which community was paramount but that this sensibility was then replaced by one of individual piety.

  • Bouwsma, William J. The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550–1640. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Useful for assessing the complex relationships between the Renaissance and the era of Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The author, a specialist on John Calvin and on Venice, claims that creativity and freedom were stifled in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as order became the dominant value.

  • Delumeau, Jean. Le Catholicisme entre Luther et Voltaire. 4th ed. Translated by Jeremy Moiser. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.

    A much-debated work by a leading historian of religious mentalities, this book argues that the European countryside remained mostly pagan until the catechetical efforts of both Protestant and Catholic reformers. But Delumeau portrays Enlightenment era “de-Christianization” as unmasking what had passed for devotion or faith as in fact little other than social conformity. Originally published in 1977. English translation is Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation, translated by Jeremy Moiser (London: Burns and Oates, 1977).

  • Evennett, H. Outram. The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Edited by John Bossy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970.

    Originating in 1951 as the Birbeck Lectures at Cambridge University, this book has helped make 16th-century Catholicism a respected field of research in the most prestigious Protestant and secular universities. First published in 1968 by Cambridge University Press.

  • Jedin, Hubert. Geschichte des Konzils von Trient. 4 vols. Freiburg, West Germany: Herder, 1951–1975.

    A massive, thoroughly researched account of the Council of Trent, its origins, its members, its fits and starts and difficulties, and the canons and decrees it produced. Less helpful on the implementation and reception of Trent. First two volumes available in English translation: A History of the Council of Trent, translated by Ernest Graf (London: Nelson, 1957–1961).

  • O’Malley, John W. Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    Developed from lectures the author gave at Campion Hall, Oxford. A very useful overview of nomenclature and periodization. O’Malley convincingly offers the term “early modern Catholicism” as an inclusive one that may encompass not only internal reform of the church and the Catholic response to Protestant reformers but also popular and elite spirituality along with proliferation of missionary efforts around the world.

  • Prodi, Paolo, and Wolfgang Reinhard, eds. Il Concilio di Trento e il Moderno. Papers presented at a conference held on 11–15 September 1995. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1996.

    Consisting of papers from a conference held in 1995 in connection with the 450th anniversary of the opening of the Council of Trent, this volume explores how Tridentine Catholicism was above all a modernization of the church with its new emphases on the individual, discipline, and bureaucratic organization.

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