Friday, May 22, 2015

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 2)

In the previous post on this topic, we introduced the old Whig-Protestant reading of the English Reformation, some version of which, reaching back all the way to the sixteenth century, was dominant. Sometime in the late twentieth century, however, the dominance of this version of the story of the English Reformation began to unravel, giving way to what would eventually be called the revisionist school of interpretation.

In 1975, a former student of G. R. Elton’s, Christopher Haigh, published an expansion of his Ph.D. dissertation under the title Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire. Using public records and private papers he found in six English archives, Haigh was able to create a portrait according to which the county of Lancashire was hardly impacted at all by Lollardy, and remained happily isolated from most of the reforming influence and pressures of the sixteenth century. Historians had always known, wrote Haigh, that Lancashire had especially resisted reformation. There, “religious change was a slow and far from unimpeded process.” He acknowledged that things were different in other parts of England. However, he suspected that “the contrast is between Lancashire and what the conventional wisdom tells us happened elsewhere, rather than between Lancashire and what actually took place in the rest of England." [1] Naturally, such a comment provokes the question of exactly how representative Lancashire, with all of its admitted differences, might be. At any rate, remarking on Haigh's title, Peter Marshall recently observed that the book had rather more to say about resistance than reformation. At the same time, Marshall acknowledged that Haigh forcefully argued that “the church before the 1530s commanded very widespread allegiance,” that “Protestantism only ever made a small number of converts,” and that “Catholic practices long continued in defiance of the law.” Consequently, Haigh’s 1975 book did much to generate new interest in and discussion of the historiography of the English Reformation. [2]

In the early 1980s, J. J. Scarisbrick joined the campaign against the standard view with the publication of The Reformation and the English People. As Scarisbrick explains, his book represents the series of Ford Lectures which he had delivered at Oxford University in 1982. Using testamentary records and the accounts of churchwardens among other sources, he argues that the Reformation in England was “implemented from ‘above’ by statute, proclamation and royal commission.” Moreover, “on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came." [3] Scarisbrick acknowledges that though some parishioners were godly and devout, not all of them were. Yet, he says, we should recognize a distinction between indifference and hostility, and the impressive construction and refurbishment of churches during the early decades of the sixteenth century suggest widespread approval and support of England’s traditional religion. 

As early as 1982, the same year that Scarisbrick delivered his lectures, Haigh published a landmark article in which he set out to explain what was then “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.” The article was especially significant for two reasons. First, Haigh accounted for a wide range and large number of works that had been published during the previous half-century. Second, he provided a template according to which those books and articles might be organized. The various interpretations could be grouped, he said, “in relation to two matrices.” The first of these related to “the motive force behind the progress of Protestantism.” Haigh observed that “at one extreme, it could be suggested that Protestant advance was entirely the result of official coercion, while at the other extreme it could be said that the new religion spread horizontally by conversions among the people.” The second matrix related to the pace of religious change. While some scholars had concluded “that Protestantism made real progress at an early date and had become a powerful force by the death of Edward VI,” others asserted that very little had changed in the first half of the sixteenth century and that “the main task of protestantizing the people had to be undertaken in the reign of Elizabeth." [4] In what was surely an oversimplification, and yet a helpful one, Haigh went on to identify four sectors of the interpretive field. First, there were those scholars who saw what they believed was rapid, top-down reform. This traditional interpretation, he wrote, was best represented by G. R. Elton. In his book, Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558, and in an earlier title, the 1972 work, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell, Elton emphasized the effectiveness of Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister. A great statesman, Cromwell so masterminded the Henrician Reformation that by the time of the Act of Supremacy of 1534, England was closer to being a Protestant country than anything else. [5]

It was A. G. Dickens, the aforementioned author of The English Reformation, who served in Haigh’s formulation as the best representative of a second quadrant in the field. This was the place where interpreters agreed with the first group that the Reformation came quickly to England. Yet, again, scholars like Dickens identified religious sources of the rapid Reformation. Haigh noted against this view, however, that then-recently revealed evidence seemed to indicate the existence of a traditional religion in England that was not “moribund, dispirited and repressive." [6] This was a telling clue. It suggested that a newly-recovered body of evidence would open up a new future for the historiography of the English Reformation.

[1] Christopher Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), vii-viii.

[2] Peter Marshall, “England,” in Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research, ed. David M. Whitford (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008), 251.

[3] J. J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), vii and 1.

[4] Christopher Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982), (accessed February 11, 2015).

[5] G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation (1977) and Policy and Police: Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

[6] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” 998.

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