Was the Reformation inevitable?

I’ve been reading up on late medieval religion for a seminar I’m giving and for the first time read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England,1400-1580 (or at least some of it, since it’s a very long book). He is one of the key ‘revisionist’ historians of the English Reformation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get to grips with his arguments fairly, because it’s all written in such partial terms. Duffy is a Catholic who does not even attempt to avoid his own confessional bias. He is constantly writing in biased and polemical terms. (The Voices of Morebath , a later book by him is rather better in that respect). For example, in discussing laypeople who were enthusiastic Protestant he refers to ‘unlucky clergy, with enemies or proto-reformers in their parishes ready to denounce them’ (p 415), a ‘snake in the grass in this traditionalist Eden’ [parish in Barking] p 417 and comments on how:

sturdily conservative clergy might find themselves afflicted with radicals in the congregation. The Canterbury parish of All Saints Northgate had a nest of radical Protestants in it, in particular several generations of the Toftes family…Margaret Toftes the younger, a termagant who refused to creep to the cross on Good Friday and wanted to burn the church down round the “idols” within it’ (p 437)

Duffy has no sense of what might have motivated such radicals, claiming: ‘iconoclasm was the chief sacrament of the [Edwardian] reform’ (p 480) and for him there was ‘something…religiously sterile about Lollardy’ (p xxvii). He finds reasons to criticise even the use of the vernacular in the services:

At a more obvious level, the switch from Latin to English [in the prayerbook] immediately rendered obsolete the entire musical repertoire of cathedral, chapel, and parish church. Not the least of the shocks brought by the prayer-book at Whitsun 1549 must have been the silencing of all but a handful of choirs and the reduction of the liturgy on one of the great festivals of the year to a monotone dialogue between curate and clerk. (p 465)

The main argument of the book is that ‘traditional religion’ (late medieval Catholicism) was strong and still widely supported by the laity. The Reformation and its changes were brutally imposed by a ruling elite on an unhappy populace, whose symbolic and material world was thus destroyed. Duffy’s narrative of the Reformation starts with several chapters about the ‘assault on traditional religion’. Yet when he describes actions under Mary, the language suddenly alters. In place of the parish visitations under Edward (‘thorough, in many places aggressive’ (p 453)) and under Elizabeth (‘draconian’ (p 566), ‘the progress of the visitation [in 1559] would be marked out by the smoke of bonfires of images and books in market-places and church-greens throughout the land.’ (p 569)), we have English Bibles simply ‘collected up’ during Marian visitations (p 530). In particular, Duffy tries to minimise the significance of the large-scale campaign of burnings for heresy under Mary:

1557 was a year of burnings in Kent…a study of the restoration of traditional religion is not the place for a survey of the pursuit of heresy, and I shall not attempt to consider the burnings here. This is neither to minimize their horror nor to suggest that they were without importance in the long-term reaction against the Marian reconstruction. (p 559)

The unfortunate implications of Duffy’s comments is that for him, at some level, the burning of Protestants is less traumatic than that of images of saints. Similarly, in the Voices of Morebath he rightly condemns the brutal execution of one of the Catholic ringleaders of the Prayer Book revolt in 1549. Yet a few pages before he describes how one of the demands of the rebels was for the restoration of the practice of executing heretics, abolished under Edward VI. Killing people for their faith was still quite acceptable to sixteenth-century Catholics.

Beneath the polemic, it is very difficult to be sure exactly how popular or unpopular the Reformation was with ‘ordinary’ people. As Duffy reasonably points out, the use of wills to show evidence of Protestantism is very problematic. However, he then proceeds to generalise on equally weak evidence, looking at ‘a single conservative community’ and claiming:

the experience of Morebath almost certainly offers us a more accurate insight into what the locust years of Edward had meant to the average Englishman than the embryo godly communities which had begun to emerge in parts of Essex, Suffolk or Kent…In the majority of English villages, as in Morebath, men breathed easier for the accession of a Catholic queen.(p 503)

Duffy’s argument for the continuing overwhelming popularity of Catholicism in the 1540s and 1550s has two obvious problems. How was the Reformation able to proceed so far under Henry VIII and Edward VI and why did Mary feel the need to use such repressive measures in her reign? Both these suggest at least some strong popular support for Protestantism, even if only by a minority.

Because Duffy sees medieval Catholicism as still vital, he obviously cannot see the Reformation as inevitable, putting it down mainly to political manoeuvring. In the individual case of England it’s certainly possible to argue that there might have been no Reformation. England remaining Catholic is no more implausible than France remaining Catholic. In a European context, however, I’d say that the Reformation was not only inevitable, but necessary.

It seems to me that the success of the Reformation required the conjunction of three things: some popular demand for ‘pure’/’simple’ religion, intellectual criticism of Catholic theology and high-level political support against the Pope. Other attempts at reform suggest that all three things were necessary. The failure of Lollardy suggests that intellectuals with some popular support weren’t enough to sustain a religious movement against a hostile government; the Hussites had more political backing and got a bit further. Meanwhile, King Charles I’s problems with the Prayer Book in Scotland suggest that a government can’t easily simply impose a religion with no popular support. (Whether the intellectuals are necessary is a separate problem: I’d be interested in any examples or counter-examples of that).

How likely was it that these three different factors would coincide? Looking at the first area, this isn’t simply a Protestant point. Throughout the Middle Ages (and before and since) there were repeated movements which aimed for a simpler, purer Christianity, with a more direct relationship with God. Doctrinally, this could range from the Desert Fathers to the Franciscans to the Waldensians, and I suspect the same impulses could still be found in all denominations today. There is always a demand among some Christians for a less-institutionalised church, that isn’t corrupted by the world or making accommodations with it, that is poor and holy and as the apostles would have wanted it. The main change in the later Middle Ages was that cloistered monasticism was no longer the preferred place to achieve this wonderful place: the rise of the mendicant orders and the lay orders changed that.

The second thing needed for the reformation was an intellectual critique of the Catholic tradition. Again, once you had universities and scholasticism developing, it was pretty much inevitable that some thinkers would come to reject some Catholic doctrines. The third requirement for a reformation, secular rulers prepared to oppose the Pope, were a continuing problem for the papacy from the thirteenth century onwards.

Given these three factors in existence in the late Middle Ages, it was only a matter of time before they happened to coincide and thus lead to the violent doctrinal break-up of a Reformation. The only way to avoid this would have been for the Catholic church to reform itself sufficiently to prevent the split. And yet that is precisely what it repeatedly failed to do. The conciliar movement ended in disarray and papal corruption and abuses were never tackled. There could not have been a Counter-Reformation without a Reformation and not just in the literal sense.

The relationship of denominations to ‘traditional religion’ is also interesting. As Duffy himself points out, by the 1580s traditional religion was reforming itself around the Elizabethan prayer book (p 589). This suggests both the vitality of traditional religion (in the sense of a localised attachment to specific rituals, customs and beliefs and understandings of religion that aren’t strictly orthodox), but also its changing nature. Arguably, all religions are prone to this accretion of well-loved traditions, whether it is the social customs of Southern Baptists, the particular hymnbooks each Anglican church cherishes, or the different forms that Buddhism and Islam take in particular Asian cultures. Possibly Catholicism’s problem was not the strength of traditional religion, but its too eager embrace of it. Duffy describes the removal of one such custom by the reformers:

And just as the Injunctions [of 1538] condemned the recitation of the rosary, so they struck at the cult of the Virgin Mary by forbidding the ringing of the Ave bell or Angelus. In 1481 Edward IV’s queen Elizabeth Woodville, had consolidated an already established custom by securing a papal indulgence of a hundred days for all who, on hearing the Ave bell at morning, noon or evening, knelt and recited at least one Ave Maria. This charming custom was now condemned as having been “brought in and begun by the pretence of the Bishop of Rome’s pardon” and the bell was silenced.(p 408)

Duffy doesn’t seem to see the contradictions here. The ringing of the Ave bell may be a ‘charming custom’, as may the saying of an Ave when you hear it. But the granting of papal indulgences for that specific act is the arbitrary, mechanical form of religion that reformers (and Protestants like myself) still find so distasteful. This intertwining seems to have been basic to late medieval Catholicism. As Duffy puts it:

There is no easy resolution of this contradiction between devout interiority of devotion on the one hand and an apparently crudely mechanical view of the power of ‘good words’ on the other. Indeed…this paradox lies close to the heart of late medieval English religion. (p 256)

This left Catholicism intrinsically vulnerable to reformist criticism. In contrast, the Anglican attitude to traditional religion (permitting it, but not, on the whole, embracing it) leaves fewer opportunities for complaints about purity.

Given all these insoluble problems in the late medieval Catholic church, it seems to me that the Reformation was both inevitable and also necessary, for Catholicism as well as those unsatisfied with it.


One thought on “Was the Reformation inevitable?

  1. Yes, of course the Reformation was inevitable. But as a Catholic I must add that the shape the Reformation took was not.

    Rome did reform itself. Witness the clarifications of doctrine at Trent, the pruning back of devotions, the new zeal in the Religious Orders. Some of the reforms in practice that Geneva, Wittenburg, or Canterbury proposed were eventually adopted. On the other hand, there is no one standard for what is Protestant or Evangelical. If there were Puritans and Anglicans wouldn’t have come to blows.

    Rome now seems to be where many Protestant bodies used to be, while Anglicans, etc seem all confused


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