Europe's sixteenth century was an age of faith. Religion could be found everywhere, not only in churches and liturgies but in financial transactions, legal proceedings and scientific treatises. Spirituality structured the intimacy of family life no less than the conduct of foreign wars. Even time was reckoned according to sacred rhythms: so many hours to matins, so many weeks to Michaelmas, so many years since the incarnation of Christ. So pervasive was religion, in fact, that the great revolution of the early modern world was not a conflict over political philosophy or economic resources but rather a dispute over the path to Christian salvation. By destabilising traditional religion, the Protestant Reformation sent violent shock waves through even the most seemingly stable communities and institutions. As old certainties were questioned, old loyalties tested and old practices undermined, the Reformation seemed to dissolve the glue that held together the familiar coherence of the social world.
Yet if the centrality of religion for sixteenth-century experience underscores the importance of the Reformation, it also makes the Reformation very difficult to explain. For how could radically divisive ideologies have developed so swiftly within an intellectual framework so fundamental to contemporary society? Why would a revolution have been accepted or embraced by a population so heavily invested in the very belief system that the revolutionaries sought to disturb? These questions have been pondered for centuries, and they constitute the highest peaks that a Reformation historian might hope to climb; given their inherent complexity, it is unlikely that any scholar could scale them in a lifetime. This book suggests, however, that one possible approach to these peaks – from a base-camp, as it were, within the comparatively manageable subfield of Tudor England – might be to turn the questions themselves inside out and approach the issue of religious change indirectly. For, if religion permeated every aspect of sixteenth-century experience, that implies that religion itself was not a rigid or self-contained sphere but rather was structured through its interactions with the culture in which it was imbedded. Paradoxically, then, the very pervasiveness of religion in