The Reformation and the Towns in England: Politics and Political Culture, c. 1540-1640

By Robert Tittler | Go to book overview

13
Oligarchic Rule and the Civic Memory

i

In most political systems, and especially those faced with the challenge of change, successful governments have understood the benefits of inculcating civic pride and deference amongst the citizenry by an appeal to their common heritage. This was as true for the Emperors of Rome facing the barbarian incursions as for Churchill's Wartime Cabinet facing the Third Reich or the government of Lyndon Johnson facing both war and domestic protest. As Sir Keith Thomas has reminded us, 'the most common reason for invoking the past was to legitimize the prevailing distribution of power'.1 For the pre-Reformation urban communities of provincial England, whose presiding townsmen could draw on few other contemporary devices even in normal times, this need had been fulfilled with considerable efficacy by the doctrines and institutions of traditional religion. While emphasizing a common fellowship in Christ as the foundation stone of a shared heritage, these doctrines and institutions also emphatically inculcated obedience, order, and deference.2

The first chapters of this study have suggested how both doctrines and institutions of the medieval urban community served these functions. One additional element of that traditional outlook had been the accretion of a collective memory for the local community. The concept of collective memory is of course well established by studies in a number of disciplines, and it has a variety of applications to European communities of this era.3 But its connection with the practice of medieval Catholicism proved a particularly powerful force.

____________________
1
Keith Thomas, "The Perception of the Past in Early Modern England", Creighton Lecture, London University ( 1983), 2-4.
2
See Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, esp. chap. 4.
3
See e.g. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, English translation ( Chicago, 1992); Nora, 'Between Memory and History', 7-25; and Daniel Woolf,

-270-

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