Like many who are not Christian, I reverse the traditional charge made against Catholicism by Protestantism. This is that the Catholic Church has prioritised sensual experiences over the primacy of the Word, infused material objects with sanctity and made too many compromises with paganism in its surroundings and festivities. For somebody who does not accept the basic Christian message, Catholicism has, on the contrary, the compensation of providing beautiful sights, sounds and smells, and of inspiring unusually rich folk cultures of custom and festivity outside the church precincts. To those who counter that the Scriptural emphasis of Protestantism is a great stimulus to literature instead, people like me can reply that any religion which can inspire in one nation and time alone, authors like Chesterton, Greene and Waugh, has got that covered too.
If I had to be an English Christian at any one point in history I would choose the eve of the Reformation, in 1520. Protestants often regard this as the moment at which medieval English Catholicism had decayed to its worst stage of corruption, and even Catholics have viewed it as a Church in need of the reforms that would come with the Counter-Reformation. I see instead a land crowded with parish churches blazing with colour and filled with carvings, statues, veils, hangings, side-chapels and paintings on walls and screens. They were staffed by local priests who offered up the Mass instead of preaching down at them; while if I wanted to hear a good sermon I could attend a visiting star friar performing in the market place.
Every church would have at least three (and up to 20) side altars dedicated to saints other than the one who was patron of the main church: figures of transcendent humanity as well as sanctity, whom ordinary people could make into friends and patrons and who cared for particular occupations, genders, localities, age groups and medical treatments. Each parish would have three to twelve guilds, focused on particular ages, genders and interest groups, which all but the poorest could afford to join and which provided the benefits of both a social club and an insurance company.
For those who wanted the freedom to address a saint outside the constraints of a church building, there were the holy wells scattered across the landscape, often places of physical beauty and healing power as well as sanctity. Pilgrimage provided abundant opportunity, given the great number of shrines spread around the nation, for a vacation (often with friends) as well as an opportunity to obtain divine help and work out spiritual problems. The relics in these places embodied a proportionately huge number of exciting stories, of miracle, heroism and edification. Almost a thousand religious houses preserved their own works of art and libraries full of manuscripts.
On the many feast days the churches were filled with ritual, and this fostered a lay festive culture of plays, pageants, parades, church ales, village revels, may-poles, Morris dances, Christmas games, wassails and midsummer bonfires. For those who enjoyed things of the intellect, there were the circles around John Colet, John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, and for those like myself who have a love of the literature and art of classical Greece and Rome, the Renaissance was producing a revival of those. After the Reformation, people nostalgic for this age of colour, innocence, localism and rampant creativity would coin the expression “Merry England” to describe it.
Much of this cultural richness I still find in traditional Catholic societies surviving in parts of the Mediterranean and Latin America: the part of my childhood spent in a pre-tourist Malta gave me a personal induction into one. I can enjoy them the more for the fact that they lack one feature of the England of 1520: that had the authorities known that I did not believe in the established faith, they had the option of burning me alive (something not true in England before 1400). Such brutality was, however, a feature of all late medieval and early modern denominations – Anglicans burned heretics into the 1600s and Presbyterian Scotland executed its last one in 1696 – and perhaps Merry England would have made me happy enough in most respects for me to keep my feelings to myself.
It had everything except the right theology to make me contented with a religion, and that sense of shared pleasures and appreciation carries over into the friendships and alliances which I have enjoyed with Catholics in the course of my life.
Ronald Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol