Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The English Reformation after Revisionism

The conflicting positions in that debate are all too easily characterized in terms of simple polarities — slow reformation from above, rapid reformation from below, or, as Norman Jones in self-conscious caricature has recently put it, “Once upon a time the people of England were happy medieval Catholics, visiting their holy wells, attending frequent masses and deeply respectful of Purgatory and afraid of hell. Then lustful King Henry forced them to abandon their religion. England was never merry again. Alternatively, once upon a time the people of England were oppressed by corrupt churchmen. They yearned for the liberty of the Gospel. Then, Good King Harry gave them the Protestant nation for which they longed.”

Nobody, I take it, would nowadays admit to holding either of these contrasted positions in their chemical purity, but they represent recognizable approaches all the same. It is true that in any hard and fast sense the revisionist model of the Reformation is largely a critical construct, for the differences between revisionists are at least as significant as their agreements. It is, for example, a fundamental contention of The Stripping of the Altars that the Reformation represented a deep and traumatic cultural hiatus, a notion that has been taken up in literary terms and taken for a walk by authors as various as Stephen Greenblatt and Ted Hughes. By contrast, it is a fundamental contention of Christopher Haigh’s masterly and mischievous English Reformations, that when the dust had settled on all the crown-imposed religious upheavals, nothing very much had in fact happened. The revisionist position takes its name, I suppose, from the title of the collection of essays edited in 1987 by Christopher Haigh, The English Reformation Revised. The contributors to this volume, it should be noted, were in no sense a movement, and they shared no single agenda. Insofar as the essays had something in common, it was a sense that the Reformation process in England had been precisely that — a process and a labor, difficult, drawn out, and whose outcome had been by no means a foregone conclusion — and perhaps also a more positive assessment both of the activities of Tudor proponents of Catholicism such as Bishops Longland or Bonner, and of the traditional religion which the reformers assailed. But it is worth noting that the insight that the Reformation had not been achieved on a tidal wave of popular enthusiasm, but had to be worked for, by force, persuasion, and slow institutional transformation, did not originate with card-carrying revisionists. The year before Haigh’s collection appeared, Patrick Collinson gave the Anstey lectures, subsequently published as The Birthpangs of Protestant England. The published version opened with the ringing declaration that “if I were to be asked when Protestant England was born I would answer . . . after the accession of Elizabeth I, some considerable time after.” Collinson dedicated the book to Geoffrey Dickens: unsurprisingly, Dickens was not greatly delighted by it, and perhaps did not quite know what to make of the dedication which credited him with having both “led and pointed the way” — given that Collinson assumed that the story of the birth of English Protestantism began more or less at the point where Dickens’s history of the Reformation left off.


So, a good deal of what is now described as revisionism has nothing to do with a conscious revisionary agenda, but is just the routine work of historians doing what historians always do or are supposed to do, trying to get a clearer picture of what happened in the past. For example, the more positive reevaluation of late medieval religion — which has been a crucial dimension of recent rethinking of the history of the Reformation — has been to a large extent the work of medievalists only marginally concerned with the pre-history of the Reformation, and working independently of each other: Peter Heath, Christopher Harper-Bill, and Clive Burgess all come to mind. Among historians more directly concerned with the sixteenth century, several are indeed Roman Catholics — Jack Scarisbrick, myself, and, more recently, Richard Rex and Peter Marshall—and this has led to the widespread perception that revisionism represents the unfortunate revival of confessional history, the grinding of papistical axes. This denominational head-counting is a phenomenon more easily accommodated in British academic life than in American, I imagine, but even here it has caused adverse comment. Revisionism is often thought of and referred to as “Catholic revisionism,” so much so that Geoff Dickens simply took it for granted that Christopher Haigh must be a Catholic, and, when it was explained to him that he was not and never had been, exclaimed in exasperation, “then why does he say such things?”

It seems extraordinary to me that before the recent debates no one appears to have thought it worth comment that most British Reformation historians were in fact practicing, or at least cultural, Protestants — Dickens himself, Gordon Rupp, Claire Cross, Andrew Pettegree, and many more. This, too, was surely a confessional phenomenon? I should myself attribute the growing presence of Catholics among historians of late medieval and early modern religion at least in part to the accident of the passing of the 1944 Butler Education Act, which led to a postwar flood of Catholics into higher education, and the professionalization of the formerly largely plebeian Catholic community. There are simply more Catholics around in the academy generally than there used to be, but there is indeed a notable Catholic presence among historians of late medieval and early modern religion, not merely English religion but that of Europe more widely. Their influence, I think, has indeed been disproportionate to their actual numbers. If one considers in addition to those already mentioned the names of John Bossy, Peter Burke, the late Bob Scribner, and, I would add, the social anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglass, whose writings have influenced much of this historical thinking about religion, and certainly my own.

This disproportionate presence of Catholics among academic students of early modern and late medieval religion is, I suspect, in part a product of subcultural formation, and the heightened and self-consciously religious preoccupations of a minority group. Its revisionist slant stems, however, less from denominational gladiatorial concerns — since several of the Catholics I have mentioned have been firmly lapsed, their Catholicism cultural rather than ideological — than with the appearance, to anyone formed in a Catholic religious ethos, of the religion of the late middle ages as both more coherent and less repellent than may be the case for historians formed in a different religious tradition. In this sense, “Catholic Revisionism,” insofar as it exists, may represent the absence of a Protestant historiographical agenda at least as much as the presence of a Catholic one.

So, twenty years on from Jack Scarisbrick’s Ford lectures and Haigh’s English Reformation Revised, and a dozen or so years after the appearance of The Stripping of the Altars and Haigh’s English Reformations, where are we on the history of the English Reformation? I think it is fair to say that, while some historians like Diarmaid McCulloch and Andrew Petegree might want to argue for an earlier, wider, and deeper popular dissemination of Protestant ideas than most revisionists would be willing to concede, the broad outline of the revisionist account of the Reformation has been accepted and absorbed into school and university courses. Almost everyone now agrees that “although there were some English people excited about Protestantism in Henry VIII’s reign, there was not much popular support for a change,” despite which “over the course of three generations the way the English worshipped . . . and related to their place in the universe underwent a sea change.”

Historical inquiry into the English Reformation has therefore shifted now from consideration of the reluctances and resistances to reformation which revisionism highlighted, to that “sea change,” the processes by which in the course of those three generations the assimilation of Protestant practice and belief took place. In this sense, my own study, published in 2001, of the conservative Devon village of Morebath and its priest Sir Christopher Trychay from the 1520s to the 1570s, is precisely a “postrevisionist” work.

Eamon Duffy

From ‘The English Reformation after Revisionism’, 2006

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