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.

[1] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982), (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."

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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

See Larkin Graduate!

With Michele at Larkin Davis Johnson's graduation from Texas Tech School of Law last Saturday, May 16th. We're all so proud!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Same-Sex "Marriage" in Early America

Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Charity & Sylvia is a carefully-researched and well-written book about two women in early nineteenth-century America who were as married as they could have been. Along the way, readers learn a great deal about Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, their extended families, their decades-long relationship as "husband and wife," and their status as members of the church and pillars of the community in Weybridge, Vermont.

Rachel Hope Cleves tells this interesting tale in part to demonstrate her thesis: "Same-sex marriage is not as new as Americans on both sides of today's debate tend to assume; it is neither the radical break with timeless tradition that conservatives fear nor the unprecedented innovation of a singularly tolerant age that liberals praise. It fits within a long history of marriage diversity in North America that included practices such as polygamy, self-divorce, free love, and interracial unions" (xviii).

One reason that Charity & Sylvia is getting so much "buzz" is that the story related in this book stands on the other side of typical boundaries in the field of LGBT history. Specifically, it pays attention to: 
  • women, not men
  • the early nineteenth, not the late twentieth century
  • life in a small town, not a large city
  • religion as part of the story, not the antithesis of the story
In other words, it is significant that this book is not about gay men living in San Francisco during the late twentieth century who typically stay as far away from churches as they possibly can. Charity & Sylvia also breaks with previous historiography in another way: unlike many scholars of queer history, Cleves argues that people in early America actually assumed that women who were close friends, and especially those who lived together as a couple, were likely more than just friends.

One question the book raises has to do with its character as a microhistory or case study. This is a story about one couple. So just how representative might this story be? However we answer that question, one thing is not in doubt: because "same-sex marriage" is such a hot-button topic in American culture and politics these days, this book will be read and discussed for several years to come.

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.