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Mario Biagioni, The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe. A Lasting Heritage

Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2016, 180 p.
Hartmut Fähndrich
p. 267-269
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Mario Biagioni, The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe. A Lasting Heritage, Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2016, 180 p.

Texte intégral

1The Radical Reformation is an offshoot or maybe a supplement to the Reformation, that “extraordinary laboratory of ideas” (p. 135). A certain number of men – almost none of them churchmen – took over the original ideas of the “Magisterial Reformation” (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) and often carried them to extremes in their struggle for “the freedom to exercise individual reason” (p. 136), insisting on their right to dissent and to “enforce” toleration. Wandering through Europe – many of them crossing the Alps coming from Italy – during the 16th and also the 17th centuries they laid the basis or, in any case, strongly influenced the intellectual trends that led to the Cultural Revolution of 18th century Europe.

2To show how this movement worked and to introduce a few of the personalities that promoted it is Mario Biagioni’s aim. Thus, The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe is a book about a particular group of “exiles religionis causa”, individuals that Martin Luther called “Schwärmer” (visionary/fanatic) and Jean Calvin “ventosus nebulo” (fool charlatan). In more recent times (1957), it was George Huntston Williams who grouped them together as the “Radical Reformation” differentiating them from the “Magisterial Reformation”. M. Biagioni’s brief study is intended, so he insists, “to put a face to all those who were marginalized in the history of the Reformation” (p. 9), bringing them out of being considered simply “heretics”, a description that he finds no longer suitable.

3The Radical Reformation is a book about migration – emigration and remigration – of men and ideas. It is also a book about the theological debates in Europe in the wake of the Reformation and indeed beyond the Reformation. It is, then, a book on modern liberal thought, founded not so much upon the new Protestant Churches as upon a network of immigrants coming from Italy. It is, finally, a very small book, only approximately 140 pages of text, a very academic book: the bibliography fills twenty-five pages, and, last but not least a very “elitist” book: quotations not being translated, readers are expected to possess not only a solid knowledge of English but also a certain familiarity with Italian, Latin and French.

4The book deals prominently with the impact of a few men that the author apparently considers paramount in this context – Francesco Pucci (1543-1597), Christian Francken (1549-1611[?]) and Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604) and his uncle Lelio (1525-1562) – personalities from the 16th century on whom Mario Biagioni had already published. The book consists of five chapters and a conclusion.

5In the first chapter (“A Broader Vision of the Radical Reformation: Some Historiographical Remarks”) the author briefly presents the state of research about the period and the Italian exiles religionis causa, “heretics”, who according to him and others should no longer be so labelled but rather “reformers without institutional authority” (p. 19), “keeping outside of every established group” (p. 11) but still acting in a network through which their ideas were spread. And the author argues that “Italian radical thinkers belong entirely in the historical picture of the Reformation” (p. 21).

6The second chapter (“Travelers of Utopia: The Other Europe of the Italian Exiles religionis causa”) outlines the wanderings of several individuals fleeing from Italy across the Alps. They went to Switzerland (Geneva, Zürich, and Basel) where, until about the middle of the 16th century, they were welcome. Yet, there too, tolerance started dwindling and the emigrants had to resume their travel, which took some of them to England, others to Poland – for a while a haven for religious dissidents. From Italy, they had been driven out for adhering to the new ideas of Humanism centering on issues like the confidence in reason, which led to utopian visions (Thomas More’s Utopia came out in 1516), and “the dream of a natural religion” (p. 27) that would comprise all mankind and no longer maintain the separation between those who saw the light, and thus would be saved, and those who didn’t, and thus would be damned. For Francesco Pucci “all men are already saved in the maternal womb by Christ’s benefit” (p. 48), and in his two major publications he brought together debates from within a European “sub-society” (p. 49) of the second half of the 16th century.

7The third chapter (“Toleration and Adam’s Immortality: An Example of the Relationship between Locke and the Socinians”) is completely dedicated to the debate about the question of whether Adam, who was after all created in the image of God, was originally immortal and only became mortal after the Fall. The ensuing questions about “the nature of man and of Christ, the significance of sin and of redemption, the immortality of the soul and the value of faith and works” (p. 66) were essential to the religious debates in the second half of the 16th century. Here, the author uses for his demonstration of the arguments the works of John Locke (1632-1705), who was influenced by the debate between Pucci and Sozzini, the former defending and the latter refuting the natural immortality of Adam. There also arose in this context a major debate pursued throughout the 17th century about the question of whether God can be perceived without knowledge of or access to Holy Scripture. And here, Locke firmly defends “the universal character of salvation” (p. 73), meaning also of people who have never heard of Christ!

8The fourth chapter (“Infinite Mercy and the Infinite Universe: Francesco Pucci and Giordano Bruno”) deals with the end of the 16th century, still an age of theology, that led into the 17th century, the “age of scientific revolution and philosophical rationalism” (p. 76), during which the closed world became an infinite universe, as “many countries were trying to extend theirs domains into the New World by force” (p. 77). The new century could build upon the debates of the preceding one carried out in theological language and could justify, for better or worse, political and military developments through the use of the debates about “the amplitude of the kingdom of God” (p. 77).

9The two more liberal representatives of these debates, Pucci and Bruno, thinkers who would not exclude people from salvation who do/could not know the word of God or Christ, finally returned to Italy only to be incarcerated and in the end executed there. “Puccianism”, a “doctrine of the universal salvation of mankind” (p. 93) based largely on ideas of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), continued to exist for quite some time, yet it became “a heresy without a historical connotation outside of time and space” (p. 105), it was used as a “swearword” (p. 97), especially in defense of Lutheran orthodoxy.

10The fifth and last chapter (“Christian Francken and the Skepticism of the Sixteenth Century”) is exclusively devoted to Christian Francken, a German Protestant turned Catholic who left the Jesuits to become a Socinian (follower of the teachings of Sozzini), a man apparently haunted by skepticism and restlessness who represents “the struggle for the religious freedom to discuss the Holy Scriptures and dissent” (p. 109). Yet, even after his long odyssey across Europe and several versions of the Christian faith he did not find a suitable solution for himself. He returned to the “credulity of Catholicism” (p. 110) that he had hoped to escape from and ended up in prison.

11In his writings, Francken shows his belief “in the force of reason operating in history” (p. 115), and in his major work, Disputatio inter theologum et philosophum de incertitudine religionis Christianae (1588), which M. Biagioni presents at length (p. 117-126), he tries “to show how the lack of a criterion of truth was the cause of the multitude of religions and all the theological controversies” (p. 118).

12Interesting or maybe even bizarre is the last section of this chapter. It is the presentation of the anonymous work De tribus impostoribus, composed sometime late in the 17th century but dated earlier and probably going back to the 16th century, even though the only known copy was printed in 1753. The eight pages (p. 126-134), titled “Christian Francken and the Sixteenth-Century Origins of the Treatise ‘De tribus impostoribus’”, read like a separate paper intended to make Ch. Franken (obviously a favorite of M. Biagioni’s academic interests) a/the source of this text that “wants to prove that religion is only an instrumentum regni, i.e., a deception used to subdue simple people” (p. 129f.). This text, however, seems to be a conglomerate of arguments against and scorn of religion taken from a history that begins well before Ch. Franken. Yet, no matter where the text originated or who inspired it, it bears a strong resemblance to the position of the philosopher in Ch. Francken’s Disputatio and it definitely seems to have had an impact on the thought of the Enlightenment of the 18th century that was to be sharply critical of all religion.

13The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe is in many respects a fascinating little book (at times just a bit too little, resulting in the mention of many names and titles without sufficiently detailed analysis) about a not much known phenomenon of the development of European enlightenment on the basis of often heated debates in the wake of the Reformation. It shows where the famous Reformers wavered, hesitated or stopped short and were therefore passed and left behind by thinkers that did not want to accept new doctrines no wider than the old ones.

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Hartmut Fähndrich, « Mario Biagioni, The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe. A Lasting Heritage », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 188 | 2019, 267-269.

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Hartmut Fähndrich, « Mario Biagioni, The Radical Reformation and the Making of Modern Europe. A Lasting Heritage », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 188 | octobre-décembre 2019, mis en ligne le 08 janvier 2022, consulté le 11 décembre 2019. URL :

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