'Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England', by Eamon Duffy - Review

By Stanford, Peter | The Spectator, March 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England', by Eamon Duffy - Review


Stanford, Peter, The Spectator


The Reformation is such a huge, sprawling historical subject that it makes sense, in this the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther producing his 95 Theses, to break it up into bite-size pieces in order to sample its distinctive local flavours. Eamon Duffy, emeritus professor of Christian history at Cambridge, takes England as his territory, and quickly deprecates the very word Reformation as an 'unsatisfactory designation concealing a battery of value judgments'. Instead, he sets out to investigate what he characterises as largely a series of homegrown reformations and counter-reformations.

So far, so sensible, but the process of reduction is then taken a step further. Duffy's ability to shape his scholarship to a wide audience is well known, shown to dazzling effect in The Stripping of the Altars, his groundbreaking 1992 account of the rude good health of late medieval English Catholicism before Henry VIII's version of the Reformation. Here, however, he offers not a single narrative, but rather a series of 14 essays that range, apparently randomly, from Thomas More's publication of

Utopia in 1516 to George Fox's founding of the Quakers in the late 1640s.

Each is individually fascinating, but the whole requires some pretty big leaps of time and faith from his readers, who are not granted the standard epilogue to pull together the threads of essays that have been written and published over a span of four decades. Yet such is the energy, insight and sheer quality of his writing that Duffy pulls it off.

After Hilary Mantel has done so much in Wolf Hall in its various incarnations to create an authorised version of Thomas More as a sour, bigoted bogeyman, as keen on torture as any inquisitor, Duffy defends the 'man for all seasons', explains his motivations, and absolves him of many of his sins. The attractive playfulness of More's Utopia - a 'thought experiment', Duffy argues, as More vied with Erasmus of Rotterdam to be the man most likely to lead reform of Catholicism from within -- was exiled first and foremost by the advent of Luther.

The Protestant reformer's insistence that salvation and eternal life came by faith alone, and had no connection to the 'good works' done during an individual's time on earth, had in More's opinion made virtue irrelevant, and therefore threatened the breakdown of a moral society. The imperative to defeat the Lutheran heresy was for him all-consuming, causing 'the strange death of Erasmian England', and ultimately leading to More's own demise by beheading in 1535, when he was unable to countenance Henry VIII's force-of-necessity dalliance with Protestantism. …

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