The Reformation of the English Parish Church

On the eve of the Reformation, Lucy Wooding is struck by the evidence of popular piety

September 2, 2010

The modest title of this book conceals the fact that Robert Whiting has provided a cutting-edge contribution to the study of the English Reformation. In attempts to discover what the Tudor populace thought about the religious changes they experienced, written records of every sort have been trawled for evidence that might suggest eagerness, hostility or apathy. Whiting's book, however, looks at the material evidence, the mute but eloquent testimony of the thousands of parish churches still standing from before the 16th century. Reflecting recent historical interest in material culture, the text adds an important dimension to the Reformation debate.

Whiting meticulously documents the transformation of the church interior between 1530 and 1630. In so doing, he provides a detailed account of church decoration, ceremony and symbolism, which will soon be necessary reading for future secularised generations with little understanding of the fundamental importance of sacraments, fonts, screens and altars, let alone the more particular functions of parcloses, reredos and pyxes. He notes the patterns of investment in the years before the Reformation, and charts with meticulous care the gradual destruction and reconfiguration that took place from the 1530s onwards.

Yet the author's conclusions are not exactly what you might expect. The most obvious message communicated by this book would seem to be the extraordinary richness of late medieval devotion and the striking levels of popular commitment that led to the endowment of so many images, paintings, vessels, banners, books, windows, memorials, pews, screens, pulpits and so on. Whiting's conclusion does acknowledge this "rich array of furnishings", and the fact that many were newly bought on the eve of the Reformation, but thinks that the use of items inherited from previous generations suggests that popular religion "was not always as enthusiastic as has sometimes been claimed". This seems churlish. His evidence provides overwhelming testimony of a church with astonishing levels of popular piety.

The variegation of belief and practice within both late-medieval Catholicism and early Protestantism are underplayed. Evidence suggests, for example, that enthusiasm for relics was waning around 1500, while devotion to the Mass remained strong. This may reflect the anxiety of Catholic reformers concerning the veracity of relics, and the Christo-centric emphasis of late-medieval devotion. Whiting, however, represents traditional religion as a largely unchanging entity and says little more about the variations within Protestantism.

He suggests that the "reformation of the parish church" was fuelled by a combination of Protestant conviction, material greed and fear of authority. It is the last motivation that seems to weigh most heavily. "Duty, conformity, obedience" loom largest. But this does not do justice to the passionate convictions and spiritual sophistication of many Tudor men and women, evidenced by some of the anecdotes we encounter here. The furious iconoclasm of those who clothed a priest in his sacred vestments and gave him a sacring bell and holy water bucket to hold before hanging him in chains from his own church tower; the shrewdness of the Yorkshire Catholic who paid for vestments during Mary's reign but arranged for their reversion to his heirs if future rulers should "call such things into their highnesses' possession, as of late time hath been"; the ambiguous message about transferred holiness suggested by the use in Grantham of the mutilated copes that were "laid on the pulpit at every preaching": all these suggest a more complex picture.

The extensive survivals from the late-medieval period that enabled this book to be written in the first place also suggest that more subtle evaluation of popular sentiment is needed. The simplicity of Whiting's conclusions does not do justice to the intricacy of the evidence deployed. Nevertheless, this is a valuable book.

The Reformation of the English Parish Church

By Robert Whiting

Cambridge University Press 318pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780521762861

Published 18 March 2010

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