A.G. Dickens and His Reformation. (Frontline)

By Haigh, Christopher | History Today, November 2001 | Go to article overview

A.G. Dickens and His Reformation. (Frontline)


Haigh, Christopher, History Today


GEOFF DICKENS WAS one of the dominating historians of Tudor England, from the 1960s until the 1980s. Dickens, G.R. Elton and J.E. Neale set the agenda and seemed to be giving most of the answers. Like Elton and Neale, Dickens wrote stylishly, had big ideas, and didn't take kindly to criticism or disagreement. Like them, his books appealed to an audience beyond the historical profession, and were widely used by students. Like them, he even managed to write about Europe. And like them -- well, like all of us -- his views and experiences marked his works heavily.

Dickens was born in 1910, and died on July 31st, 2001 at the age of ninety-one. He taught at Keble College, Oxford from 1933 until 1949 (except for war service that took him to Germany); at the University of Hull from 1949 until 1962; and at King's College London from 1962 until 1967 -- when he became director of the Institute of Historical Research, and an academic organiser and diplomat. "Although he kept on writing, his original work was over by 1964 -- but he continued to have a major impact.

Most of Dickens' primary research was on religion in Tudor Yorkshire. His early articles looked at the writings and collections of a south-Yorkshire curate, Robert Parkyn (whom Dickens dubbed `the last medieval Englishman'), and the growth of Catholic recusancy from the 1570s to 1604. It was clear that he didn't think much of traditional Catholicism. And then, in the court records of the diocese of York, Dickens discovered popular heresy -- ordinary Yorkshire people who were late Lollards and early Protestants. This new work led to Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York in 1959, and an important paper on `Heresy and the origins of English Protestantism' in 1962. Dickens had found men and women who disliked Catholicism before Luther told them to, and men and women who converted to Protestantism as soon as it was on offer. The Dickens Reformation was on its way.

It arrived in 1964. By any standards, The English Reformation was a remarkable book, and it had a remarkable effect. It was a textbook, clearly written and organised, and highly successful -- but it contained a lot of detailed research and embodied a significant reinterpretation of the Reformation in England. Dickens insisted that the Reformation had deep English roots (in Lollardy and anticlericalism), that it was authentically Protestant (with ideas adapted from Germany and Switzerland), and that it was popular -- people wanted it, and responded to it enthusiastically. To an arid history of statutes and prayer books, Dickens had added people and ideas -- a sailor learning Lutheranism in Germany, a boy beaten by his father for reading the Bible: Protestant people and Protestant ideas. The book was well-reviewed, and became a steady seller.

Lollards and Protestants and The English Reformation created a whole new approach to Reformation history, and sent a generation of graduate students scurrying into county record offices. Many were looking for heretics, and others were counting wills. Dickens had popularised the study of will preambles, the introductory formulae of testaments which could, he suggested, be identified as Catholic or Protestant and used to track the progress of religious change. Dickens' own use of preambles was restrained, but he had generated a statistical industry and a large-scale methodological controversy. He had also generated area studies of the Reformation, and soon there were enough of them to sustain a biennial Colloquium for Local Reformation Studies. The English Reformation had lots of academic chickens, but some of them came home to roost.

The English Reformation showed that Dickens could write for a non-academic audience, and make the history of religion interesting in an increasingly secular age. …

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