Erasmus Seminar: Competing Social Influence in Contested Diffusion: Contention and the Spread of the Early Reformation

Thursday 14 Dec 2023, 20:00 - 22:00
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The Erasmus of Rotterdam Research Centre (ERRC) regularly organizes the so-called Erasmus Seminars, where we bring together academics who have an interest in Erasmus from their research. The content of the seminars is diverse, from discussions on recent publications to extensive lectures. On behalf of the ERRC, we cordially invite you to the upcoming seminar on Thursday, December 14th , 2023. During this meeting dr. Jared Rubin (Chapman University) and dr. Steven Pfaff (University of Washington) will discuss the spread of the Reformation using the concept of ‘influence networks’ and empirical data.

What? Erasmus Seminar with a lecture by dr Jared Rubin and dr. Steven Pfaff
When? Thursday, December 14th , 20:00 hrs.
Where? Online, on Zoom



The spread of radical institutional change does not often result from one-sided pro-innovation influence; countervailing influence networks in support of the status quo can suppress adoption. We develop a model of multiple and competing network diffusion. To apply the contested-diffusion model to real data, we look at the contest between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, the two most influential intellectuals of early 16th-century Central Europe. Whereas Luther championed a radical reform of the Western Church that broke with Rome, Erasmus opposed him, stressing the unity of the Church. In the early phase of the Reformation, these two figures utilized influence networks, affecting which cities in the Holy Roman Empire adopted reform. Using newly digitalized data on both leaders’ correspondence networks, their travels, the dispersion of their followers, and parallel processes of exchange among places through trade routes, we employ econometric tests and network simulations to test our theoretical model. We find that Luther’s network is strongly associated with the spread of the Reformation and that Erasmus’s network is associated with the stifling of the Reformation. This is consistent with a “fire-fighting” mechanism of contested diffusion, whereby the countervailing force suppresses innovations only after they have begun to spread. 


Steven Pfaff is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. He studies historical sociology, collective action, social movements, politics, and religion. His most recent book (with Michael Hechter) is The Genesis of Rebellion: Governance, Grievance and Mutiny in the Age of Sail (Cambridge University Press 2020).

Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. He is an economic historian interested in the role that Islam and Christianity played in the long-run “reversal of fortunes” between the economies of the Middle East and Western Europe. His book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge University Press 2017), which addresses these issues, has won multiple book awards.

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