Reformation Divided review: Those who went their own way

Historian Eamon Duffy’s emphasises the Catholic experience is this compelling study

Fr Anthony Howe sets up the Tudor plate and a collection of Tudor artefacts used to dress the altar for a service at the chapel at Hampton Court Palace in London. On February 9th, 2016, the chapel hosted the first Catholic service there in more than 450 years.  Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Fr Anthony Howe sets up the Tudor plate and a collection of Tudor artefacts used to dress the altar for a service at the chapel at Hampton Court Palace in London. On February 9th, 2016, the chapel hosted the first Catholic service there in more than 450 years. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Sat, Feb 25, 2017, 06:00


Book Title:
Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England


Eamon Duffy


Guideline Price:

For better or worse, many historians seem to believe, we are all Protestants now. A number of the books commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Reformation argue that the division of western Christendom contributed to, or perhaps even created, the cultures of modernity – the rise of individualism, democracy, secularism and science.

These accounts tend not to confirm older assumptions that the disruption of the medieval church was somehow inevitable. But they do suggest that, once begun, the Reformation did have inevitable results, and that these results have shaped western cultures in important ways.

Much of this scholarship puts Protestantism on the right side of history, and sees the process and consequences of early modern religious contest from the perspective of those who might be considered to be its winners. This important new book turns these assumptions on their head.

Eamon Duffy, born in Dundalk, Co Louth and now a professor of the history of Christianity in Cambridge, is one of the premier historians of the English Reformation. His earlier work, most famously The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1570 (1992) and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (2001), argued that English Catholicism during the Reformation was stronger and more popular than historians had often admitted.

Historians now generally accept his claim, and recognise that the forces of religious change had to work hard to convince the public of their arguments: there was no Protestant “year zero”. This observation is used to structure the content of Duffy’s new book, which, despite its title, is principally focused on Catholic experiences of religious change.

This distinctive focus allows Reformation Divided to offer an important rereading of the character and experience of reformation. Duffy stretches his account of religious change across a chronological period that ranges from the late 15th to the early 18th centuries, with occasional nods into the 19th, and around three sections that are dominated by studies of individuals and institutions. The shift of focus to English Protestantism occurs only in the final quarter.

Lived reality

Reformation Divided is not, therefore, a narrative account of the period comparable to recent offerings by Diarmaid MacCulloch or Carlos Eire, which are broader in geographical scope but less insightful into English Catholic responses to the social and religious challenge of protestant politics and ideas. Rather, Duffy moves away from textbook description of large social forces to explore the lived reality of religious renewal through the lives of individuals whose religious careers were both a consequence and cause of the disturbance of western Christianity.

His choice of subjects is, at times, what might be expected. Erasmus and Sir Thomas More were central figures in the early 16th-century defence of the Catholic Church, and they provide the focus for the first of the book’s three sections. Much of the first section consists of close readings of More’s publications. The middle section considers counter-Reformation England, with illuminating chapters on Cardinal Pole and William Allen alongside discussions of prayer, the dispute between Jesuits and Jansenists, and the depiction of the Reformation in English Catholic historical writing, taking the narrative into the 1850s.

The book’s rich centre reconstructs the intellectual and social networks out of which emerged the first English Catholic Bible translation, which, Duffy argues, was drilled into missionary seminarians and had significant influence on the more famous protestant translation sponsored by King James in 1611. The discussion of the Jansenist controversy traces an important fault-line in Catholic piety and politics into the eighteenth-century Jacobite court in exile. The results are fruitful and surprising.

These unexpected moves are developed in the book’s final section, which comprises four of its 14 chapters. Moving back into the mid-17th century, almost 150 years after the Reformation began, Duffy reflects on the careers and contributions of such Puritans as Richard Baxter and George Fox.

This arc is surprising, because the movement from Erasmus and More to Baxter and Fox represents a shift of focus from individuals who occupied a central place within English Catholicism to those who represented a marginal place in the world of English Protestantism. Baxter and Fox were representative neither of 17th-century Protestants in general, nor even of the Puritan movement out of which they emerged.

In this movement from the creation of Catholic orthodoxy to the deconstruction of Protestant orthodoxy, Duffy’s emphasis is less on what Protestant Reformation represented than what it contained, and his criteria for selection seems to reflect the individualist preferences of the present.

Inevitable consequences

This shift in focus, from the central to the marginal, allows Duffy to move away from widely held assumptions about the inevitable consequences of Protestant reform. If his later subjects were not typical of their own period, they do, in important ways, anticipate some widely held attitudes in the present.

Fox was a founder of the Quakers, an anti-clerical and iconoclastic movement whose enthusiastic participation in the mid-17th century revolution gave way to pacifism, quietism and an emphasis on the “light within”. Duffy’s decision to offer Fox as a conclusion to his account of the often violent character of religious change suggests means by which institutional religion might itself be redeemed.

Of course, readers of The Irish Times are already persuaded that historians should reconsider the links between Protestantism and modernity. In Ireland, as recent referenda results attest, Catholic social values endured until the sudden arrival of modernity, though it is arguable that the rapid social change of the last two or three decades has been precipitated less by unrelenting local pressure than by an internationalising media culture that is implicitly informed by the attitudes of “Protestant” or “modern” cultures elsewhere.

Still, these results emphasise that we are always choosing our religion: even in Ireland, where the Reformation failed, we are all Protestants now.

Crawford Gribben is a professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.