Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 4 of 4)

This post is my fourth and final installment in a series designed to size up what modern historians have said about the English Reformation. It's been a long while since I last posted about any of this. So here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In 1992, Eamon Duffy published The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580, a bombshell of a book that quickly established itself as one of the most substantial and significant works produced by any of the revisionists. [1] The first of two main parts of The Stripping of the Altars describes in great detail the relative glories of England’s traditional religion during the century leading up to the reign of King Henry VIII. Duffy attempts to demonstrate “that late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of the Reformation.” [2] In the second part of his book, Duffy details what he portrays as the disruptive reforms that took place during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. He argues that the short reign of Mary with its restoration of tradition was a success welcomed by the large majority of the laity. Duffy cites a wide array of primary sources, including wills, church-wardens’ accounts, primers, and parish records. In addition, he includes several impressive images of paintings, monuments, sepulchers, stained-glass church windows, and carvings, all of which he uses to underscore his principle contention: “into the 1530s the vigour, richness, and creativity of late medieval religion was undiminished, and continued to hold the imagination and elicit the loyalty of the majority of the population.” [3]

Since he first published his seminal work, Duffy has taken on the task of reinforcing his basic thesis. In a 2001 book, Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village, Duffy provides a case study that illustrates the general claims of his magnum opus. The book is about “a sixteenth-century country priest,” Sir Christopher Trychay, who served the people of Morebath, a village of Devon twenty-five miles north of Exeter. Two things about Trychay stand out. First, he was vicar of Morebath for over a half century, “from 1520 until his death in 1574.” Second, he “wrote everything down.” Consequently, Trychay’s accounts “offer a unique window into a rural world in crisis, as the progress of the Reformation inexorably dismantled the structures of Morebath’s corporate life, and pillaged its assets.” Duffy acknowledges that if someone wrote a similar book with Essex or Suffolk as its setting, that book “would look very different.” He seems content simply to offer an engaging example of how it was that in some parts of England compliance and conformity were not the rule. In Morebath, Sir Christopher publicly opposed the Reformation and thanked God for the reign and reforms of Queen Mary. Members of his congregation died in the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549. Duffy disavows that this book supports any thesis. But in view of his previous work, that sort of disclaimer rings a bit hollow. [4]

If Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars has been the revisionists’ most significant book, Christopher Haigh has been their strongest, most engaging, and perhaps most judicious champion. In his 1993 book, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors, Haigh set out to demonstrate that England's pre-Reformation religious tradition was both popular and strong. At the same time, he committed himself to acknowledging and accounting for the genuine diversity of religious life in pre-Reformation England. “We need a version of religious conflict and transformation which includes both sides of the fence—and those who sat on the fence, those who could not find, it, and those who did not see why there was such a fuss about the fence.” [5] Much like Scarisbrick and Duffy, Haigh argues that “it was the break with Rome which was to cause the decline of Catholicism, not the decline of Catholicism which led to the break with Rome.” [6] As a result of its enforced Reformation, England was populated by “parish Anglicans” who were “de-catholicized but un-protestantized." [7]

Sometime after the basic thesis associated with the names A. G. Dickens and G. R. Elton was seriously challenged, if not demolished, by the likes of Haigh, Scarisbrick, and Duffy, a few scholars began to wonder what might be next. The revisionist program had succeeded in what seems to have been a mission of correction. So then what was the next step? If the thesis of the Whig-Protestants had been effectively contradicted by the antithesis put forward by the revisionists, what might be a satisfying synthesis? Of course, that question assumes that a synthesis might be needed. Since sometime near the beginning of the twenty-first century, many scholars have agreed that one is needed. Why? It is because of something that Patrick Collinson in 2003 referred to “the riddle of compliance.” By way of explanation he wrote, “We may be forced to construct the following syllogism: a religious change so drastic and so unwelcome cannot have happened: but it did happen; ergo, it cannot have been all that drastic and unwelcome.” At that point, Collinson referred to the then-emerging, post-revisionist historiography of the English Reformation: "Among those who believe that there was a great change, there is a consensus that it must be understood in terms of interplay of what have been called 'from above' and 'from below' factors and forces. Neither top-down nor bottom-up explanations will work on their own. [8]

Ethan H. Shagan’s 2003 book, Popular Politics and the English Reformation provides a good example of the post-revisionism of which Collinson spoke. Shagan actually begins with the riddle of compliance, the contradiction that begs to be solved. English society in the early modern period was conservative. Consequently, that society would likely resist a radical changeover from Roman Catholicism to beliefs and religious practices that were in line with principles of reform. So then, how did the English Reformation take root as quickly as it apparently did? Or as Shagan puts it, “Why would a revolution have been accepted or embraced by a population so heavily invested in the very belief system that the revolutionaries sought to disturb?” [9] He responds by suggesting that “an analysis of popular politics allows us to understand the English Reformation—and, mutatis mutandis, the European Reformation more generally—in fundamentally new and more satisfying ways.” Though revisionists were right to identify strong popular resistance to the English Reformation, their version of the story left unexplained “the remarkable penetration of England’s ‘Reformation from above.’ ” In other words, revisionist accounts of the English Reformation never explained how that episode could leave behind what Christopher Haigh so memorably described as “a Protestant nation, but not a nation of Protestants.” [10]

Shagan points out that, unlike Saul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo, no society, especially not English society in the early modern period, experiences religious conversion in a single moment. Societies do not have religious conversions like individuals do. Yet, that was something like the story told by Whig-Protestant historians. Then came revisionism, officially beginning in the 1970s. By any measure, a simple comparison would have to conclude that revisionism won, and rightly so. Yet, says Shagan, “for all its benefits, the revisionist model remains no less imprisoned than its predecessor in a paradigm defined by the phantasmagoric goal of ‘national conversion’.” Was the English Reformation essentially about the religious conversions of individuals? Shagan insists that “the whole meta-narrative of conversion which historians have used to conceptualise the Reformation has impeded our ability to ask a different set of questions, to see the Reformation not in globalizing terms but as a more piecemeal process in which politics and spiritual change were irrevocably intertwined.” Thus, his analysis “concentrates on the majority who neither wholly accepted nor wholly opposed the Reformation.” It argues that “the amphibiousness and ambidexterity of new religious ideas is exactly what allowed them to penetrate English culture, seeping into the myriad crevices in the dominant belief system where ideas and practices were not fully aligned.” [11] But what exactly constituted resistance to and collaboration with the English Reformation? For one thing, Shagan says, there were instances where individuals, out of personal animosity, turned in a neighbor who was suspected of practicing an illegal religion. Interestingly, he compares England during the Reformation to Nazi-occupied countries in Europe and to those socialist republics that were dominated by the Soviet Union. He points out that even in a monarchy, government requires a measure of consent from the governed. [12] In sum, Popular Politics and the English Reformation is “an analysis of how ordinary English subjects received, interpreted, debated and influenced the process of religious change in the first quarter century of the English Reformation.” [13]

Responding to the questions created by the new era and sizing up the field of inquiry was the apparent goal of a 2009 article by scholar Peter Marshall titled, “(Re)defining the English Reformation.” Marshall noted that due to the arguments forcefully advanced by the revisionists, “most scholars now accept that the Reformation in England was a thorny and protracted process and by no means straightforwardly unidirectional.” Notwithstanding the success of the revisionist project, however, “the study of the Reformation has now discernibly passed into a post-revisionist phase.” [14] Indeed, Marshall even cites the revisionists themselves as they have recently claimed to be post-revisionists. In a review published in 2000, Haigh made the suggestion that “we are (almost) all post-revisionists now.” And, in a survey article published in 2006, “The English Reformation after Revisionism,” Duffy said much the same for himself. [15] Marshall observes that now that such ambiguity has been so firmly established, students should not have been surprised when a collection of presentations, edited by Nicholas Tyacke and published in 1998, should appear under a title like England's Long Reformation, 1500-1800. [16] Having dispensed with the notion that the English Reformation occurred in a matter of decades, scholars now seem unable to name the century when it came to a close. Yet, the year 1640 appears to be the “workaday consensus” that has emerged. Either way, Marshall still wants to know, “What, then, is the sensible way forward?” [17]

However one might answer that question, there does seem to be some continuity among the post-revisionists. A title published in 2014, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590, by Karl Gunther, provides an example of this. As noted above, the author’s mentor, Ethan Shagan, chose to focus on the first twenty-five years of the English Reformation. And, again, the volume edited by Tyacke lengthens the episode at both ends, using the dates 1500-1800. In a way that appears to match that trend, Gunther makes an argument about the beginnings of radical Protestantism in England. He observes that in the context of our subject, traditionally the word radicalism has been reserved to speak first of Puritanism. Thus, radicalism emerged roughly a half century after England was first introduced to Reformation ideas. As the author notes, radical religious impulses have been “typically treated as later developments in the course of the English Reformation.” [18] Citing a few manuscripts and a large number of printed works from the period, Gunther sets out to show that from earliest times in the English Reformation, at least some proponents advocated the restructuring of church polity and leadership, for example, according to the teaching of the Scriptures. As Gunther puts it, those calls did not wait for “the coming of the Presbyterians in the 1570s.” In fact, “they had been issued by evangelicals in the late 1520 and 1530s.” [19] Thus, according to Gunther, when various Puritan teachings emerged in the 1570s, we may be more accurate to describe that action as a re-emergence. In short, as a result of what post-revisionists have taught us so far, the English Reformation seems longer and more complex than was once imagined.

My survey of some important titles in the recent historiography of the English Reformation leaves me with at least two very general observations. First, if we simply trace the history of various schools of interpretation, we might come away with a mental picture of thick, high walls standing between the different positions. However, when reading the acknowledgements and noting the personal connections among many of the authors cited above, I did not imagine high walls, but something more like a portrait of a large extended family. In other words, while historiographical surveys tend to highlight differences and discontinuity, actually reading the books and articles reveals connections and fitting admiration. Those connections relate not only to academic tutelage and personal experiences, they also relate to the level of ideas. For example, when reading historiographical outlines of the topic, one might never guess that A. G. Dickens paid attention to social as well as to institutional contours of the English Reformation. Moreover, one can easily detect in Dickens an appreciation for the real complexity of the story he attempts to relate. In that sense, his work and the work of others in his generation does not appear to be so much the foil, but more like the foundation of later interpretations.

Second, in regard to Roger B. Manning’s categories of official, theological, and popular aspects of the English Reformation, scholars almost always focus on some aspect found within just one of those three areas, especially when writing articles and monographs. That is to be expected. Yet, I cannot help noticing that the religious and theological history of the English Reformation seems to have been relegated mostly to scholars who teach in divinity schools and seminaries. Why does so much of the historiography on this topic refer so little to the Bible and contemporary theological debate? Is it mere coincidence that Karl Gunther has identified very early radicalism in the English Reformation while paying attention to people like William Tyndale, to issues like adiaphora, and to books like an old commentary on Haggai? If not, then it might be time to move the divinity school down the hill and place it in the same building that houses the history department.
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[1] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 479.

[4] Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in An English Village (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), xiii-xv.

[5] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 335.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 290.

[8] Collinson, The Reformation: A History, 129.

[9] Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

[10] Ibid., 2. Shagan cites Haigh, English Reformations, 279-281.

[11] Shagan, Popular Politics, 3-7.

[12] Ibid., 12-20.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Peter Marshall, “(Re)defining the English Reformation,” Journal of British Studies 48 (July 2009), 565.

[15] Ibid., 565, n. 7.

[16] Ibid. See Nicholas Tyacke, ed. England’s Long Reformation, 1500-1800 (London: Taylor and Francis, 1998).

[17] Marshall, “(Re)defining the English Reformation,” 568.

[18] Karl Gunther, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 6.

[19] Ibid., 254.

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