Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, by Alec Ryrie

Lucy Wooding discusses a fresh examination of fervent belief

April 18, 2013

What was it like to be a Protestant in early modern Britain? Historians have expended a lot of ink and anxiety over why people were Protestant, how they became so and when and where it happened, but they have paid much less attention to what it felt like, how it shaped thoughts and emotions, and framed everyday tasks. Here Alec Ryrie, by contrast, wants to know precisely how early modern Protestants passed “that tediously long interval between conversion and death”, and from this pieces together what Protestantism as a “lived religious experience” actually was. Where other books have focused on the conflicts or the doctrine, this book supplies the human encounters and the material reality, turning what have often been crude and schematic outlines into an abundantly detailed and many- coloured picture.

Ryrie shakes off, albeit tolerantly, the categorisations beloved of theologians. He also sheds, more briskly, the stark oppositions that characterised Reformation polemic and that would continue to taint historical language for centuries afterwards. More bluntly still, he rejects the patronising condescension of the functionalists. He likes these Protestants; he can see their contradictions, their absurdities, but he can also respect their sincerity and takes their beliefs seriously. He wants to know the human cost of Protestant beliefs, and to come as close as possible to the daily realities of this faith, which was mostly “neither godly nor profane, but a bit of both”.

The picture is one of enormous commitment - these people wrestled in prayer, groaned and wept with the effort involved

Appropriately, then, the first section of the book is about emotion. This is an unusual path for Reformation history to take and it is hugely satisfying, bringing warmth and suppleness to an often dry subject. It brings into sharp relief the fact that to be a Protestant was to embark on an extraordinary emotional journey, which included ecstasy and despair, misery and desire, fervour and dejection. Quiet contentment seems to have been relatively rare and held the risk of “security”, which might sound promising, but was in fact a terrible snare. “Assurance” was the one to aim at, the feeling that you were, after all, one of the elect, but unhappily this remained elusive. “We know we are assured as a lamb knows its mother”, wrote one, but for every happy lamb there seem to have been quite a lot of lost and worried sheep. And yet when it did all come right, the emotional impact was sudden, sweet and overwhelming. Henry Burton, in prison awaiting his sentence for sedition, prayed until he “was filled with a mighty spirit of courage and resolution, wherewith I was carried up farre above my selfe, even as it were upon Eagles wings”. It becomes clear what startling experiences the religious life could involve, leaving people “broken to pieces with joy; drunk with comfort”.

Being Protestant was a life’s work in itself, and the main business of that work was prayer. Section two of the book details what this actually meant, from the words and times of prayer, through the bodily realities of kneeling or prostrating, to the intentions and (often muddled) hopes behind the business of praying. A third section deals with the highly important relationships between Protestants and their books, but this is more familiar territory, and Ryrie deals with it deftly but quite swiftly, moving on to the more unexamined questions of what Protestant life looked like in church and within the household. A final section examines the life cycle of the early modern Protestant, not precisely the one from cradle to grave, but the more important one, as far as its proponents were concerned: the spiritual journey from conversion to the deathbed and beyond to the hereafter.

This is an important book that reflects a change of register and a shift in the tempo of Reformation studies. We are tired of debating who won and who lost: we are increasingly interested in what it was actually like for the people who lived through it. Historians have often taken Protestant identity for granted, or more recently neglected it altogether, but this book delves into every corner of its intense, peculiar, fervid psyche. Ryrie seeks to anatomise, translate and expound the workings of Protestant hearts and minds. So although this book is set in the Reformation era, it is only incidentally a book about the Reformation; rather it is a cultural history of religious conviction, delving beneath a surface that is usually passed over lightly to find the complexities beneath.

It took ingenuity, inspiration and a lot of sheer hard work to turn Protestantism into a workable everyday creed. The doctrine of election was an awkward one when it came to day-to-day living, but early modern Protestants rose to the challenge, often heroically. One writer recalled approvingly the practice of the Polish gentry, who were said to draw their swords as they said the creed, ready to defend it with their lives. Minor struggles faced those who tried to overcome the physical problem of reading the Hebrew psalter while prostrate on the floor, or those who resorted to biting on garlic or cloves to stay awake during a long sermon. More movingly, we see people making sense of their faith in times of suffering; the man chewing on garlic to stay awake was also the man who had to bury several of his beloved children. Many found Protestant dedication difficult: one writer remarked acidly on how, when the sermon went over the hour, “your buttokes beginne for to ake, and yee wishe in your hearte that the Pulpit woulde fall”. Yet the overwhelming picture is one of enormous commitment and energy - these people wrestled in prayer, groaned and wept with the effort involved.

Ryrie suggests that what he has uncovered here was a “broad, unified religious culture”, and he makes a strong case, albeit one that will remain open to challenges. Most of his sources were mediated through literacy, one way or another, which leaves a large number of historical voices unheard, although there are an encouraging number of women and even children in the picture. He sets separatists and Laudians to the side of the canvas, which will make some uneasy, and the similarities between English and Scottish practice are noted more than the differences. Continuities with pre-Reformation Catholicism are emphasised - the use of fasting and meditation, the retention of much late-medieval devotional literature - as are the points of cultural exchange with post-Reformation Catholics, which no doubt will lead some to agitate about the discontinuities instead. Yet the focus here is primarily on people with a shared purpose who might naturally tend to assimilate one another’s ideas; it is only secondarily on a religion that deals in absolutes and anathemas.

This is a book full of riches, elegantly written, alive with insight, quiet erudition and compassionate humour. Ryrie has mined early modern Protestant culture for its most cherished ideals, longings, resolutions, devotions, pious practices and deeply felt emotions. In so doing he has plotted the course of what was essentially a passionate relationship. “They sought out and nourished despair, self-loathing, tears, and martyrdom because of a basic truth that all lovers know: it is better to feel pain than to feel nothing.” Being Protestant in Reformation Britain has brought to life a whole way of being. Its subjects might even feel that for once someone has done justice to their fervently held convictions and the meaning of their lives.

The author

Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University and a dab hand in the kitchen. “I like making breads of various kinds - kneading is a good release for pent-up violence - and sometimes it works.”

He was born in London, he says, “but spent much of my childhood in Washington DC”. The US capital is, he adds, “still a home from home”.

Ryrie now lives in “an isolated village high in the North Pennines, with my wife Victoria, my two sons aged 7 and 4, and three cats of varying temperaments. We love the beauty and wildness of the place and the closeness of the community; we loathe the marauding sheep who destroy everything in their path.”

One of the most important influences on his interest in the life of the mind was his father, “who died last year, was a lover of history and also the kind of thoughtful atheist who takes religion very seriously. I wasn’t a very studious child - I basically messed about at school until I was 16 - but I’d had enough of a good grounding to be able to make up for lost time.”

He studied as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and took his doctorate at the University of Oxford. Urged to name a favourite, he confesses: “Nothing against Oxford - which was the perfect place for doctoral study for me - but I’m loyal to my first love.”

Asked whether it is true that Durhamites’ renowned pride in their institution leads them to see both Oxford and Cambridge as “the other place”, he declines to rise to the bait. “The undergrads, maybe. But so many of the staff have links with one or both that it doesn’t really work like that.”

Ryrie, who has served as editor and contributor to a number of edited volumes, now has five monographs to his credit. “The risk,” he observes, “is that writing books gets easier, because you get into the habit, and start coasting. I try to approach each book as if it were my first. It helps that my books have all been very different from one another - at least I think they have been.”

A reader in the Church of England and licenced to the parish of Shotley St John in the diocese of Newcastle, Ryrie is a minister but not, he clarifies, an ordained minister. Would he consider becoming one? “There is a long story there, but the short answer is, yes, I have considered pursuing that, and have decided that for the foreseeable future it’s not the right path for me to take. My ministry at the moment isn’t second best and suits me very well indeed.”

Much of the research for Being Protestant in Reformation Britain was carried out at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The most interesting thing he came across there, Ryrie recalls, was “a beautiful, tiny 17th-century Bible with an intricate, hand-embroidered cover. I love the sense that someone has lavished that much concentration and love on to this object, which survives for me to hold even when she has gone.”

Asked for his expert view of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Ryrie says: “I am a huge fan and am eagerly waiting the third instalment. She has captured the atmosphere of the age as well as anything I’ve read in history or fiction. The one dull note I think she hits is on [Thomas] Cromwell’s religion: as she describes him, he’s less an evangelical than a barely repressed secular sceptic, and I don’t think that does him justice.”

Karen Shook

Being Protestant in Reformation Britain

By Alec Ryrie
Oxford University Press, 520pp, £45.00
ISBN 9780199565726
Published 25 April 2013

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Reader's comments (4)

The University of Oxford awards D.Phils, not Ph.ds.
I really enjoyed this review. I'm a scientist (Haematology), but have been involved in supporting the development of innovative teaching for more than 15 years in Scotland, New Zealand and Australia. I am an atheist with an interest in religions too, like the author's father, and will now seek out this book. If the book is stylistically similar to the reviewer's accessible style then I suspect I'll be in for an entertaining as well as an educative treat. Thanks Lucy for being human. And as for CT's comment above; what sort of person needs to nit-pick about a slight technical error in the reviewer's biographical comments about the elitist (presumably) nomenclature of doctoral degree titles at Oxford or Cambridge? Colin Mason, BSc, MSc, PhD, GCE
The mistake is in the details about the author, not in the review itself. The answer to the haematologist's query is, of course, an historian. Getting the details right is important in history.
Dear Christopher Thompson, Thank you for your point of clarification regarding the University of Oxford DPhil. The online version of the author profile text has been corrected. Karen Shook, Books Editor, Times Higher Education