In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Catholic/Counter-Reformation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies and Sources
  • Papacy and Episcopacy
  • The Council of Trent
  • Local Religion and Popular Culture
  • Art and Architecture of the Catholic Reformation
  • The Inquisition(s) and Censorship
  • Catholic Minorities, Martyrdom, and Migration
  • Missiology: Catholic Overseas Missions

Renaissance and Reformation Catholic/Counter-Reformation
Robert Scully
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0438


The traditional terms for the religious changes and upheavals centered in the 16th century were the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the first referring to the Protestant Reformation in its various subdivisions, and the second referencing the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The later term emphasized the reactive nature of the Catholic Church’s response to the burgeoning Protestant movement and its spread, especially across much of northern and central Europe. The historiography of the Reformation has been transformed since the late 20th century, including the use of the term “Reformations,” stressing the equally dramatic impact of developments in both Protestantism and Catholicism in early modern Europe, as well as diversity and divisions within each of these religious denominations. The historiography on the Catholic side has particularly shifted, including the current consensus that, despite some serious problems, the late medieval church was generally vibrant and largely popular with the majority of the people of Western Christendom. At the same time, there was a wide range of individuals and movements engaged in reforms of religious life and practice, from the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life to the Observant movements in many religious orders. Thus, there was an active Catholic Reform or Reformation underway well before Luther and the onset of Protestantism. It is also true that once Lutheran, Calvinist, and other Protestant churches began to take hold by the mid-16th century, the Catholic Church launched various measures to counteract the Protestant tide via a Counter Reformation. In light of this intermixture of proactive and reactive, traditional and progressive developments, it is now common to use a more encompassing term: Early Modern Catholicism. This has the advantage of placing Catholicism at the heart of the myriad developments of the Early Modern era: the Renaissance, the Reformation, major economic and social changes, the emergence of nation-states, and overseas expansion. With regard to the current historiography, in addition to continuing interest in the Catholic heartlands of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, much attention has shifted to central and eastern Europe, as well as to Catholic minorities in northern Europe. Related to these topics are studies on networks, religious exiles and refugees, and religious identity. Besides the importance of Trent and the Catholic hierarchy as continuing topics of research, the new and renewed religious orders of men and women, as well as the crucial role of the laity, have moved to center stage. Our framework has also considerably broadened, across both time (into the 17th and 18th centuries) and space (the expansive Catholic overseas missions).

General Overviews

With later beginning and ending dates than most surveys of the Catholic Reformation, Hsia 2005 is perhaps the most thorough and updated coverage of Catholic renewal worldwide. A few older studies that are still worthy of attention as overviews, though dated in some ways, are Evennett 1968 and Dickens 1969. Both discuss a range of topics; the former signaled a shift in thinking on the Catholic/Counter-Reformation, and the latter is instructively illustrated. Two intriguing—and controversial—monographs are Delumeau 1977 and Bossy 1985; they emphasize the practice of religion, but Jean Delumeau views the Reformation as a time of “Christianization,” whereas John Bossy sees it as a shift away from “traditional Christianity.” O’Malley 2000 is a succinct summary of historiographical and terminological debates, suggesting the more neutral but also more encompassing term “Early Modern Catholicism.” Wright 2005 argues for an “Augustinian moment” in the Early Modern period, which influenced both Protestants and Catholics, and in both Europe and overseas missions. Among the 2010s general surveys of the Reformation era, Eire 2016 provides the most balanced coverage, giving equal weight both to the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Several additional surveys focus on the Catholic Reformation. Mullett 1999 interweaves the significance of Catholic reform from the late Middle Ages with the transformational effects of the Protestant Reformation on Catholic developments. Bireley 1999 covers most of the major areas of Catholic reform and sees these as a collective response to the most-significant changes of the long 16th century.

  • Bireley, Robert. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

    This reassessment covers many aspects of Catholic reform but particularly emphasizes the desire for a more world-affirming spirituality among religious (e.g., Jesuits and Salesians) and laity, as well as a desire for religious, political, and social order in light of the many upheavals of the long 16th century.

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

    Bossy generally lauds the spirituality and community (“the social miracle”) of medieval Christianity and, in contrast, views the religious changes (“Christianity translated”) of the Early Modern era, Catholic and Protestant, as leading in various ways to the disintegration of traditional Christianity.

  • Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation. London: Burns and Oates, 1977.

    In sharp contrast to Bossy, Delumeau questions the concept of the “Christian” Middle Ages and, instead, sees the religious reforms of the Early Modern period as leading to a more genuine “Christianization” of the European population, especially the largely illiterate rural peasantry.

  • Dickens, A. G. The Counter Reformation. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969.

    An older but still-valuable account, especially due to its rich range of illustrations, that gives reasonable if traditional coverage to the religious orders, the papacy, and the Council of Trent, though at the expense of a comparable bottom-up approach.

  • Eire, Carlos M. N. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

    At the forefront of newer trends in Reformation historiography, this volume gives roughly equal coverage to the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. In the latter case, it integrates Catholic reform efforts and successes in Europe with the expansive missionary efforts in the New World and East Indies.

  • Evennett, H. Outram. The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

    A classic work that signaled a shift in thinking about the origins and “spirit” of Catholic reform, highlighting Catholic and Ignatian spirituality as well as various streams of institutional reform and their impact.

  • Hsia, R. Po-chia. The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    This is a relatively recent and reasonably thorough account of Catholic reform up to the 18th century. In beginning his study in 1540, the year of the founding of the Jesuits, Hsia signals how significant he believes the Society of Jesus was to Catholic renewal. He also stresses the importance of the Iberian Church and Catholic overseas missions, and the significant role of women and the arts.

  • Mullett, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation. London: Routledge, 1999.

    While stressing the continuity of Catholic reform from the late medieval period onward, Mullett also shows how the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent transformed these ongoing efforts at reform. He also gives due coverage to the “female Catholic Reformation,” and the role of the laity as well as the clergy.

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

    This is a comprehensive and balanced discussion concerning the historiography and terminology over the long term with regard to Catholicism in the Early Modern era, its own internal reforms, and its responses to the many contemporaneous changes and challenges, not least the rise of Protestantism. O’Malley put forth “Early Modern Catholicism” as perhaps the best all-encompassing term.

  • Wright, A. D. The Counter-Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

    Wright argues that the importance of patristic studies during the Renaissance, especially concerning Augustine and conflicting interpretations of him, influenced both dissidents (Protestants) and reformers (Catholics) during the Reformation. The focus is on the latter and their own internal debates in Europe, which the author believes detrimentally affected outreach to the non-Christian world.

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