Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England

By Spellman, W. M. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England


Spellman, W. M., Anglican and Episcopal History


PETER MARSHALL. Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 316, introduction, bibliography, index. $74.00.

Recent studies of the English Reformation have moved beyond the political and administrative implications of the break with Rome to explore the transformation of popular belief and practice in the wake of a deep theological upheaval. And nowhere was the shift in theological perspective of greater importance, nowhere did it have greater implications for daily practice, than in popular beliefs about the dead. In this thoroughly researched and gracefully written study of changing thought and action over the century following the Henrican reforms, Peter Marshall details the gradual evisceration of a picture of the afterlife that for centuries had engaged the living in a web of meaningful relationships with their deceased forebears.

The dead occupied a central place in the theology and the liturgy of the medieval church. In chapter 1 the author discusses the multiple claims that the dead imposed on the living, how the living were, in effect, constantly in the service of the dead. The obligations included intercessory masses celebrated by specially designated priests, the maintenance of memorial chapels, the giving of alms, and the purchase and placement of church furnishings. At the core of medieval teaching about the afterlife was the idea of purgatory as a temporary abode for the majority of the deceased, and the strong belief in the efficacy of prayer for those undergoing purgation for sins committed. Although teaching about purgatory lacked any anchor in Scripture or other authoritative texts, it was widely believed that the departed were part of a larger continuum in the passage from life to one's eternal destiny at the day of judgement. Remembering departed loved ones, keeping them at the center of a disciplined prayer life, and supporting the fabric of the church as a memorial to those who were now paying for earthly sins of omission and commission placed the living in the pivotal role of shaping the quality of post-mortem existence.

In the second chapter Marshall discusses the special interest taken in the attacks on purgatory by Henry VIII's government. In particular, the Henrican assault on the monasteries, where masses for the dead and prayers for the dead were key services provided to the living, was legitimized partly as an effort to put an end to superstition. But it clearly served political purposes as well, with the crown realizing large profits from the subsequent sale of monastic land. And after Henry's death in 1547 the pace of the assault against institutions whose functions involved prayer for the dead intensified. The government of Edward VI introduced a bill into parliament that put an end to chantries, hospitals, and fraternities, together with lands and revenues devoted "to the finding or Maintenance of any anniversary or obit, or other like thing. …

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