If the mischievous jester on the cover of Peter Matheson's new book The Imaginative World of the Reformation (Fortress) hadn't already set the book apart from most work on the period, some of the author's opening comments would. "[T]he reforming process was not fundamentally about ideas in the mind or structures in church and state," Matheson writes, "but indicated much more elemental changes in spiritual direction. These are signposted by the creative metaphors of the preachers and teachers, the images in literature and art, the rhythms and melodies of the popular ballads and chorales which sang the Reformation into people's souls."

Matheson, a historian at the University of Melbourne and a theologian with Australia's Uniting Church, adapted the book from lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1998. The writing retains some of the energy of oral delivery, but also a bit of the loose organization and repetition common in speech. Even so, the book's original ideas and frequent sharp insights pull the reader right along.

Because Matheson is interested primarily in the cultural experience of the Reformation—the way it captured the imaginations of peasants, artists, preachers, and other members of society—he skips the litany of theses, diets, and theological terms. Radical Reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer, get nearly equal time with Martin Luther, and laypeople play key roles as well. Someone who is unfamiliar with the contours of the Reformation likely will find Matheson's amalgam confusing, but readers who have grown comfortable with their understanding of the period will be spurred to cock their heads and look at things differently.

For example, it's widely accepted that printers served as propagandists ...

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