Book Review: A People's Tragedy
Understanding the Reformation
Review by Richard Whinder
There are few historians who can claim to have changed the way we understand a particular period of history, but Eamonn Duffy is one who can. When his masterwork The Stripping of the Altars came out in 1992, it changed the whole way the English Reformation was understood and taught (your reviewer was an undergraduate history student at the time and saw for himself the change it brought about). Before Duffy’s work, the ‘Establishment’ view of the Reformation lingered – the late medieval Church was fundamentally corrupt and had lost the adherence of the faithful: long before Henry VIII delivered the coup de grace, the whole rotten edifice was crumbling away and needed only a few sharp jolts to bring it tumbling down.
Duffy showed something quite different – a Church still full of vigour and life, actively responding to the challenges of a new age, still broadly supported by the great majority of its people. The English Reformation was not so much a popular movement as a political action imposed from above. It is true, other historians had paved the way for this fresh thinking (Professor Jack Scarisbrick and his The Reformation and the English People deserve an honourable mention). Nevertheless, it was Duffy who established a new consensus, and it remains largely unchallenged to this day.
Following the success of The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy published The Voices of Morebath in 2001 which applied his thesis to a small village in England, showing the devastating effects of the Reformation on one tight-knit community. As his reputation became established, Duffy began to publish works not only on history but on theology, liturgy and spirituality. He even lectured at the Pontifical Universities in Rome (once again your reviewer was one of his students). In general, these works were characterised by a deep but accessible scholarship, a certain nostalgia for the days of Latin liturgy and traditional piety and – somewhat paradoxically – a slightly unfortunate penchant for the liberal theology of the 1960s and 1970s (although rarely taken to excess).
Duffy at his best
The work under review is the latest of his writings. The first thing to be said of it is that it is a collection of essays – and like all such collections, some parts are better than others. But, taken as a whole, it is worthy of Duffy at his best. Some of the essays revisit the author’s greatest work. I recommend in particular the opening chapter ‘Cathedral Pilgrimage: The Late Middle Ages’. In the desecration of countless shrines, and the destruction of popular pilgrimage, writes Duffy ‘one of the most the great buildings that had sheltered it for half a millennium. Who can doubt that the English imagination was poorer for it?’. Who, indeed?
Other ‘properly’ Reformation essays touch on the dissolution of Ely Priory, the history of the English College in Douai, and the writing of the King James Bible. In later essays, grouped under the heading ‘Writing the Reformation’, Duffy looks at the way the Reformation has been understood and studied over time. These later essays, it must be said, are perhaps more niche in their appeal – ‘James Anthony Froude and the Reign of Queen Mary’, ‘A.
G. Dickens and the Medieval Church’ – but Duffy brings to them all his customary scholarship and accessibility.
In the last chapter of the book, ‘Writing the Reformation: Fiction and Faction’, Duffy touches on Hilary Mantel’s treatment of St Thomas More in her trilogy of books featuring Thomas
Cromwell (Wolf Hall etc), which have been dramatized to much acclaim by the BBC. Duffy is wontedly polite but clearly shares the view of Dr David Starkey (no friend to Catholicism) that Mantel’s depiction of St Thomas More is ‘a deliberate perversion of fact’. As noted, Duffy is vital and persistent institutions of medieval Christianity was snuffed out, some more courteous, but leaves the reader
Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein
of the greatest names in English history mocked and dishonoured, and a resonant symbol of hope and healing banished from in no doubt that Mantel’s depiction of St Thomas More is fundamentally false – based in part on an uncritical reading of Professor G. R. Elton and still more on a rather childish desire to upset Catholics, whose faith she once shared and has since rejected.
Lastly, it is worth drawing attention to the penultimate essay, ‘Walsingham: Reformation and Reconstruction’. Here Duffy examines the remarkable rekindling of Marian piety in Walsingham in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a place for both Catholic and Anglican devotion. This chapter is especially worth reading at this present moment, after an extraordinary period of pandemic and lockdown which has shaken every national institution – the English Catholic Church included. It was certainly providential that, in the dark days of March 2020, with lockdown in full effect and public worship prohibited, England was once again dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham. True, the event took place without the pomp and ceremony we might have hoped to accompany it – but it happened. And, as Duffy’s essay helps to make clear, the history of Walsingham is in a way the model for the history of the Church herself. For just as new life sprang up, most unexpectedly, amidst ‘the wracks of Walsingham’, so too the Church retains the power of Resurrection, even in the most unlikely times and circumstances.
Father Richard Whinder is a history graduate and Parish Priest of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Balham, London.