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A Vanished World

As one of the great determining events of English history, the Protestant Reformation has never ceased to be the subject of passionate controversy. In his Acts and Monuments (better known as the Book of Martyrs), the sixteenth-century Protestant John Foxe portrayed the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and chantries, and the dismantling of Catholic worship as the triumph of godliness over anti-Christian corruption; it was a return to the simplicities of the early Church, whose traditions had been revived in the later Middle Ages by John Wycliffe and other proto-Protestants; persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Church, they triumphed, when godly monarchs rallied to their cause.

The alternative view was set out by Foxe’s contemporary, the exiled Catholic priest Nicholas Sander, whose Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism was posthumously published in 1585. Sander attributed the break with Rome to the desire of the tyrannical, lustful, and sacrilegious King Henry VIII for a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, which would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn, who, so Sander claimed, was really the King’s daughter by one of his mistresses. The Reformation which followed was motivated not by godliness, but by greed for Church lands and goods.

Those initial exchanges set the pattern for later debate. In the ensuing centuries, Protestants argued that the Reformation was a popular response to the corruptions of the Church of Rome, whereas Catholics condemned it as an act of state, imposed by selfish rulers upon an unwilling populace.

By the twentieth century, with the growth of academic history, standards of argument had become intellectually more demanding. If religious polemic was to convince, it had to meet the requirements of modern scholarship, supposedly impartial and value-free. But behind the footnotes and learned apparatus, the old attachments were still there. The study of the Middle Ages has always attracted Roman Catholics, just as Anglicans have been drawn to the history of the Church of England, Nonconformists to the study of Puritanism, Quakers to the annals of Quakerism, and atheists to the history of the Enlightenment. A modern Catholic is bound to feel resentment when visiting a medieval church originally designed for Catholic worship but now occupied by Protestants whose Tudor forebears tore down the rood screen, smashed the stained-glass windows, whitewashed the wall paintings, and defaced the statues of saints.

It is not surprising that those schol-ars who have portrayed the Reformation as a state imposition upon a reluctant people have tended to be Cath-olics, like the abbot and future cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet, who claimed in The Eve of the Reformation (1900) that “up to the very eve of the changes, the old religion had not lost its hold upon the minds and affections of the people at large”; or the histo-rian J.J. Scarisbrick, who asserted in The Reformation and the English People (1984) that “on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came.”

Conversely, those who have emphasized the spontaneous growth of Lollardy and Lutheranism have, unsurprisingly, tended to be Protestants, like E.G. Rupp, author of Studies in the Making of the English Protestant Tradition (1947), A.G. Dickens, whose pioneering study Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, 1509–1558 (1959) was followed by his masterly synthesis, The English Reformation (1964), and Diarmaid MacCulloch, who has recently published fine books on Thomas Cranmer (1996) and the Reformation under Edward VI (1999). Christopher Haigh, whose influential English Reformations (1993) embodies a view of pre-Reformation England not all that different from that of Cardinal Casquet, is unusual among defenders of late medieval religion in professing what he calls “a kind of Anglican agnosticism.”

Just as Haigh’s book was going through the press, there appeared a new and impressive contribution to the long-running controversy. This was The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (1992) by the Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy. If this was Catholic apologetics, as some claimed, then it was apologetics at an unprecedentedly high level. Duffy painted an eloquent and moving picture of late medieval parochial religion, vividly evoking its ritual symbolism and visual imagery. He drew on a vast range of sources, from wills, sermons, and churchwardens’ accounts to poems, mystery plays, wall paintings, and stained glass; and he made especially effective use of the evidence provided by the surviving fabric, sculpture, and decoration of East Anglian churches. His argument was that the English Reformation violently disrupted a religious life notable for its “vigour, richness, and creativity.” This message was enthusiastically received by “revisionist” historians of the Reformation, who, like Christopher Haigh, had already been arguing along these lines; it also appealed to aesthetes and art historians horrified by the spoliation and vandalism which accompanied the fall of the medieval Church.

Others were skeptical. Duffy’s account of parish religion was an idealized one. Underplaying local, temporal, and social differences, it portrayed late medieval Catholicism as rural, timeless, and consensual.1 It ignored the role of the state in persecuting heretics and defining orthodoxy. It said very little about contemporary heretics, like the Lollards, and it never paused to ask why many former monks and friars should have become convinced Protestants. Lutheranism was mentioned only once. The Stripping of the Altars was a flawed masterpiece, rich in imaginative sympathy for some forms of religion, but tone-deaf to others. It also had a polemical purpose, for as Duffy later explained, “If the Church of England was established against the will of the majority of the English people, its historic claim to be the Church of the nation does seem to be less securely founded.”2

Now Duffy is back again with what he calls “a pendant” to his earlier book. It is a study of the effects of the Reformation upon the tiny village of Morebath, in North Devon, on the southern edge of Exmoor, a sheep-farming community with a hundred and fifty inhabitants, and a little church with a saddle-backed tower.3 This is a topic which he first broached in The Stripping of the Altars and subsequently developed in a longer essay.4 His decision to make a book of it is amply justified.

Duffy’s primary source is a remarkable set of parish accounts, maintained by the man who was vicar of Morebath from 1520 to 1574, Christopher Trychay. A Devonshire man, he never went to university, but he was numerate and knew Latin. Hundreds of English churchwardens’ accounts survive for the Reformation period, but the Morebath accounts are special, offering what Duffy calls “fifty years of uniquely expansive and garrulous commentary.” Published in 1904 by J. Erskine Binney, a former vicar of Morebath himself, they are well known to students of the period.5 But Duffy has gone back to the manuscript in the Devon Record Office and has made some new discoveries.

To understand the Morebath accounts, it is necessary to appreciate the distinctive structure of the village’s devotional life. This revolved around the large number of images in the parish church: one of the church’s patron, Saint George; one of Jesus; two of the Virgin Mary; and one each of Saint Anthony (healer of men and farm animals), Saint Sunday (a sabbatarian emblem), Saint Loy (patron of smiths and carters), Saint Anne (a barren woman, miraculously made fecund), and Saint Sidwell (an Exeter saint introduced by Trychay). Burning before most of these images were “lights”: candles, tapers, or lamps, each maintained by a separate “store,” or fund, raised from the sale of wool from designated flocks of sheep, from the proceeds of “ales” or entertainments, and from gifts and bequests.

These stores were administered by wardens, usually two, elected annually. The stores for the images of Jesus and Saint Sidwell, and for the Alms Light burning before the rood (or High Cross), were managed by the churchwardens, or High Wardens, as they were called. Saint Anthony’s store included pigs as well as sheep. Unmarried girls formed the Maiden store, which collected money for the lights before the Virgin, the High Cross, and Saint Sidwell. The Young Men’s store, which involved all bachelors of communicant age, raised funds to support the taper before Saint George and two lights before the High Cross. The light before the principal image of the Virgin was maintained by the store of Our Lady, whose income came from the wool from a small flock of sheep which was boarded out with individual parishioners during the year. The central funds of the parish, including the church plate, the stock, and the contents of the church house, were managed by the High Wardens, whose annual “ale,” at which people paid to drink, was the most important fund-raising event of the year. Behind them was a group of the “Four Men” or “Five Men,” senior parishioners who acted as bankers for the surpluses of all the church stores and recouped their outlay by levies on the parish.

The accounts of each store were presented by its wardens to the parish at an annual audit and copied by the vicar into his book. The Morebath “churchwardens’ accounts” are thus a compilation, recording the fortunes of all the different parochial funds or “stores.” Trychay used them as an aide-mĂŠmoire for oral presentation to the parish and as an archive for posterity. Interspersed with snatches of Latin and idiosyncratic spellings reflecting the vicar’s broad Devonshire accent, they are, at first glance, a distinctly rebarbative source. Yet out of them Duffy has, painstakingly and imaginatively, reconstructed the workings of this tiny community. He offers a marvelously elegiac portrait of the village’s collective religious life in the last decade before the Reformation, followed by a vivid narrative of the way in which that collective life was suddenly destroyed.

A key feature of early Tudor Morebath was the wide distribution of responsibilities. Parishioners were expected to be willing to hold office in the stores and to look after a sheep during the year. They were each assigned so many feet of the churchyard hedge to maintain; and they paid levies for the upkeep of bridges and other local amenities. Sometimes these obligations became a matter of bitter dispute: in the 1530s, there was a tremendous row because some villagers refused to contribute to the wages of the parish clerk, whose job it was to assist the priest in the liturgy and carry holy water around the parish. The recalcitrance of a few could paralyze decision-making, for the parish was governed by consensus, not a numerical majority.

As Duffy emphasizes, these ar-rangements reflected “a highly self-conscious community life, in which shared decision-making and accountability were dominant characteristics.” In any one year, twelve parishioners held parish offices, in addition to the Five Men; this in a village of only thirty-three households. The administration of the stores gave scope for a good deal of initiative, by young people as well as old, while the ales, “gatherings,” and other fund-raising events made for a full and demanding social life.

  1. 1

    See David Aers, “Altars of Power: Reflections on Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars,” in Literature and History (third series), Vol. 3, No. 2 (1994).

  2. 2

    Eamon Duffy, “The Reformation Revisited,” in The Tablet, Vol. 4 (March 1995), p. 280.

  3. 3

    In the late 1870s the church was restored by the prominent architect William Butterfield; Duffy remarks that “it is not clear how much the curious saddle-backed top to the tower owes to this restoration.” A few months ago, a friend of mine purchased a watercolor by the Indian administrator and amateur artist Sir James Peile (1833–1906). Entitled Morebath Twilight and dated 1868, it shows the church without the saddle-backed tower, thus confirming that it is indeed Butterfield’s addition.

  4. 4

    Morebath 1520–1570: A Rural Parish in the Reformation” (1995), in Religion and Rebellion, edited by Judith Devlin and Ronan Fanning (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1997), pp. 17–39.

  5. 5

    They are extensively used, for example, by Robert Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 1989), a valuable study of South West England.

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