In this issue we have an extract from the introduction by Professor Eamon Duffy to a new edition of his groundbreaking work of history, The Stripping of the Altars. It was a book that changed perceptions of the Reformation in England; no subsequent account of the period can fail to be aware of it. Formerly, the lazy assumption behind nearly all histories of the Reformation was that it succeeded because the Catholic Church was corrupt and deserved to fail, or as that seminal work, 1066 and All That, observed, “England was bound to be CofE anyway”.
What Professor Duffy’s work showed, in devastating detail, was that, so very far from lacking popularity and credibility, the Church in England in the 15th and early 16th century was immensely vigorous. What he had been teaching as a university tutor in Cambridge was at odds with the evidence of the churches he visited in the area: “Huge numbers of them had undergone extensive and costly extensions, rebuilding and refurbishment in the 15th and early 16th century, and this remarkable surge of activity was funded largely by lay donations and bequests, a massive popular investment in the practice and beliefs of late-medieval Catholicism that had left its trace not only in a vast archive of late-medieval wills, but in the funeral brasses, carved fonts, rood screens and wall paintings, stained glass and family and guild chapels, which survived in such astonishing abundance in East Anglia.”
So why did the Reformation actually succeed? The answer is that it was enforced by all the resources the Tudor state could deploy, including the brutal suppression of the resistance that is known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Professor Duffy’s subsequent book, Voices of Morebath, about reform and resistance in a small Devon parish, shows just how that happened.
Professor Duffy was inspired by the work of the brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas, who turned her professional eye to the way that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were being imposed on local churches from above, with little regard for customs and traditions the bishops regarded as outmoded. We are still paying the price for that mindset: many churches are still disfigured by insensitive reordering. The comparison with the Reformation is instructive.
It is rare that a history can change perceptions of the past so profoundly, but The Stripping of the Altars really does. If you haven’t already read it, do.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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