Friday, May 6, 2011

Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars

I finally did it. It took three months, (and I admit that I read a lot of other things during the last three months), but I finally finished Professor Eamon Duffy’s massive tome The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400 – 1580 (Yale University Press, 1992).

This book goes into exhaustive detail regarding the practice of Catholicism by the laity at the time of the English Reformation. The last third of the book describes the attack on traditional religion by the Protestant Reformers as well as the efforts of the Catholic authorities under Queen Mary to restore the Catholic faith.

Professor Duffy shows that contrary to the usual Protestant history of the Reformation, English Catholicism was a vibrant faith whose practice was popular among the people. Contrary to the popular belief that the majority of the laity were either ignorant regarding their faith or had adopted Protestant beliefs, Professor Duffy shows that the laity were, for the most part, well catechized and there was much sincere devotion. The English Reformation was a top down affair in which the majority of both the clergy and the laity tried their best to conform to changing orders of the Crown regarding religion.

“In parishes all over England decent, timid men and women set themselves to do just that (conform to the dictates of the Elizabethan regime). It was not for them to rule the winds: the conscience of the prince was in the hands of God, and the people must make shift to do as best they could under the prince. . . . But the price for such accommodation, of course, was the death of the past it sought to conserve. If Protestantism was transformed so was traditional religion. The imaginative world of the Golden Legend and the Festial was gradually obliterated from wall and window and bracket, from primer and block-print and sermon, and was replaced by that of the Old Testament. Cranmer’s somberly magnificent prose, read week by week, entered and possessed their most solemn and their most vulnerable moments. And more astringent and strident words entered their minds and hearts too, the polemic of the Homilies, of Jewel’s Apology, of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, and of a thousand “no-popery” sermons, a relentless torrent carrying away the landmarks of a thousand years. By the end of the 1570’s, whatever the instincts and nostalgia of their senior, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to by Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic pastas their own, but another country, another world.”

The details of the liturgy and popular devotions are quite extensive and voluminous. Anyone who is interested in Church History, liturgy or the Reformation should read this book. So if you haven’t read The Stripping of the Altars, go to right now, buy a copy, and then take a month off and read it.

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