Reform(ation)s, old and new

What’s the difference between a reform and a reformation?

We know of many reforms in history, but only one reformation, the protestant Reformation at the dawn of the modern age. These are just words, of course, but they highlight, beyond tradition and usage, an important truth: there are tweaks, and there are visions. Most reforms perfect the system. Reformations create new systems.

There have been reforms since Solon’s in ancient Athens, and probably before him. There were reforms in the medieval English legal system, innovations and tweaks that are still with us today – Magna Carta is a good example.

Reformations are different and they are rare. They may start as reform movements, but their effects are radical, groundbreaking and far-reaching. They create upheavals, not efficiency.

Despite received definitions, there were arguably two reformations worthy of the name before the modern age. One was of course the Reformation ignited by Martin Luther. The other, I would argue, was the wave of monastic reforms in Europe and in England between the 10th and the 11th centuries. Often referred to as the ‘Benedictine reform movement’, they sought to renew monastic life by returning it to its original purity. Modest in vision, it was responsible for creating a climate for change, innovation, transformation that ultimately gave rise to Luther’s Reformation and to our ways of understanding social change today. It was the weak force behind hard change.

The interesting thing about the reformations is that they both looked back to a benchmark text. For the Benedictines, it was the Rule of St Benedict, the foundational document of Western monasticism. For Luther, it was the Bible. In both cases, there was a desire for reform by restoring an foundational text. The reformations produced change because they looked back to an adulterated original in need of recovery. The initial gesture of these reformations was to open a book.

We are the distant heirs of the reformations. We can imagine social change, we can be radical, seized by a vision of renewal and fearless in implementing it. Nevertheless, we do not look back. The transforming engine of our time is no longer textual, but iconic. The architects of the reformations achieved radical change because they set up a textual yardstick by which to measure the world. Our own architects for change are finding the icons and the yardsticks in books that have not yet been written.


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