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The Stripping of the Altars : Traditional Religion in England ()

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Fifty BEST Books of the Century

[L]ate medieval 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 multiplication of vernacular religious books to adaptations within the national and regional cult of the saints, was showing itself well able to meet needs and new conditions. Nor does it seem to me that tendencies towards the "privatizing" of religion, or growing lay religious sophistication and literacy, or growing lay activism and power in gild and parish, had in them the drive towards Protestantism which some historians have discerned. That there was much in late medieval religion which was later developed within a reformed setting is obvious, but there was virtually nothing in the character of religion in late medieval England which could only or even best have been developed within Protestantism. The religion of Elizabethan England was of course full of continuities with and developments of what had gone before. Even after the iconoclastic hammers and scraping-tools of conviction Protestantism had done their worst, enough of the old imagery and old resonances remained in the churches in which the new religion was preached to complicate, even, in the eyes of some, to compromise, the new teachings. [...] Yet when all is said and done, the Reformation was a violent disruption, not the natural fulfillment, of most of what was vigorous in later medieval piety and religious practice.

That contention, if true, obviously raises a series of major problems for the historian of the Reformation. If medieval religion was decadent, unpopular, or exhausted, the success of the Reformation hardly requires explanation. If, on the contrary, it was vigorous, adaptable, widely understood, and popular, then we have much yet to discover about the processes and the pace of reform.
    -Stripping of the Altars
It is the very great achievement of Mr. Duffy here that, by reference to a vast array of primary sources, he pretty conclusively proves that late medieval Catholicism in Britain was indeed vibrant and vital and that it ultimately took actions from above--in the form of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I--to break it, that there was no particular pressure from below for the Church to Reform. Equally remarkable is that he succeeds in this task while avoiding the dryness that too often overwhelms authors who try to prove their case by relying on original sources. That he manages to keep the story moving even as he has us studying ancient wills is very impressive.

To a certain extent, the book can be read as a prolonged refutation of "the Whig interpretation of history". It would, I think, be hard after reading Mr. Duffy's work for anyone to argue that the English Reformation was inevitable nor that it was the sole means by which the cause of human freedom could progress. But I wonder if when he says that there "was virtually nothing in the character of religion in late medieval England which could only or even best have been developed within Protestantism" he's not missing the point. Perhaps the fact that protestantism, democracy, and capitalism--which we might profitably consider to be nothing more than the extension of freedom to the religious, political, and economic spheres--all found their unique fulfillment in Britain (and its colonies), should lead us in a somewhat different direction. Perhaps the Reformation truly had little to do with any spiritual or institutional sclerosis in the Catholic Church, but was more a function of a yet unexplained, and probably unexplainable, culture-wide impulse towards freedom.

After all, it can hardly be a coincidence that in the space of just a few centuries Britain produced an unparalleled series of milestones on the path toward modern liberal capitalist democracy, stretching from the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution, from the English Revolution to the American Revolution from Hobbes's Leviathan to Locke's Treatises on Government to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to the Federalist Papers. Some massive force was at work here, but why here and why only here seems beyond our ken. Likewise, it seems impossible for us to determine what came first, the protestantism or the democracy or the capitalism; impossible for us to unravel how they fed off of each other; impossible for us to know to what degree the various forms of destruction they left in their wake--of the Catholic Church; of the British monarchy and aristocracy; of agrarian society; etc.--were useful, maybe even necessary.

What Mr. Duffy's book can, and does, do is make us realize that the force that transformed medieval England into the British Empire and, most especially, into America, that is, into the freest nations yet created among men, was so powerful that it demolished not a dying and increasingly insignificant Catholic Church, but a healthy one, that was still important to the daily lives of the British people. This perspective allows us to put an end to the demonization and disrespect of Catholicism that has all too often been part and parcel of British history. At the same time it gives us a renewed sense of how remarkable was the transformation of Britain from its medieval iteration to its modern version (modern in this case being the state that existed in Britain after the Glorious Revolution and in the United States after the American Revolution). The Reformation in particular seems all the more worthy of our study when we realize that it may not have been merely an inevitable reaction to a corrupt Church but instead (maybe) a spontaneous movement, simultaneous (or nearly so) with similar movements that reformed politics and economics in equally radical ways.

Stripping of the Altars opens up all of these fascinating avenues of conjecture and more. It is original, authoritative and readable--a very rare trifecta. I can't recommend it highly enough.


Grade: (A)


Eamon Duffy Links:

    -Eamon Duffy (Wikipedia)
    -BOOK SITE: Marking the Hours (Yale University Press)
    -FACULTY PAGE: Professor Eamon Duffy (Professor of the History of Christianity, and Fellow and Director of Studies, Magdalene College)
-ESSAY: ‘The Stripping of the Altars’, 30 years on (Eamon Duffy, March 30, 2022, Catholic Herald)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: In the field of Reformation fiction, two masterpieces stand out (Eamon Duffy, May 22, 2020, Catholic Herald)
    -ESSAY: A Very Personal Possession (Eamon Duffy, November 2006, History Today)
    -ARCHIVES: Eamon Duffy (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures by Lancelot Andrewes ed. Peter McCullough (Eamon Duffy, London Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Acclaimed Cambridge professor brings England to Athens (Jason Robinaugh, Oct. 20, 2006, Speakeasy)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers by Eamon Duffy (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Christopher Howse, The Tablet)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Helen Castor, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Catholic Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Amy Wellborn)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Ruth Scurr, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (Donna Freitas, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Marking the Hours (First Post)

Book-related and General Links:

    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Saints and Sinners : A History of the Popes
    -ESSAY : Popular religion (Eamon Duffy, June 2000, Priests & People)
    -ESSAY : Confessions of a Cradle Catholic (Eamon Duffy, January 2000, Priests & People)
    -ESSAY : What About the Inquisition (Eamon Duffy, January 1999, Priests & People)
    -ESSAY: The popes: theory and fact (Eamon Duffy, April 1998, The Tablet)
    -ESSAY: Papal Authority (Eamon Duffy, August 1997, Priests & People)
    -ESSAY: True and false Madonnas (Eamon Duffy, June 1999, The Tablet)
    -ESSAY : What Fatima means (Eamon Duffy, The Tablet)
    -LECTURE : THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON THE EVE OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM (Dr.Eamon Duffy, Talk given on October 27th 1999 at Worth Abbey to the International Conference on Benedictine Education)
    -REVIEW : of Witness to Hope; The Biography of Pope John Paul II By George Weigel (Eamon Duffy, Commonweal)
-REVIEW : of Martin Luther : The Christian between God and Death by Richard Marius (Eamon Duffy, Commonweal)
-REVIEW : of Papal Sin by Garry Wills (Eamon Duffy, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW : of A Bishop's Tale : Mathias Hovius among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders by Craig E. Harline and Eddy Put (Eamon Duffy, Commonweal)
-INTERVIEW : CONFRONTING THE CHURCH'S PAST : An interview with Eamon Duffy (Raymond De Souza, Jan 14, 2000, Commonweal)
-INTERVIEW : with Eamon Duffy (Frontline : John Paul II, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : with Eamon Duffy : THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN ENGLAND: DISCOVERING A NEW IDENTITY ( Interviewers: Nathan Koblintz, Jack Harrison, Andrew Tyler, Identity Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Luther's Delight in History (Dr. Clive Gillis, THE ENGLISH CHURCHMAN, -ARTICLE: History of papacy a complex evolution of events (Frank Conway)
    -ARTICLE : Church leaders speak against 'wicked' war (ruth gledhill and phillip webster, September 05, 2002, Times of London),,2-404505,00.html
    Luther's Delight in History (Dr. Clive Gillis, THE ENGLISH CHURCHMAN)
    -ARCHIVES: Articles by Eamon Duffy (Priests & People)
    -ARCHIVES: Articles by Eamon Duffy (The Tablet)
    -ARCHIVES: "eamon duffy" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: Eamon Duffy (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy (James Philbin, Traditio)
    -REVIEW : of Stripping of the Altars (Carl Green, Oriens : Journal of The Ecclesia Dei Society)
    -REVIEW: of Eamon Duffy. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (C. John Sommerville, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Voices of Morebath (Roger B. Manning, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy (Ronald Burke, Cross Currents)
    -REVIEW: of Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Donald L. Gelpi, America)
    -REVIEW: of The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy (Daniel Johnson, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Voices of Morebath (Louis R. Tarsitano, Touchstone)
    -REVIEW: of The Voices of Morebath (Patrick Collinson, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Voices of Morebath (Rev. Michael P. Orsi, Homelitic and Pastoral Review) -AWARD : 1994 Longman's History Today prize : the best historical work published in Britain

    -Oriens : Journal of The Ecclesia Dei Society
    -ESSAY : BRITAIN 1600 : John Miller describes the state of the British kingdoms as James Stewart waits to become monarch of the entire archipelago (History Today)
    -ARCHIVES : "english reformation" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Reformation Europe Reformed : Andrew Pettegree re-reads Geoffrey Elton's classic text and considers how the subject has developed in nearly four decades since it was written (Andrew Pettegree, Dec, 1999, History Today)
    -REVIEW : of Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640 : Why did Calvinism prove to be so potent and disruptive both as a religious creed and as a political force in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century (Alexandra Walsham, History Today)
    -REVIEW : of England's Long Reformation, 1500-1800 edited by Nicholas Tyacke (Christopher Haigh, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Parish in English Life, 1400-1600, ed. Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat A. Kumin (Peter Marshall, English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of Andrew Pettegree's Marian Protestantism. Six Studies (Peter Marshall, English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of The English Reformation and the Laity: Gloucestershire, 1540-1580. By Caroline Litzenberger (John J. Larocca, The Historian)
    -REVIEW : of The Women of the Catholic Resistance in England, 1540-1680 by Roland Connelly (Beat Kumin, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of Tudor Church Militant by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Michael Daniel, AD 2000)
    -REVIEW : of Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir and The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s by R W Hoyle : Defenders of the faith : Diarmaid MacCulloch examines resistance to the 'Tudor Stalin' (July 21, 2001, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Catholics by Dennis Sewell : Just show me the way to go, Rome.. : With so many prominent co-religionists at the heart of the establishment, why have Catholics in Scotland and Northern Ireland had so few defenders? (Richard Ingrams, June 17, 2001, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: The Pillaging and Plundering of the English Monasteries (JOSEPH PEARCE, 3/31/22, Crisis)