Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Stripping of Altars, by Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of Altars, 1992 Yale University

This book is a book of two halves. The first half gives a picture of the religious life of pre-Reformation England and its customs and traditions. The second half provides a history of the eroding of that religious culture during the Tudor Reforms.

Prior to this book, there had been a commonly held assumption that the religious life in England prior to the Reformation was in a very poor state. The institutional church was portrayed as corrupt to the core and the common people were viewed as ignorant and irreligious, with the dissenting Lollard movement the only sign of real spiritual enthusiasm. In this book, Duffy paints a contrary picture of an English people who were truly devoted to their religion. Duffy looks at all aspects of religious life; processions, festivals, devotions to saints and indulgences.

The second half of the book, on the course of the Reformation, demonstrates the slow pace of the Reformation. The Catholic instincts of Henry VIII combined with the strength of traditionalist feeling meant that Cranmer could not bring in the changes he wanted overnight. The gradual erosion of Catholic religion took place by stealth and Duffy demonstrates much resistance to the changes in local communities. Mary I attempted to put back the clock and restore the old religion, but by her time, so much damage had been done to the religious fabric of the nation that she faced an uphill struggle. While not denying the horrors of her persecutions, Duffy offers a sympathetic reading of her reign. By the time of Elizabeth I, the reformation was largely complete and many of those holding traditionalists adopted a stance of loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer against the Puritans, as the prayer book maintained the last vestiges of the old Catholicism.

I was particularly interested in the Duffy's examination of devotional primers. These books were devotional manuals for the laity. Duffy sees in them evidence of the importance of devotion amont the literate. In their medieval form, they usually comprised the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary combined with Eucharistic devotions. The Reformation authorities introduced new primers that provided Protestant prayers, eventually modelling themselves on the Book of Common Prayer. Mary also had officially endorsed primers printed as a means of re-introducing Catholic devotion.

This is a fascinating survey of Medieval and early Reformation Christianity in England.

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