Friday, February 3, 2017

The Stripping of the Altars

Eamon Duffy.  The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

In contrast to the traditionally triumphal narrative of the Protestant Reformation, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars presents a picture of a turbulent process of change imposed on the laity from above by radical members of the clergy.  Beyond the obvious question of what this interpretation means for our understanding of the Reformation and post-Reformation England, his argument raises important issues for the practice of history: emplotment, sources, and the need to periodically challenging received interpretations of the past.

Duffy argues that contrary to the traditional understanding of the Medieval Catholic Church as a hollow, corrupt, and despised institution, it was strong and culturally imaginative.  Rather than being alienated from the Church, the laity was involved and loyal to their local parishes, and the institution as a whole.  While they did not have access to Scripture in the vernacular, the laity was very involved in the services and social life of their parishes.  Because of this, Duffy contends that rather than a bottom-up movement to reclaim and reform the Faith; the Reformation in England was imposed on the laity from above by a combination of Henry VIII’s anti-papalism and the pro-Reformation ideology of Cromwell and Cranmer.  Despite Henry’s belated efforts to defend traditional liturgy and usages during his reign, the young Edward VI was not old enough at his ascension to the throne to resist the radical doctrines promoted by Cranmer, leading to a disruptive Reform agenda engulfing the Church of England.

The difference between Duffy’s interpretation of the Reformation in England and the traditional narrative of the Reformation might be one of emplotment.  The traditional narrative tells the tail of the triumph of Protestantism over the corrupt and despotic Catholic Church, and supports the social and religious power structures of England and the United States.  This interpretation is part of the culture of both nations, so emplotting the history of the Reformation in this fashion may serve to preserve a sense of national identity as justification of various foreign and domestic policy decisions in the same way that Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis supports the national myth of American westward movement.  By confronting this emplotment, Duffy forces Historians to re-assess their assumptions about how and why the Reformation was successful in Great Britain, as well as the origins of political institutions that politicians arise from Protestantism.

When it comes to practicing history, The Stripping of the Altars serves as a reminder that Historians need to periodically revisit long-held assumptions about the past.  For my research, this means re-examining both the traditional and revisionist interpretations of the Vietnam War, as well as explanations of why atrocities occurred during the conflict.  The danger lays in internalizing a single point of view rather than examining evidence for what it actually contains.  This seems an impossible to reach Rankean ideal.  For Duffy, striving for this ideal requires close textual examination of English catechisms, prayer books, verse, and learning aids.

In addition to the issue of emplotment, sources are a critical component of this endeavor.  The choice of sources may radically influence any historical analysis.  Duffy rejects the traditional sources of the English Reformation to focus on those that deal more directly with the laity – personal journals and prayer books, educational tracts aimed at the laity, and responses to imposed changes to the social and religious calendars.  This provides an exemplar for the need to move beyond government commissions and academic or theological works, to examine items of popular culture, personal documents, and records of responses to the actions of government.  This lesson is part and parcel of the historians’ craft in the modern age – it is no longer possible to focus solely on the pronouncements of the mighty to inch toward great truths about the past.  Historians now need to engage the thoughts and concerns of the “common” man.

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