That Old Time Religion

The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580

by Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press, 654 pp., $45.00

Perhaps it takes an Irishman to offer Englishmen (and others) a convincing picture of the religion of the ordinary lay people of England in the age before the Reformation. Over four hundred years following the Elizabethan settlement the established Anglican church developed traditions of worship and practice, focused around the Book of Common Prayer, which became the core of the religious observance and experience of English parishes, a way of church life which their people, at varying levels of individual religiosity, learned to accept as natural. For them, and for British historians born of their stock, the Anglican way became what Eamon Duffy calls their “traditional religion.” Medieval Roman Catholicism, the outwardly very different “tradition” in religion, with a thousand-year history behind it, became difficult to remember, and harder still to relate to sympathetically. The evocation of that older, pre-Reformation tradition and of what its observances meant to the laity of its time is the theme of the first part of Dr. Duffy’s deeply imaginative, movingly written, and splendidly illustrated study.

That first part of the book is presented thematically, under four main sections, devoted respectively to the liturgy and the learning of the laity, their experience of the Holy, their modes of prayer, and their attitude to the deathbed passage from this world to the next. Following the revisionist lead of such scholars as J. J. Scarisbrick and John Bossy, Duffy gives here a highly positive account of the dynamism of the practices, observance, and prayer life of the “old religion” up to the very eve of the Reformation. He firmly rejects the traditional Protestant picture of a laity whose confidence in a corrupt and ignorant clergy and its excessive sacerdotal claims was already by that time undermined.

The second part of his book is devoted to the quest for an answer to the question that becomes pressing if this positive account is accepted: How was it that the new ways, ushered in during the decades following Henry VIII’s political breach with Rome, came to be accepted so widely, and with so little protest? Here Duffy’s approach becomes predominantly a narrative one, as it has to do. There is no other way by which the tale of the bitter, politically and theologically driven, attack on time-honored rituals and on objects of beauty—rood screens, images, paintings, sculptures—can be told, or the progress of its success charted. The title of Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars, relates its two halves skillfully. The first thematic part explains why the stripping was such a mammoth task; the second how nevertheless it succeeded, and not just in its negative iconoclastic aim but in founding a new tradition that came in time to be loved as the old one had been. The story is a poignant one; it is a credit to the author’s historical integrity that he does not let that poignancy, which he clearly feels deeply, run away with his judgment.

In recent years, historians have laid much emphasis on the…

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