Religious Change and the Laity in England: Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke Look at the Ways Ordinary People Responded to Religious Changes within Their Places of Worship from the Reformation to the Restoration

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According to one very influential modern view of the Reformation era, the heart was ripped out of English popular religion by the measures introduced under Edward VI (r. 1547-53) and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), when altars and images were destroyed and the Catholic mass was abolished. This is Eamon Duffy's argument in his famous book The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the findings of which have been broadly endorsed by Christopher Haigh and Ronald Hutton among others; in their view the Reformation was imposed from above on an unwilling people. Another group of historians, led by John Morrill, also claim that when some eighty years later altars were restored under Charles I (r. 1625-49) and Archbishop Laud (in office from 1633-45) the move was equally unpopular.

What is the explanation for this seeming contradiction? Was it simply that with the passage of time parishioners had been won over to the new Protestant forms of worship? Or do we require a more sophisticated model of religious change? Instead of Reformation imposed from above or in response to pressure from below, perhaps we should think about the authorities and parishioners actively collaborating either to push for change or to reverse it. Historians have increasingly focused on the laity in the parishes in this respect. But how do we best recover their varied experiences?

The late A.G. Dickens pioneered the study of wills and what they can tell us about the religious views of their makers, while other historians have investigated the literature produced for the more popular end of the market. But both these approaches run into difficulties.

The religious language of wills turns out to be full of ambiguity and not readily translatable into either Protestant or Catholic categories. As for cheap print, there are no easy answers as to who the consumers were or what the impact of it was upon them. A more promising approach is to investigate the alterations in parish churches and who was responsible for these. We can also illuminate the process of religious change by studying artefacts of material culture--communion tables, rails, chalices, stained glass and so on--which survive in some number and which most historians have been reluctant to incorporate into their document-centred accounts.

There is growing evidence of local initiatives during the early stages of the English Reformation. At least eighteen London parishes under Edward VI demolished their altars in advance of official instructions in 1550 and a similar pattern is revealed in eleven other English counties. This was the work of individuals variously described as brewers, butchers, cloth workers, cooks, and grocers. The fate of altars is a particularly sensitive indicator of religious attitudes, due to their association with the Catholic concept of the sacrifice of the mass. As the reformer Bishop John Hooper put it, 'as long as the altars remain, both the ignorant people and the evil-persuaded priests will dream always of sacrifice'.

Revolutions are not normally the work of majorities. Nevertheless they do require the active involvement of committed minorities. During the reign of Henry VIII, from the 1520s onwards, the ideas of continental reformers had begun to circulate in England. Initially these consisted mainly of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his followers, mediated most obviously via William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. Increasingly, however, Lutheranism was overtaken by the more radical doctrines emanating from Zurich and deriving especially from Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). A major difference between these two reforming camps was their attitudes towards images, the Zurichers unlike the Lutherans being thoroughgoing iconoclasts. As a consequence, in the minds of reformers Catholicism became synonymous above all with idolatry, not just on account of the alleged 'worship' of images but also because of the adoration of the bread and wine as consecrated by the priest. …


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