Book of the month
Edward Beaumontwonders what Eamon Duffy, Rowan Williams, and Diarmaid MacCulloch might talk about over dinner.
SAINTS, SACRILEGE AND SEDITION
Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation
Bloomsbury, 256pp, hbk
978 1441181176, £20
It is a popular house party pastime to ask each guest who they would invite to their ideal dinner party; who would they want
to bring together, to listen to, to talk with or simply bask in the glory of their chosen hero. Having read this book I have decided that I should like to bring together Eamon Duffy, Rowan Williams and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Indeed this might not be a complete fantasy as they might all dine together at Magdalene College Cambridge when Archbishop Rowan moves to be Master there next year. One wonders what the conversation would be like, would blows be struck.
I cannot think that Professor Duffy has any truck with Professor MacCulloch’s assertion that because it is so conservative there is about to be a necessary schism in the Roman Catholic Church that will lead to a flourishing of liberal Christianity, nor to any assertion that at the Reformation England became a uniformly Protestant country. Archbishop Rowan would no doubt have to be referee in this intellectual bout and it waits to be seen on which side of the divide he might find himself.
But enough of my fantasy dinner party, back to this excellent new book. Well, not quite a new book. This is a collection of essays mainly published elsewhere and brought together for the first time (for which this reviewer is more than grateful, as I was not about to hunt down an essay on rood screen iconography, but the essay is a very informative and fascinating one). In 1992 Professor Duffy published his seminal work The Stripping of the Altars, arguing that the men and women of the sixteenth century did not really want to be reformed, they wished to remain catholic and did so in their practice and devotion. This book continues those themes and develops them in in different ways. Duffy and his school of reformation historians are if you like the revisionists, seeking to overturn the history of the Protestant victor that says that all Catholics in the Reformation were wicked and all the Protestants wonderful and good. History is of course far more complicated. Duffy’s essay entitled ‘Reformation unravelled: facts and fictions’ considers in an often amusing way the different ways in which the Catholic/Protestant divide is portrayed. For example in Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth Queen Mary is portrayed all in black and surrounded by sycophantic dwarves whilst Queen Elizabeth is light, young and virtuous. Hardly an unbiased interpretation of history! And yet it is this cultural
interpretation of Catholicism under whose shadow we live. Our English culture cannot help but have been influenced by the writing of men like Kingsley Amis whose novel The Alteration, however comic, displays just how Protestant England imagines Catholicism to be: ‘sexual repression... among the laity, sexual hypocrisy among the clergy’. An oversimplification perhaps, but you don’t have to look far to see such prejudice in some serious history. Professor A.G. Dickens in his history of the Reformation asked the question ‘what serious English Patriot can wish the Pilgrimage of Grace ... had succeeded?’ (Well, Professor Dickens: this one for starters!)
Duffypeelsbackthelayers andintrigues oftheReformation and offers some new insights. His essay on the spirituality of John Fisher offers an opportunity to delve further into the life of the martyr and should, I would suggest, be read as a postscript to Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ biography of Fisher. For those seeking a little Anglican Patrimony amongst the essays there is Duffy’s essay on Cardinal Pole and Archbishop Cranmer: both Archbishops of Canterbury and destined to weave in and out of each other’s lives; neither entirely innocent in the build-up to the Reformation and Henry VIII’s desperate desire for a divorce, but each destined to choose different courses. The Catholic view that Cranmer was a ‘concubinate priest, feebly subservient to brute tyranny, untruthful from the start, and unstable to the end’ has much to do with Pole’s interpretation of history and thus in their battle it seems that Pole would have the final and lasting word on Cranmer. Perhaps the divide can be healed with a new and deeper understanding of Cranmer through his liturgical texts and writing; only time will tell.
Duffy is not one for shying away from other revisionist ideas, for example his interesting view of Shakespeare’s England. It is not clear whether Shakespeare did hold to the old religion; indeed scholarship would suggest he did not. Duffy however asserts that he at least had sympathy for the old ways. There is longing beauty in the line from Sonnet 73: ‘Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. There is a deep sense of longing in much of Shakespeare’s writing; a longing for the beauty of the old ways and perhaps a desire to reclaim some of the wonder of a lost age. Indeed, a desire to recapture the wonder of Catholic England pervades all of these essays, and they offer a valuable insight into the Reformation and Reformation historiography. Even if an essay on rood screens might not be your thing, buy this book, sit out in the garden and read it; and as you do imagine a Catholic England and pray for her conversion.ND
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