The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome

Lucy Wooding admires the balance of a tome that puts pre-Reformation England's religion on trial

September 13, 2012

The condition of the late medieval church is nowadays a highly controversial subject. This is in large part a result of the 1992 publication of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, which contested the traditional view that it was moribund, superstitious, corrupt and unpopular. Duffy instead argued, with eloquence and fervour, that the church was both vibrant and popular. Most subsequent historical writing on the subject has been in some way a response to that thesis, and George Bernard's new book is perhaps the most comprehensive answer to date.

Bernard is known for writing books that defy expectations, challenge existing historical assumptions and advance startling new ideas. With this subject, however, Duffy got in there first. So the surprise in this work is that Bernard emerges instead as the epitome of carefully balanced, even-handed opinion. It is as if the late medieval church is on trial: vigorous cases are made for both the prosecution and the defence, with scrupulous fairness and a forensic approach to the evidence. A quirk of the book is that particularly contentious points give rise to a flood of rhetorical questions. "Did late medieval church-goers, then, know less, but feel more? Was there a larger difficulty here in the quality of their knowledge and understanding?...Was there a danger of simplification and exaggeration? Was not such a style of piety potentially vulnerable to the charge of encouraging an idolatrous, rather than simply reverential, attitude to...artistic objects?" You can almost hear the barrister putting these questions to a worried-looking jury.

The book's thesis, as the title suggests, is that the late medieval church had both considerable strengths and areas where it was perilously open to criticism. This is not unexpected, but the book's originality lies in the breadth of its coverage as well as its dispassionate evaluation of evidence. Bernard looks at the church from many different angles, examining not just popular belief and parish practice but also church politics, the clergy, monasticism and heresy. He is not entirely convinced by the evidence for popular religious understanding but sees unexpected strengths in the "monarchical church" where clerical authority and royal power could work closely and effectively together. He finds limited evidence of heresy but puts an interesting emphasis on movements to counter heresy, which he suggests were often linked to reform of a more positive sort, and should be seen as a strength. Overall, vitality just about wins out in his assessment; this book will not capsize our vision of a strong and popular church, but it will add a great deal of light and shade to that picture.

Bernard sees the church less as a body of beliefs, or a community of believers, than as an institution, and this is both advantage and drawback. It makes for a commanding overall view, but at times it can be a bit tone-deaf to the way in which 15th- and 16th-century religion was so deeply embedded in everything from international politics to the raising of children. Bernard is clearly worried by the fact that the pre-Reformation church set itself such "impossibly demanding ideals", but then such is the nature of Christianity. He is also haunted by a later agenda. Many devotional practices, he observes, were "desperately vulnerable to Erasmian, protestant or simply commonsense rationalist critiques". Since few people in England belonged to any of these categories until well into the 16th century, this is arguably inadmissible evidence. The problem remains, however, that once we have explained the late medieval church to our satisfaction, we will have to start all over again with the English Reformation.

In the meantime, this is an important and useful book. Duffy's Stripping of the Altars was written with the passion and insight of someone who understands religion from the inside, but Bernard's book has the clear-sighted, respectful but sceptical vision of the outsider. Ideally, the two should be read side by side; Bernard's "sense" next to Duffy's "sensibility". This book makes a less emotionally satisfying case than its predecessor: it is both more impartial and more complex, but this searching analysis is exactly what the debate needed. Bernard has again achieved what he does best: making us go back to an old problem and start thinking afresh.

The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome

By G. W. Bernard Yale University Press, 304pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780300179972

Published 16 August 2012

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