Religion and Religious Change – Historiography and Primary Sources

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Religion and Religious Change – Historiography and Primary Sources.

So, in the session today, we’re going to take a step back from the narrative of change ongoing in the 16th century, and focus more closely on 2 issues, with a view to your long essays and exams. Firstly, historiographical trends - knowing where the work or arguments of a particular historian fit into to wider picture of the historiography of the English Reformation, which is itself quite a well populated, perhaps, even crowded field of study. Secondly, the related question of how scholars might be reaching their conclusions, from the evidence that’s available. I’m going to make a few suggestions about primary sources that you will probably have already come across i your reading, and which you might find useful for your long essays.

1). Historiography.
In the words of Patrick Collinson, a very distinguished scholar of the later Reformation in England, ‘The English Reformation was…the greatest of all disjunctions in the history of a nation which has lived by a virtuous myth of continuity’.1 It’s clear from the huge amount of scholarship on the topic that this has been, and continues to be seen as a crucial issue in understanding the history of England and its near neighbours; but from the reading that you’ve done so far you’ve hopefully also seen for yourself that there is a considerable range of debate about its exact significance. Even in the 16th century, the history of the Reformation, or of religious change in England, was already being written. History became a crucial weapon in the struggle against rival confessions. Retelling the deeds of the heroic founders of one’s church was one way to advance its claims to religious truth and to refute those of the church’s enemies. In some of the lectures so far for instance, I’ve talked about the historian, martyrologist and polemicist John Foxe. His work, the Actes and Monuments, also known as The Book of Martyrs was created whilst he was in exile on the continent in the reign of Mary, although it did not appear in print in England until the reign of Elizabeth. Foxe’s work was to be highly influential – it set the tone for subsequent Protestant histories of the English Reformation, relaying the sufferings of evangelicals under Catholic tyrants, but also heralding the permanent establishment of Protestantism in England under Elizabeth as the realisation of God’s plan for England. Foxe’s history is in some ways invaluable – amongst other things for instance, his work includes transcripts or reports of documents which no longer survive and which we would otherwise have no knowledge. On the other hand, however, it is clearly a partisan history. From the later sixteenth century, as Foxe was to exert great influence over other Protestant approaches to the Reformation there were also Catholic repudiations of his work, offering a contrary narrative, about the persecuting force of the Protestant regimes for example, and asserting the rightness of the Catholic cause. And this polarity of historical interpretation was by no means limited to the work of contemporaries or near contemporaries in the 16th century itself. As you know, there are strains of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ interpretations of religious change in England, presenting some explicitly partisan history. The aim was to reveal God’s care for his church – that is, the true church - and the protection he offered it against its enemies; it also aimed to praise the strength and constancy of the faithful in the face of persecution. This is kind of ‘confessional’ history can’t win any points for attempts at objectivity. The accounts that followed this schema were also often written by practicing members of the church in question, usually men, who had vested interests in justifying or promoting a particular denomination. They tended to promote and perpetuate ‘confessional’ divides between the churches, at least on an intellectual and ideological level.
The past 50 years or so, however, have seen some significant shifts away from this, even if the question of the personal sympathies of the historians is one that is often still raised. There has been a shift from ecclesiastical history towards a more encompassing ‘religious history’; and a move away from narrowly confessional studies towards an engagement with wider concerns. So it might be thought of as ‘religious’ history rather than confessional history.

So what about patterns or trends in the historiography of the last 50 years or so? Well, there are a number of different organizing approaches that might help us look at this. I’m going to adapt one suggested by Christopher Haigh a few years ago. He reminded us the Reformation happened from below, as well as from above – by populace as well as by authorities. We can add to this the question of the speed of religious change – did it come about quickly or slowly?

The combination of where the change came from, and how quickly it came about, presents us with 4 different positions, which I want to highlight in turn.
Firstly, studying the Reformation as a ‘top down’ process. This looks at the Reformation as a series of legislative, theological and institutional changes spearheaded by those in power, and imposed on the populace. Within this, there are two different approaches- considering the Reformation as something imposed quickly or slowly, from above.
a). Quick from above.

Some 30 years ago, Geoffrey Elton created a persuasive picture of speedy religious transformation. He claimed that an increasingly centralised and powerful government implemented decisive and dramatic changes. Through a series of reforms, England was transformed into a Protestant country even before the reign of Elizabeth. Elton’s books on the English Reformation remained central to scholarship for a long time – hopefully you will have looked at some of these for yourself. For him, a quick Reformation from above was part of his wider argument about the significance of the Tudor dynasty in dramatically altering the government and political society of England. Elton argued for a ‘Tudor Revolution in government’ (the title of his 1962 work was Tudor revolution in government: administrative changes in the reign of Henry VIII). To accompany this he discerned a revolution in the ecclesiastical status and religious orientation of the nation. In his narrative, the English Reformation was a series of political, theological and institutional transformations, and the agents of this change were those engaged in central government. Elton’s ‘quick from above’ school argues that the learned and powerful realised decisive and ground-breaking change in a short space of time.

b). Slow from above.

Elton’s work on the Tudor period remained a classic thesis, but it has not been unchallenged. Other historians have questioned just how decisive some of the government’s reforms may have been, and have argued that 16th century government was a more complicated process, with ad-hoc measures being more likely than long-term visions. A similar questioning has been applied to the issue of religious change, and a model of slow change from above has gained ground in historiography. Historians like Patrick Collinson and Christopher Haigh do not deny the potential significance of the legislative changes, but they argue that the practical implementation of these changes was much slower. Even in Elizabeth’s reign, for instance, it took time for changes to be realised at a local level, and they were often adapted to meet local conditions. For instance, Patrick Collinson, whose work focuses mainly on Elizabeth’s reign and beyond has shown how the establishment of the regime depended to some extent on a new understanding of the role and responsibilities of the clergy. An educated and preaching clergy was fundamental to a Protestant church. But for several decades, secular and ecclesiastical authorities struggled to produce large enough numbers of sufficiently trained clergy to fill parish livings. Protestant evangelisation was thus often slow and difficult. Haigh also argues that the official ideals of the church were not always realised in the ways those at the centre might have expected. At a national and a local level, the Church of England as an institution, and the secular government who promoted or supported it, did not enact far-reaching change quickly. In contrast to Elton, then, who sees the Reformation being accomplished rapidly, Haigh and Collinson both tend to view the late 16th and early 17th century as a time when the Reformation was still in the making. Imposing a longer timespan on the Reformation has led some to coin the term ‘the Long Reformation’ to denote a series of religious changes stretching up to and including the Civil Wars in the mid-seventeenth century.

2. The Reformation ‘from below’.

The second of the two streams of historiographical interpretations has been labelled the ‘from below’ school. Scholars we might place in this group would argue that the English Reformation should be measured not by government initiative but by the activity of the populace and the extent to which they embraced Protestant ideas. As you might guess, this leads to some rather different assessments of religious change.

a). Let’s start with the ‘quick from below’ approach. The most well known proponent of the so-called ‘quick from below’ thesis was A. G. Dickens. Working from the late 1950s onwards, Dickens was one of the first scholars to assess religious change in England through a ‘social’ study of the localities, and in this sense his work offered a new approach to the topic. From his research on the archdiocese of York, he argued that the populace embraced Protestant ideas rapidly, and, in some cases, they did so more quickly than the local, regional or central authorities. He asserted that amongst the population at large, there was widespread dissatisfaction with a corrupt medieval church. As we’ve seen, Dickens actually discerned a link between the remnants of the Lollards, a late-medieval movement of religious dissent, and sixteenth-century Protestantism. In his view, Protestant ideas spread rapidly and could be taken up enthusiastically, thanks to these conditions – a widespread dissatisfaction with the church and an existing, native tradition of dissent. Dickens’ sense of the rapidity with which Protestant ideas were embraced can be seen one of his important works, published in 1959. He ended his book on York at 1558, implying that the Reformation had been achieved before the establishment of Elizabeth’s Protestant regime. He argued that Protestantism was not a set of ideas that had come from abroad, but was a homegrown product, and that Protestantism was well established by the accession of Elizabeth.

c). Slow from below.

Whilst recognising the validity of approaching the subject from a local angle, subsequent historians have often critiqued the way in which he read his sources, and the conclusions he drew. In one sense taking up Dickens’ call for a more ‘social’ approach, but they nonetheless challenge his claims about the speed of change. Those who adopt a ‘slow from below’ approach argue that religious change in the localities was protracted and complicated. A range of written and material evidence can, for instance, support the view that the people were not thoroughly dissatisfied with the pre-Reformation church. Rather, evidence suggests that religion as it was lived and experienced by the people still had a good deal of life in it. The most persuasive and influential work promoting this interpretation is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992). Duffy argues that the laity were continuing to take part in traditional rituals. Traditional religion, in all its varieties, he says, was something with which people were enthusiastically engaged. Because traditional religion was in a position of strength, then, Protestant initiatives were not always enthusiastically embraced and the authorities struggled to ‘convert’ the people to newer forms of worship. Duffy does not deny that the official removal of traditional images and objects from the churches had a profound impact. Rather, he suggests that they could be removed in a protracted, reluctant way, and that many turned their attention to retaining as many of the older observances as possible in the Protestant Prayer Book. The implication is that traditional religion survived the assaults of the Protestant hierarchy. This survival meant that more militant Catholic missionaries, trained on the continent, could find fertile ground on which to work in England. In Duffy’s words, there was
‘…little or no evidence of popular enthusiasm for or commitment to the process of reform’ (p. 573?) – a view very different to that of Dickens, for instance.
So, there are the 4 diff positions towards religious change in England, or at least the position as they appeared in the 1990s say. Thanks to the work of Duffy and others, we now probably accept that traditional religion still had a central importance in the lives of the majority; and that although England was a Protestant kingdom in 1553, say, not all of its subjects had embraced Protestant beliefs. Clearly, the revisionist work of someone like Christopher Haigh has helped to shake up old assumptions, and to challenge the idea of a Protestant triumph being somehow inevitable. That’s not to say though that scholarship has stood still since then. In connection to a revisionist view, we are seeing a serious reconsideration of the reign of Mary, and an approach to the positive achievements of her reign. We’ll come to that in a few weeks, after the Easter vacation. More immediately from the point of view of this module, scholars are also revisiting religious policies and influences in reign of Edward VI, with Diarmaid MacCulloch for instance, stressing the radical nature and direction of Protestantism in the middle of the century, and challenging the idea of the English Reformation being a kind of via media, a middle way or happy medium to the radical changes of the continent. Another issue for you to take away and think about is this: if we accept the view of the revisionists about the strength of traditional religion and the apparent failure of Protestantism to inspire mass conversions – then where do the Protestants fit in? Because there were, as we know, evangelical influences which by the 1530s were making their presence felt. The recent work of scholars like Alec Ryrie and Peter Marshall have suggested the vitality of early Protestantism: although they were small in number they were socially and politically influential, and from the early 16th century were to have a profound influence on future religious change. In short, the historiography of the English Reformation is very much still alive and well.
So, that’s a sketch of the trends in historiography – hopefully you’ll find this helpful when reading for and thinking about your long essay. For instance, if you read one author, think about where he/she might fit in terms of the bigger picture. Are they engaging or challenging with the work of another scholar? And what are their grounds for doing so?

And for those of you wanting to think some more about the big historiographical trends or shifts, I’d recommend two things to read. The first is the chapter by Christopher Haigh in his edited collection, The English Reformation Revised, although bear in mind this is now itself a few years old. The second thing is the chapter by Alec Ryrie in the Palgrave Advances to the European Reformations. I’ve put these both on your handout, and there are several copies of each of these books in the library.


OK, let’s move on then and think about the other of the issues I wanted to highlight – primary sourceds. I should point out that depending on the long essay that you do, particular primary sources may be more or less appropriate to use. And also, that the question of primary sources is of course not limited to your long essay – it’s of much greater importance and relevance. For instance, if you think about how scholars might propose such different interpretations of religious change in sixteenth century England, part of this is about the use of particular primary sources, and debates over how they might be interpreted. So I though it would be worth exploring some examples of primary sources, and thinking about what they might or might not tell us. This is not to say that I’m expecting you to go away and study all of these sources in their original form, for yourselves – but it is worth thinking about their value as sources. What I’m going to talk about are only a v small example.

1). Official proclamations/acts of parliament/injunctions etc.

In the lectures, particularly those looking at events from the 1520s onwards, I’ve made reference to official act, proclamations, and injunctions that were issued by the regime. This is something we’ll also see to be important under Edward VI and Mary – that in many cases, big changes in England get the consent of Parliament; and changes in religious practice at a local level is more often than not the consequence of orders issued from the centre. If anyone does want to go and look at the wording of some the acts of Parliaments, or injunctions, or proclamations, you should have a look at a printed collection of documents by Gerald Bray, Documents of the English Reformation - copies in the University Library.

2). Wills

In the last 50 years, a lot of scholarship relating to change from below – that is measuring the extent to which the beliefs of ordinary people shifted over time – drew extensively on wills. This is something which Dickens pioneered in the 1950s, and has remained important since, although there is debate about how representative they might be, for a number of reasons. Hopefully by now you’ve all read Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars or The Voices of Morebath – these will give you an idea of how wills can be used to build up a picture of religious priorities at a local and parish level. That said, there can be real problems with using them uncritically – how do we know for instance, whether the dying person or the scribe is in charge of deciding whether the preamble to a will contains an appeal to Mary and the saints, as a traditional will was, or whether it entrusts the soul of the individual to Christ’s saving grace, as we might expect a clearly Protestant one to do? In any case, there may be a spectrum of stances – a neutral approach for instance, rather than one which necessarily displays adherence to what we might think of as ‘one side or the other’. In short, there are many difficulties in using wills as an uncomplicated reflection of belief and as measures of change. More generally though, we might see that there was a wider shift by the 1550s, which was more of a religious disillusion or even detachment, as people were bewildered by the shifts in belief and practice in the previous few decades.

5). Churchwarden’s accounts.

Churchwardens accounts are an invaluable source for historians of the religious change across Europe, but for which those looking at England are particularly blessed! Many more churchwardens account survive for England than for elsewhere in Europe, particularly for the late medieval period, so that we might be able to think about changes over time. Churchwardens accounts are so important because they reveal information that we can’t get elsewhere. For instance, for the pre-Reformation period we’ve seen from the accounts that huge amounts of money were being poured into the physical structure of parish churches. From research using chwardens accounts, it’s possible to calculate that more than half of all parish churches may have had major refurbishment in the late 15th and early 16th c. They also show for example, what the parish was spending money on; but they can also show us who was donating what, when, and for what purposes. And throughout the many changes of the sixteenth century, the accounts can show us how parishes responded to the demands of official religious policy. In terms of this week’s topic for instance, when thinking about the impact of Henrician policy in the parishes, we can see that people were no longer expected to donate money for example for a light to burn in front of a particular image in their church. Churchwardens’ accounts suggest that people did overwhelmingly stop doing this, at least in the way it had been done up until then. And later on, in Edward and Mary’s reign, we can see parishes obeying or not obeying central demands to do things such as paint over images in the church, purchase printed works that were integral to Protestant worship, or move the communion table further into the church, and then under Mary replace some of what had been removed. In some cases, churchwarden’s accounts show local communities organizing to resist the demands of the regime – in both revolts under Edward, in the SE and SW, there are clues in the accounts of how parish communities might act in defiance or opposition of Crown demands. The work of Ronald Hutton and Robert Whiting which I mentioned last week give you a good sense of how churchwarden’s accounts can help us to access the pace of change in local communities. And I’d recommend Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath, a microhistory of a rural community in Devon which has an exceptionally detailed and revealing set of accounts – suggesting the vitality of traditional religion, and also giving an example of involvement in the rebellion in the SW of England. A number of churchwardens accounts have been transcribed and printed – some of which are available in the University Library (such as the churchwardens accounts of St Michael’s Spurriergate).

Those of you interested in exploring the opportunities and challenges of using churchwarden’s account, take a look at the website of the Warwick Network for Parish Research. SHOW WEBSITE. There is a lot of useful material here – several examples of extracts from churchwardens account, and also guidance on how they might be approached as sources.

3). Material evidence

The churchwardens accounts are particularly useful if they can be used in conjunction with material evidence relating the architecture of a church and the arrangement of items within it. Those of you who went to St Mary’s will have got a sense of how late medieval religion might be reflected in the arrangement of the church building – with large chantry chapels for instance, or the hagioscope or squint, so that those in other parts of the church could see what was happening on the high altar during Mass. But we can also use the church building to think about how people experienced the Reformation in the localities. The series of physical changes demanded by the authorities in the course of the Reformation did not only mean big changes to what churches looked like, but also the transformation in the way in which they were used, and the worship that went on there. We’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks. Used alongside the churchwarden’s accounts then, the physical fabric of buildings provide a useful way in to considering what changed for the religious experience of ordinary people, but also what might have endured. For instance, foundations whose function was prayers for the dead were dissolved across the kingdom. But parish churches still for example, still hosted, inside and outside their walls, the tombstones, graves and plaques relating to those who had died when England was still a Catholic country, and when people were enjoined to pray for the souls of the dead. And the chantry chapels that were added to parish churches didn’t disappear overnight in a physical sense, even if their function and the foundation behind them was dissolved. SLIDE.
4). Printed pamphlets.

By now hopefully you’re familiar with the traditional idea that Protestantism was a religion of the word, and that Protestants were particularly adept at using the printing press to explain and to justify, and indeed to denigrate their Catholic opponents. Things of course were slightly more complicated than that – Catholics too, used the printing press to defend their own stance and even to promote Catholic teachings. Nevertheless, printed works of all sorts are a crucial source for a study of the Reformation in England. As we’ve progressed through the module, I’ve highlighted a number of debates which were carried out in print. For instance, the criticism of clerical abuses in the 1520s and 1530s (SLIDE). There are examples for instance to argue for a widespread disgust or hostility with the clergy and their priveleges – such as the famous poem Colyn Clout. But there are also examples of clergymen, and even members of religious orders, being concerned to improve the spiritual life of the average layman, such as Richard Whitford’s A Werk for Householders. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but it is worth pointing out that you are able to access all of these works electronically, on EEBO (Early English Books Online). Are we all familiar with this? Accessible from the library catalogue and fully searchable – a good way to get a sense of how contemporaries conceived of and wrote/talked about the religious changes.

In short then, historiographical debate about the nature, speed and extent of religious change in England continues to go on, and we have a range of primary materials to open up these questions. It’s one area where there is a huge wealth of scholarship – a very exciting field in which to work.
Right, that’s probably enough from me – I wanted to give you time to answer questions.

Religion and Religious Change – Handout on Historiography and Sources

1). Historiography

  • Traditional Protestant/Catholic narratives.

  • Religious Change from above or below; slow or quick?

Quick from above (eg. G.R. Elton)

Slow from above (eg. Christopher Haigh, Patrick Collinson)
Quick from below (eg. A. G. Dickens)
Slow from below (eg. Eamon Duffy)
- Historiography since the 1990s (post-revisionism?)

NB - For a useful introduction to the bigger historiographical debates:
Christopher Haigh, ‘The recent historiography of the English Reformation’, in C. Haigh (ed.), The English Reformation Revised (1987) and

Alec Ryrie, ‘Britain and Ireland’ in Alec Ryrie (ed.), The European Reformations (2006).

2). Thinking about primary sources (a few examples)
- Official acts, proclamations, injunctions, etc

G. Bray ed., Documents of the English Reformation (1994)

  • Churchwardens accounts

  • Material evidence (fabric of churchbuilding; items inside the church)

  • Debates and controversies in print

Early English Books Online (EEBO) – accessed via the University Library Catalogue
- - -
NB – The European World Module site has a useful 1 page guide to approaching long essays. This is designed for the European world module, but most of this advice is applicable to long essays more generally – you should find it useful to think about what a long essay requires and how you might approach the process.

and click on ‘approaches to extended writing’.

1 Patrick Collinson, ‘The English Reformation, 1945-1995’, in Michael Bentley (ed.), A Companion to Historiography, p. 336.

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