Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"Fiery Toungues:" Language, Liturgy, and the Paradox of the English Reformation

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"Fiery Toungues:" Language, Liturgy, and the Paradox of the English Reformation

Article excerpt

This essay examines the conflicted double logic of vernacularization in the English Reformation -- specifically in the Book of Common Prayer, and more specifically in its Pentecost service -- and argues that the transition to the vernacular in public worship simultaneously served the state's political ends and worked against those very ends by devolving religious authority to individuals. Understanding this dynamic, the author suggests, not only clarifies the role of language and text in the early modern constitution of nation and subject, but may also indicate a synthetic way out of a 400-year-old historiographical stalemate.

The ongoing debate over the nature and origins of the English Reformation has maintained an astonishing consistency over the last 460 years. One historiographical party, beginning with Cranmer, Tyndale, and Foxe, and most influentially argued in our own time by A. G. Dickens, has always maintained that the Reformation was an expression of popular as well as divine will, an organic and relatively swift realization of widespread evangelical sentiment in England. The other party, running from Gardiner and Bonner to current "revisionist" historians like J. J. Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, and Eamon Duffy, has resolutely argued the opposite view: that the English Reformation was essentially an expansionist exercise of state power, a piecemeal, contingent, and top-down imposition of an unpopular religious agenda on a populace largely happy with late-medieval Catholic piety. The longevity of this conflict, and the abundance of good arguments on both sides (to say nothing of the prior religious and ideological comm itments which tend to shape these sides), has resulted in a protracted historiographical stalemate. (1) But perhaps it also suggests the possibility of a way out. For surely both sides have something right: the Reformation in England was unquestionably enacted from the top with specific political objectives in mind (generally having to do with the extension and consolidation of national autonomy and state power -- though these objectives were certainly not consistent from monarch to monarch, or, in Henry's case, from year to year), and it clearly encountered significant resistance; but it was also, for many, religiously motivated, deeply supported, and tremendously empowering. This paradoxical dynamic of religion and politics, in which the relative authorities of both the hierarchical state/church and the individual were somehow simultaneously and reciprocally enhanced, seems to me to be at the heart of the English Reformation.

The present essay will attempt to illuminate this dynamic by focusing on the crucial role played in it by language itself. Its specific subject, which is intimately bound up with early modern England's emergent national identity as well as some of its more refractory implications, is the Reformation's emphasis on language, and particularly the vernacular, as a politically and religiously significant category. While the gradual rise to respectability of the English language in the sixteenth century is a widely recognized phenomenon, the pivotal role of mid-century events in this process has been relatively underappreciated. This essay will explore the English Reformation as an important religious and political component of this legitimation, focusing on the state-sponsored shift from Latin to English in the language of divine access. My treatment, while it is implicitly relevant to the broader linguistic shift, including its manifestation in scriptural translation, focuses on a less well-known but historically crucial instance of change -- the 1549 publication of a mandatory and nationally-uniform English liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. (2) While most literary-critical notices of the Prayerbook treat it as an element of a relatively clear-cut religious or political agenda, I want to suggest that it was neither purely political nor purely evangelical, (3) but an internally conflicted attempt to stabilize a deep and growing rift in early modern culture. …

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