People of the Book Success in the English Reformation: Kari Konkola and Diarmaid MacCulloch Use the Evidence of Book Publishing to Contribute to the Debate about How Widely the English Reformation Affected Ordinary Men and Women

Article excerpt

WAS THE ENGLISH REFORMATION a success? Over the last four decades, discussion of this crucial event in English history has changed drastically. In 1964, A.G. Dickens published his now-classic The English Reformation, describing how sixteenth-century England eagerly aim rapidly embraced Protestantism, and how it pushed medieval Catholicism into oblivion with equal alacrity. This view was substantially challenged 1984 by J.J. Scarisbrick, who argued that sixteenth-century English people were mostly devout and enthusiastic practitioners of the traditional Catholic faith, mourned its destruction, and lost much by its passing. Doubts about the effect of the Reformation gained support from local studies, showing both vigour in the old religion and hesitancy in accepting the new. In 1992 Eamon Duffy introduced a new dimension, with his panorama of traditional liturgy on the eve of the Reformation: he also showed that many aspects of traditional Catholicism continued to thrive in Protestant England. By 1993 the 'revisionist' view of Catholic practices continuing with few modifications well into the Reformation had become so widely accepted that Christopher Haigh could close his study of sixteenth century religious changes with a disparaging two-word sentence: 'Some Reformations'.

Different perspective on the nature of the Reformation bring to mind the story of a set of blindfolded people who are put to work to study an elephant by investigating different parts of it by touch: fierce debates follow when the 'researchers' try to convince each other that each has the whole answer to what an elephant really looks like. So it may be that a view of the Reformation which concentrates on structural change in Church government or parish organisation, or change in the forms of worship, may come up with very different conclusions about success or failure from a view which concentrates on ideas and their expression in words.

Words are crucial. The Reformation was above all a revolution of words, in which the Word of God was at the centre of the arguments. Even in the mid-seventeenth century some 60-70 per cent of Englishmen could not read, and the lack of this skill might seem to make it impossible for these people to have participated in text-based Protestantism. Haigh's 'Some Reformations'comment might well seem an accurate description of the Reformation's effect on the illiterate majority of England's population--a large part of the 'elephant of early modern English religion People who could not read might chiefly be influenced by Protestantism through the new forms of worship provided by Archbishop Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, or by the words that they heard from the pulpit. The effect of those rites and sermons could be questioned How can we tell whether the unlettered were bored by the English Reformation?

Christopher Haigh fired one of the more recent salvoes in the 'revisionist' debate in all article entitled 'Success and Failure in the English Reformation' (2001), discussing possible ways for making reliable quantitative estimates about the effect of Protestantism. Building on earlier models, most notably Gerald Strauss's study of the German Reformation in his path-breaking Luther's House of Learning (1978), Haigh argued that the only sources of solid evidence available to historians are visitation records and tests about the knowledge of catechism. An investigation of these two sources suggested that by the early seventeenth century most people in England seem to have been able to pass the clergy's examinations on catechism, and that, in one sense, the educational effort of the Reformation thus succeeded in teaching Protestantism to people. However, Haigh holed that the reformers themselves did not consider knowledge of the catechism as enough lot true religion because 'it did not teach justification by faith or predestination or anything that was definitively Protestant'. This observation led Haigh to the pessimistic conclusion that 'by the stalldards evangelical ministers set themselves, [the Reformation] had failed'. …


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