There is a folk history of the Reformation in England which goes roughly as follows: in the years immediately before the break with Rome, the Catholic Church here was moribund and corrupt, its practices and beliefs mired in superstitious and anti-Biblical accretions.
It was struggling to maintain the allegiance of a growing and increasingly literate middle class, and slow to respond to new artistic, intellectual and cultural developments that had emerged from the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press.
This version of the late medieval Church fits very neatly with what has been called the Whig interpretation of British history – that is, the view that we are on a fairly straightforward linear journey from darkness into light, from religious obscurantism to enlightenment, from tyranny to freedom. It is sometimes also offered as mitigation for the violence and disruption of the Reformation.
Enter The Stripping of the Altars, by Eamon Duffy, first published in 1992, which I finished just before Christmas. In this rightly famous and thought-provoking work, Professor Duffy offers a very different picture of religious life in England in the century before the Reformation. Delving into personal accounts, parish and municipal records and surviving wills, he paints a picture of a vibrant, vigorous Church, which was at the heart of English community life and commanded the loyalty of the majority of the laity across all social classes.
The Stripping of the Altars has its critics, such as the early modern historian Ronald Hutton, who found its scope too narrow. Duffy emphasises the fact that dismantling English Catholicism under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I represented a huge rupture. He clearly regrets this dismantling. This is hardly surprising, because he is recounting nothing less than the destruction of a way of life – indeed he calls the split from Rome “a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past”.
The Reformation forced an end to a whole constellation of custom, tradition and ceremony by which the English people had embedded the Catholic faith into their lives. This was not only a great loss in itself, but also laid the groundwork for future decline, by unpicking many of the threads which bound up people’s everyday life with their faith.
Duffy stresses that for the pre-Reformation church, the parish was understood not simply as the persons currently on the premises but as a community transcending earthly time, to include the presence of members who were part of the Church Triumphant or in Purgatory. The changes of the 16th century swept away this understanding and gave people a flatter, more prosaic understanding of the parish and its role in the divine economy.
Well-intentioned attempts to make Christian liturgy simpler had the effect of making the faith more austere, more abstract and, in many ways, less – not more – accessible to the uneducated. The Protestant William Tyndale is said to have wanted to put an English Bible in the hands of every ploughboy, but I daresay if you had done a survey of ploughboys in the 16th century, many of them would have found great meaning and comfort in Passion plays, Corpus Christi processions, churches full of colour and candlelight, and regular feast days.
Much ink has been spilt discussing the longer-term effects of the Reformation, and especially its role in the ultimate secularisation of Europe. It seems very clear from The Stripping of the Altars that one ultimate effect of the English Reformation was to make the faith seem cerebral and individualistic, rather than an affair of body, senses and mind, closely integrated with the rhythms of life. This arguably made Christianity more vulnerable to the intellectual assaults that followed in later centuries. The dissociation of faith from the routines of secular life that began with the Reformation laid a certain amount of the groundwork for the later fading away of faith as a public and corporate force.
Niall Gooch is a regular columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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