Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 3)

The previous post described how "Whig-Protestant" historians of the English Reformation agreed that Protestantism took hold in England rather quickly in the sixteenth century. Some historians, like G. R. Elton, said this was a result of decisive action at the highest levels of government. Yes, it was assumed, the English people wanted religious reformation. But Elton emphasized that change came about as a result of an act of state. Other historians, like A. G. Dickens, said that religious change came because the Reformation was immediately embraced by the majority of the people. In other words, while Elton argued for a top-down English Reformation imposed by government, Dickens said that the movement was bottom-up, a popular phenomenon.

Continuing on with Christopher Haigh's characterization of the historiography, a third group of scholars presented yet a different picture. Like the first group, they were confident that reform came from above. Yet the authorities were able to produce only slow, gradual change. Pointing to earlier works, Haigh noted a 1941 book by A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, and an essay by Roger B. Manning, published in 1970. [1] In Tudor Cornwall, Rowse had in a real sense anticipated revisionist historians of the English Reformation. Just as Christopher Haigh's 1975 book focused on Lancashire, for example, so Rowse, a third of a century before, had focused on Cornwall, the southwestern tip of England. In his study of the county, Rowse wanted to explore several related questions: “what was the Reformation when you come to study it under the microscope? what did it mean? what did it do and how did it work? what were its effects upon the development of our society?” [2] Again, as Haigh would later reveal about Lancashire, so Rowse produced evidence that Cornwall had stoutly resisted reformation and that Catholicism had survived there. But, again, the question of the extent to which Cornish Catholics might reflect the rest of England outside of London and its environs was not completely answered.

In his 1970 article, “The Spread of the Popular Reformation in England,” Manning began with a simple observation. Although many scholars like G. R. Elton had assumed and asserted that the English Reformation was a successful act of state, they tended to overlook that while laws are one thing, enforcement and compliance are something else entirely. Manning theorized that “the social conditions that facilitated the diffusion of popular Protestantism did not fully ripen until the reign of Elizabeth.” Along the way to making his point, he provided a critical and helpful set of distinctions. As he put it, we should think of the English Reformation as “a conglomeration of several movements.” First, there was official reformation, associated with the state and featuring names like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. There was also, secondly, theological reformation, which highlights places like the White Horse Inn at Cambridge and people like William Tyndale, Thomas Cromwell, and the Marian exiles. Finally, said Manning, there was popular reformation, a name that points to the untold number of common people who first turned anti-papal, and only later, Protestant. [3] Regarding official reformation, he suggested that “the reason for the failure of Protestantism to spread more extensively in the mid-Tudor period is the frequency with which the various religious settlements were made and unmade.” For example, much of the Edwardian Reformation involved religious leaders doing more or less what the state instructed them to do. Tellingly, when the Marian restoration came about, those same leaders followed opposite instructions. [4]

But the heart of Manning’s interpretation relates to popular reformation. There were, he said, a good number of reasons why the movement was slow in taking root. The evidence of wills suggests that outside of London and the southeastern part of the country, it took a long time for reforming impulses and directives to make a real difference in much of England. Many clergy of the sixteenth century were conservative. Sometimes, dueling Protestant spokesmen, because they could not get along, gave the movement a bad name. In Wales, the spread of Protestantism foundered simply for lack of ministers who could speak Welsh. In general, the clergy were poorly supported. Most had received minimal training, if that. Some were downright ignorant. For many years, schools were not Protestant, but continued as they had before with chantry priests doing what they had always done. The system remained broken until change began to come as a result of legislation like the 1570 Act for the Ministers of the Church to be of sound Religion. [5] Only then did universities begin to train a sufficient number of learned preachers to accomplish the protestantization of England. Thus, England had to develop a Protestant educational system before anyone might have expected ideas and sentiments to change. [6] In addition to the universities, wrote Manning, the rise of Puritanism generated any number of ad hoc seminaries that were often conducted in homes. Some well-to-do Puritans endowed lectureships. These factors, combined with the astonishing mobility of many Puritans, led to greater dissemination of Reformation teaching and ways. [7]

Finally, according to Haigh, a fourth quadrant of the field of interpretation advanced what might be called a slow-from-below point of view. Scholars and their books representing this position included Patrick Collinson’s 1967 work, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, which was a revision of the author’s 1957 doctoral dissertation. Noting that there is a difference between “real” reform versus the merely “formal,” Collinson said that the history of Puritanism during the reign of Queen Elizabeth was a history of frustration. As Puritans saw things, the Reformation in England “had been arrested halfway.” Of course, there were a few, separating Puritans who were uninterested in any attempt to reform the Church of England. They devoted themselves, instead, to the reconstitution of the church of Christ on strictly biblical grounds. By contrast, non-separating Puritans fully intended to reform the existing church so as to complete the English Reformation. But, said Collinson, they were deflected by Elizabeth and some of her archbishops. From this vantage point, one would surmise that the Puritans had tried and failed. Nor did the Elizabethan settlement settle everything. Thus, Collinson asserted, “English protestantism was a gathering force from the mid-sixteenth century far into the seventeenth.” [8]

Collinson expressed the hope that his survey might be followed by a number of focused, local studies which could offer more detail and fill in the specifics that his work simply could not include. [9] Presumably, these would reinforce his thesis. His wish partly describes a 1974 book by Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The contrasting communities about which she writes are Chippenham, Willingham, and Orwell, villages of Cambridgeshire in East Anglia, each one lying on a significantly different topography. The book includes dozens of maps, tables, graphs, and even facsimiles of a few handwritten wills from the period. Together, these reflect a tremendous amount of painstaking research and provide an instructive level of detail. Convinced that villagers of the period had been overlooked or simply caricatured by historians, Spufford says that her book “represents an attempt not merely to give an account of the way the villager lived his life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but also his literacy and religious attitudes, his reactions and beliefs.” She wants to present a picture of how it was that “the microcosm of the village reflected, and often interpreted after its own fashion, intellectual and doctrinal movements higher in society.” [10]

In “Parishioners and their Religion,” the last major section of her book, Spufford explores what was then a mostly unanswered question regarding the social status of people who became religious nonconformists. How did Cambridgeshire villagers respond to religious ideas that circulated between 1500 and 1700? By the mid-seventeenth century, in Cambridgeshire there were Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Muggletonians. How did such a variety emerge? Had these various believers been converted by the great rhetorical power of evangelists? Or was growth more a matter of grassroots support from the time that these persuasions first arrived? Spufford answers that radical religious ideas were actually fairly common in Cambridgeshire at a relatively early time, and that adherents to these views included people of humble background. Strangely, though, at this juncture she makes no reference to the possibility of the survival of Lollard ideas and impulses in Cambridgeshire. Spufford concludes that religion was often an extended-family affair. Thus, her thesis includes the idea that religious persuasion does not have to do so much with what one knows. It is, instead, more a matter of who one knows. This matches up nicely with the fact that there is no statistically-significant evidence to show that schooling and dissent went together. Spufford intimates that the adoption of the Reformation and nonconformity in Cambridgeshire has every appearance of having been a slow, organic process. Moreover, that someone could read and perhaps even write does not seem to have made him or her more likely to accept some version of Word-oriented Protestantism.

Still another title that Haigh mentioned in this category was W. J. Sheils, The Puritans of the Diocese of Peterborough, 1558-1610, published in 1979, a book that began as a doctoral thesis written under the guidance of Patrick Collinson at the University of London. As the author explains, the broad subject of his book is the inherent tension within Puritanism between “the ‘democratic’ tendencies of local initiative” versus the impulse to order and to develop Christian life within a solid ecclesiastical structure, a church of Christ worthy of the name. [11] As this story unfolds, readers discover that by the 1580s Puritanism had put down strong roots in the diocese. Yet, the movement was not well organized and consistent at first. It was, instead, heterogeneous. Although the Sheils’s topic is Elizabethan and early Stuart Puritanism in a particular diocese, for our purposes his work reveals the slow progress of Protestantism in Peterborough, where the movement was not well-represented before Elizabeth’s accession in 1558. Again, tellingly, in 1982 Haigh remarked that this fourth quadrant seemed to be “the natural conclusion of trends in recent historiography.” [12] In short, in opposition to the Whig-Protestant view, a “revisionist” school of interpretation had been conceived and born. Next, it would rapidly grow.
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[1] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2638647 (accessed February 11, 2015).

[2] A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall: Portrait of a Society (London: Jonathan Cape, 1941), 9.

[3]Roger B. Manning, “The Spread of the Popular Reformation in England,” Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 1 (January 1970): 35-36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 37-40.

[6] Ibid., 43-44.

[7] Ibid., 46-50.

[8] Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 12-15.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Cambridge University Press, 1974), xxii-xxiii.

[11] W. J. Sheils, The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough 1558-1610 (Northampton: Northampton Record Society, 1979), 3.

[12] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation."

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