PATRICK COLLINSON AND JOHN CRAIG, EDS. The Reformation in English Towns 1500-1640.Themes in Focus. Houndmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd., New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998. $59.95.
MURIEL C. MCCLENDON. The Quiet Reformation. Magistrates and the Emergence of Protestantism in Tudor Norwich. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999. $55.00.
ROBERT TITTLER. The Reformation and the Towns in England. Politics and Political Culture, c. 1540-1640. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1998. $95.00.
The history of the Reformation(s) in English cities and towns is what literary critics would call "postcolonial" history. It departs from the narrative which centered on London and national events and seeks history on the periphery, "embodied" in local communities. It recognizes that history (the Reformation) is not simply a universal event, but immediate, localized events. In The Birthpangs of Protestant England (1988) Patrick Collinson called for redressing a Reformation historiography that had largely ignored towns in England. He was particularly interested in the alliances of Puritan ministers and magistrates which arose in the Elizabethan period. At the same time Christopher Haigh and others were encouraging local studies as part of the debate over the origins and speed of the English Reformation. In addition to answering these concerns, urban reformation history also redresses a tradition of premodern English urban history which has focused on socio-economic decline in the late medieval period.
The seven briefcase studies" in Collinson and Craig, and Muriel McClendon's study of Norwich, suggest that the more attention given to the Reformation in urban centers, the more will be seen the enormous diversity of these "reformations." As the editors of the collection say, "what these essays suggest is not so much a number of regional regularities as the almost infinite variety of experiences which the Reformation in hundreds of English towns entailed" (p. 15). Each town had, in effect, its own reformation in its own time. Articles explore these reflections in Colchester, Doncaster, Beverley, Tewkesbury, Worcester, Reading, and Halifax over varying periods of time. They address issues such as the pace and source of religious change, resistance to Protestantism, religious conflict, the politicalization of reform, the growth of Protestant identity, the importance of preaching, the importance of the relationship between magistracy and ministers, and the local political effects of the Reformation. Other articles examine the provincial urban clergy, the dissolution of the chantries, voluntary religion in the parishes, the death of traditional ritual in Shrewsbury, and religious satire in towns. The articles on Halifax by Sarah and William Shells, voluntary religion by Beat Kumin, and the dissolution of the chantries by Peter Cunich signal the disruption of lay activity in the parishes which the Reformation caused, activity which would not be restored for many decades. The most interesting article in the collection is "The Shearmen's Tree and the Preacher: The Strange Death of Merry England in Shrewsbury and Beyond," by Patrick Collinson. Collinson examines both a 1594 dispute between two of the city's rival guilds over a ritual tree and the preaching of godly Protestant values in the town to show the improbability of distinguishing whether attempts at social control were prompted by socioeconomic concerns or the internalization of Protestant values. Was the preacher using the guildsmen or vice versa. He concludes, "...perhaps we should not even put the question." Most of the articles in the collection contribute substantially to our picture of urban reformation, but Collinson skillfully uses a local focus to raise a larger issue.
McClendon's study of the Reformation in Norwich also raises an unusual issue in a local study of the English Reformation. She argues that the Reformation in Norwich was marked by the city magistrates' active toleration of religious diversity. …