Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 1)

Sometime in late 2016, I hope to take (and pass!) my comprehensive exams in European History. So, during the past few months, I’ve tried to get up-to-speed on what has been written about the English Reformation. I went back only about fifty years or so, a half century in which scholars published a staggering amount of material. That is why I think of this little series of posts as a mere sampling. There’s just so much to read. I can’t get to it all. Be that as it may, I have given most of my attention to the most significant books and articles. No, I haven’t gotten to them all. But the works that appear in my survey tend to be well-known titles, with good reason. Anyway, here’s what I have come up with so far. Your observations are welcome.

Any summary of the history of early modern England must be able to account for the origins of the Church of England and of the character of what was later called Anglicanism. How and why, for example, is Anglicanism distinct from those other Reformation families known as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the Anabaptist tradition, the so-called Radical Reformation? To ask the question in a different way, why does the Church of England represent a unique expression of Protestantism? Why is the worldwide Anglican community listed as a separate branch of Protestant Christianity? Beyond the question of the origins of the Church of England, one might also ask about the continuity and character of English Catholicism, or about the nature, early beginnings, and demise of Puritanism.

From a much broader perspective, investigations of the English Reformation tend to advance or reject what Patrick Collinson once referred to as “a kind of cosmic significance” that has been claimed for events that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [1] Collinson was speaking about the Reformation in general. But to take his observation and apply it specifically to our topic, one might ask if the English Reformation was a kind of crucible of modern civilization. Was it that significant? Some have thought that it was. Fifty years ago, A. G. Dickens asserted that it was “a seminal episode in world history,” a period that “changed the outlook of Englishmen even as they braced themselves to make their astonishing impact upon western civilization.” [2] According to Dickens, knowing the story of the English Reformation is essential to understanding the historic greatness of England. Was he right? Of course, the answers to such questions must appeal to the history of how the Reformation unfolded in a unique way in England.
During the past three to four decades, students of the English Reformation have done their work in a dynamic and constantly-changing field. Before the late 1970s and early 80s, the historiography of the English Reformation was relatively simple. What is now known as the Whig (or Whig-Protestant) school of interpretation, an inherited and long tradition, ruled the day. Naturally, among representative historians there was some variety. For example, in The English Reformation, a classic survey first published in 1964, A. G. Dickens focused on theology. The character of the English Reformation, he said, was religious, and the changes that occurred from 1529 to 1559 were dramatic. The Reformation’s apparently great and sudden success was due to the desire of the majority of the English people who were tired of the traditional religion. [3]

By contrast, in his 1977 book, a synthesis titled Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558, G. R. Elton focused not on theology, but on politics, and portrayed the English Reformation as a major step toward the establishment of a modern nation-state. Elton did not argue that there was a perceived need for reformation in England at the dawn of the sixteenth century, so much as he assumed that there was. According to him, that need was met not by the whims of King Henry VIII, but by the efforts of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Either way, according to Elton, the English Reformation was a much-desired and top-down radical transition enacted by royal decree. [4] Dickens and Elton highlighted different aspects of the Reformation in England. What they held in common was that the Protestant Reformation in England was welcome and refreshing. Because of its long-awaited and strong appeal to the English people, reformation took effect quickly. [5]
To gain a sense of the confidence and prevailing influence of the Whig-Protestant view of the English Reformation, one would need to look no further than Keith Thomas’s 1971 classic, Religion and the Decline of Magic. In his chapter on “The Impact of the Reformation,” for example, Thomas drew a straight line from the Lollards of the late fourteenth century to the English Reformation of the early sixteenth century. Thomas quoted and commented on an impressive series of documents ranging from “The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards,” published in 1395, to Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 magnum opus, Leviathan. Long before the later separatists, Lollards, the religious descendants of John Wycliffe, attacked anything and everything in the traditional religion of England that seemed magical or supernatural. This was especially true of those aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition for which there was no obvious scriptural support. Above all, these proto-reformers denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and, for that matter, anything else that suggested the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. What is significant here is that, throughout, Thomas merely assumed the popularity and lasting influence of Lollardy. When reformation came to England in the early sixteenth century, he said, “[t]he decline of old Catholic beliefs was not the result of persecution; it reflected a change in the popular conception of religion.” Thomas went so far as to compare “popular Catholicism of the Middle Ages” to “many other primitive religions." [6]
[1] Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History (New York, Modern Library, 2003), 3. This brief survey is a splendid piece of work, written by a true master. Chapter 8, “Exceptional Cases: The Reformation in the British Isles,” was especially helpful to me in working on this project. It provides the big picture in simple narrative form, along with a few historiographical interludes.

[2] A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), v.

[3] Dickens, The English Reformation.

[4] G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558 (London: Edward Arnold, 1977).

[5] Note the end date of Elton’s subtitle: 1558. Apparently, according to Elton, in spite of the reign of Mary I, by the time of the accession of Elizabeth I reformation in England, or much of it, had been already been accomplished for good. 

[6] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 51-77, esp. 75.

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