Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England

Article excerpt

Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England. By D. G. Paz. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1992. Pp. xiv, 332. $42.50.)

Some historians of the English Reformation are of the opinion that anti-Catholicism was more deeply entrenched in English society by the end of the sixteenth century than devotion to Protestantism. Equally, a new generation of historians working on the eighteenth century have shown that anti-Catholicism was alive and well even in the age of Enlightenment. It is the argument of this book that anti-Catholicism remained a powerful cultural force in English society at least until 1875 when it began to shift to the margins. What distinguishes this treatment of Victorian anti-Catholicism from most others is the author's conviction that anti-Catholicism was not only ubiquitous and vulgar, but was also deeply embedded within the local, regional, and national cultures of nineteenth-century England. It cannot be reduced to historical memory, nor to anti-Irish sentiment, nor even to Protestant prurience, but rather served a multitude of different functions for different social groups in different parts of England. In short, it was so embedded in the cultural values of the English, that its manifestations were as diverse as nineteenth-century society itself.

In order to do justice to such diversity, Paz makes a valiant attempt to penetrate to the heart of manifold local cultures by using documentary, literary, and nonverbal evidence. Thus bonfires, revels, and riots take their place alongside the well-documented voluntary societies and the cadres of hard evangelical clerics. Anti-Catholicism, it seems, stretched from the tea rooms of the House of Commons to the drunken brawls of low-brow urban life and from the heart of the Established Church to Protestant sectarian firebrands. It is nevertheless one of the main arguments of Paz's book that the existence of a national Established Church and the denominational self-consciousness of its dissenting rivals helped prevent the kind of pan-Protestant anti-Catholic unity which emerged in nineteenth-century Canada. …