Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations

August 30, 2012

To begin with, an irritation: historians long ago lost the battle to have footnotes where they should be, at the foot of each page, but there can be no excuse for a serious publisher to stick them at the back of a book without at the top of the pages involved giving an indication of the pages to which the notes relate. Without this provision they might just as well be omitted, since the lack of such indications makes it extremely difficult to find the relevant pages.

To proceed to a serious criticism: the publishers promise us "a wide-ranging book" in which the author "explores the broad sweep of the English Reformation and the ways in which that Reformation has been written about". Eamon Duffy in his introduction slightly modifies this picture by referring to "the essays which make up the chapters of this book". It is thus only on page 293, which is to say right at the end of the book in the acknowledgements, that the truth emerges that with the apparent exception of chapter 9, all these essays have appeared in previous publications or were given as lectures. I think we should have been told this at the beginning, for among other things it would have helped to explain the curiously incoherent course the book takes, despite Duffy's efforts in the introduction to give some sort of sense to it.

I had hoped that the curious way that the book was put together might have explained what is otherwise an inexcusable omission. In 2005, G.W. Bernard published The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, by any account a major reinterpretation of the events that are supposedly central to Duffy's book. In fact, it does get three insignificant footnotes (this discovered after much searching), but no mention at all where it should have figured, namely in chapter 2, "Reformation Unravelled", which is a historiographical survey. But this chapter was first given as a lecture at the University of Nottingham in 2009, so my attempt to find an excuse for the omission does not really work. A different explanation might be that it is a deliberate slight, which would be a pity if it were the case. I had thought that since the demise of Geoffrey Elton, the internecine wars between Tudor historians had come to an end, but I may have been too optimistic.

My grandmother might have characterised this book as "mutton dressed as lamb", but mutton well cooked can be appetising: despite my criticisms there are plenty of good things to be found here. Duffy's writing, most notably in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (2005), is famous for the richness of its detail, and there is plenty of evidence of this here, especially in his chapters on the rood screens, and in that on Salle Church in Norfolk. I was rather taken by his account of the "maiden-lights" and "plough-lights" in churches that were funded by dances and other activities, which reminded me of university rag weeks. But the danger of this approach is that it becomes merely descriptive, and I was tempted occasionally to write "relevance?" in the margins. In the historiographical chapter already mentioned, it was good to see English Catholic historians such as Francis Aidan Gasquet and Philip Hughes getting a look-in. As for the very Protestant A.G. Dickens, I too was brought up on his 1964 book The English Reformation, greatly admired it, but came to think that his interpretation was profoundly wrong.

One of the themes in the book, picked up and then discarded, concerns the impact of the Reformation on England's cultural (but especially artistic and architectural) life. Why did England produce a Shakespeare but not a Raphael or a Bernini? Of course, there are many explanations for the comparative weakness of our artistic activities, many having little to do with religion, but it is an interesting topic and I would like to have had more on it. The best chapter, in my view, is Duffy's second on John Fisher, opponent of the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII (the first chapter incidentally being not much more than a means of filling up the pages). But in the second, chapter 7, he grapples sensitively with the difficulty of categorising people in a swiftly changing world - trying to tease out in Fisher's case how far he was "medieval" and how far "modern", or to put it another way, how far he was scholastic and how far humanist. It is a difficult exercise, but one that historians are forced to tackle. Still, I am not sure that this chapter and the one or two other good things to be found in this book are enough to warrant its purchase.

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations

By Eamon Duffy, Bloomsbury/Continuum, 320pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781441181176, Published 21 July 2012

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