Monday, 15 August 2016

A new look at the Reformation

The following are excerpts from reviews of books which, as noted earlier, appeared in 2007 in the periodical LITURGY CANADA, offering a variety of insights into beauty, doxology, and themes relating to the glory and worship of God. 



Aidan Nichols OP
Since Aidan Nichol’s The Panther and the Hind (T. and T. Clark, 1993) there has been an ongoing assessment of English theology and liturgical culture in light of new interpretations of the pre-Reformation and Reformation period in Britain, which includes the best-selling historiography of Eamon Duffy.




Prof Eamon Duffy
Voices are heard after 400 years of silence as Duffy  writes the compelling story of how life shifted from the centrality of liturgy in the parish church to the increasing demands of the state.

. . . The work of Eamon Duffy runs contrary to received British opinion about the causes of, and popular support for, the reforms and iconoclasms of the Reformation period and the subsequent influence upon liturgical principles and practices up to the present time.

Duffy has documented the way the late Medieval Church, on the eve of the Reformation, satisfied the spiritual needs of English men and women providing a coherent and widely popular liturgical life based upon both the ecclesiastical  calendar and the natural seasons. 

A Cambridge historian, Eamon Duffy and his Oxford counterpart Christopher Haigh have uncovered some fascinating material which builds on the work of J. J. Scarisbrick of Warwick.

Their studies show that the Protestant aspect of the English Reformation, the dismantling of the traditional Liturgy and its attendant devotions, as well as church art and furnishings, became more difficult to dismiss as politically motivated or otherwise unrepresentative of popular opinion at the time. 

They have mined evidence from wills, churchwardens’ accounts, devotional manuals, and commonplace books in the local archives, which Duffy has documented in his best-selling The Stripping of the Altars: 

"It is the contention of the book that late mediaeval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation. Traditional religion had about it no particular marks of exhaustion or decay, and indeed in a whole host of ways, from the multi- plication of vernacular religious books to adaptations within the national and regional cult of the saints was showing itself well able to meet new needs and conditions" (p. 6). 



The Voices of Morebath:
Reformation and Rebellion in the English Village
Eamon Duffy
(Yale University Press, 2003)

In The Voices of Morebath Duffy has reconstructed the workings of a tiny community in England and its collective religious life in the years immediately before the Reformation.  He then gives an arresting account of the way in which that life was systematically destroyed by a minority of powerful people with an agenda forged on the continent and imported to traditional English towns and villages. 

Duffy is more than a sympathetic chronicler, he is a first-rate research historian who has challenged the establishment view of pre-Reformation Britain with meticulous chronicling of the evidence of every-day people, which accounts for this best-seller, something uncommon in the world of history.


In the 50 years from 1530 to 1580, England was transformed from one of the most lavishly Catholic countries in Europe into a nation of white-washed church buildings where the art of 1000 years had been largely destroyed or sold. Duffy’s account of the village of Morebath, a re- mote sheep farming village of 33 families, is based on the parish records of the only priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, and the churchwardens of the local parish.


The book gives a unique insight into pre-Reformation piety and liturgy as well as the motives which drove the law-abiding folk of the West Country to initiate the 1549 rebellion against the imposition of The Book of Common Prayer and the subsequent persecution and judicial murder of many. 

Voices are heard after 400 years of silence as Duffy writes the compelling story of how life shifted from the centrality of parish liturgy to the increasing demands of the state, taxes, the raising of an army and the secularization of society under the imposed and resented Protestant regime. In Duffy’s words, the state “inexorably dismantled the structures of Morebath’s corporate life, and pillaged its assets.”

This book is a challenge to anyone who would uproot the long-held customs of a community and is also a close reading of the actual reaction of people reacting to the uprooting of their faith and traditions. 



Marking the Hours: English
People and Their Prayers
A medieval Book of Hours
Eamon Duffy
(Yale University Press, 2006)

Marking the Hours reveals more closely researched material from the period. By an examination of what was previously largely ignored marginalia, emendations, additions, and deletions to copies of the Books of Hours, inscribed and printed between the early 13th century and late 16th century, Duffy replies to historians whose theories hold that the Reformation in England was a popular movement. Duffy presents his case methodically, and gives a lucid and highly readable account which has made his work popular with the general public in the UK.

For those interested in the influence of Catholicism in Reformation and Post-Ref- ormation England these books need to be read. Marking the Hours is an original contribution to the emerging counter-thesis to generally held opinions about the Reformation and to a better understanding of the period in its generality.


Marking the Hours contains splendid reproductions of pages from the Books of Hours, both expensive and hand-written and low-budget popular imports; all are pertinent to the text and add to the enjoyment of the work. In this richly illustrated book, Eamon Duffy discusses the Book of Hours, the most intimate and widely used book of the later Middle Ages. He examines surviving copies of these personal prayer books in which people often left traces of their lives in manuscript prayers, biographical jottings, personal messages, and pious comments in the margins. From these clumsy jottings, long viewed as blemishes or even examples of vandalism, Duffy discovers clues and insights into the minds and lives of the Medieval users of these devotionals.

His analysis has a special relevance for the history of women, since women feature prominently among the owners and users of Medieval Books of Hours.


Marking the Hours is an excellent companion to Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath.

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