Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England by Eamon Duffy – review

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England by Eamon Duffy – review” was written by Ian Thomson, for The Observer on Sunday 26th February 2017 07.30 UTC

Post-Reformation England, jittery with fears of a Catholic revival, presented a John le Carré-like world of cloak and dagger intrigue, double dealing and “spiery” (as the Elizabethans called it). Moles were planted in Catholic seminaries abroad, and Tudor diplomacy created a looking-glass war in which priest was turned against priest, informant against informant.

The split between Catholics and Protestants is easily parodied as “the warm south versus the cold north, wine drinkers versus beer drinkers, and so on”, says Eamon Duffy. Ultimately, however, Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England saw in each other the same heretic infidel. The brutal and insistent Protestant dogma under Elizabeth had much in common with the anti-Protestant Inquisition in Catholic Spain. Each extracted confessions by means of “enhanced interrogations” involving the rack and burning tongs. Their methods of intimidation and control were designed chiefly to spread fear.

Reformation Divided, a collection of essays by Professor Duffy on English recusant Catholicism, is published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s campaign to “restore” biblical Christianity to 16th-century Germany had spread across Europe as a violent attack on Marian veneration and papal infallibility. Within two generations, writes Duffy, “England’s Catholic past was obliterated”. The Reformation nevertheless helped to usher in capitalism and modern secularism, and was therefore, in the words of 1066 and All That, a “Good Thing”. In the Catholic view, however, it destroyed the mystery of the sacraments and the magic and pageantry of the Mass. Moreover, priceless ecclesiastical treasures were lost in the drive to uproot “Mass-mongers” and other traitors from the English body politic.

Duffy’s essay on Thomas More (Saint Thomas More to Roman Catholics) wonders if the Renaissance humanist-philosopher really was the vile master-torturer of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winner Wolf Hall. Unfortunately, Mantel’s has become very much the authorised portrait. Certainly More loathed heretics, and viewed the Protestant reformer William Tyndale in particular as a meddlesome devil. Why? Tyndale’s vernacular translation of the New Testament loaded and vivified our language with coinages still in use (“my brother’s keeper”, “signs of the times”). Yet, by translating the Greek ekklesia as “congregation” rather than “church”, Tyndale had deliberately deprived the Church of its resonance as a holy assembly, and undermined the priesthood’s sacramental function. This was no mere biblical inerrancy, it was heretical. From the mid-1520s onwards, More became the arch “pursuivant” of heretics.

Nevertheless, in Robert Bolt’s 1954 play A Man for All Seasons, More is portrayed as a martyr for liberal individualism. Wretchedly, he was executed by his patron, Henry VIII, once the King’s Great Matter (his need for divorce) militated against Catholicism. In thrall to a notion of late medieval Christian asceticism, More was grievously disturbed by Luther’s liturgical revolution, which threatened to sweep all before it. The truth about More no doubt lies somewhere in between the Bolt-Mantel extremes.

Cardinal Pole Preaching, a bravura essay, considers the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, who held office from 1556 to 1558 under Mary Tudor’s Counter Reformation. A decade after Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558, Catholics were once more smoked out of hiding, and on occasion publicly disembowelled and dismembered. All the same, it is doubtful how anti-Catholic Queen Elizabeth really was. She was known to keep a crucifix, candles and other crypto-Catholic ornaments by her bedside cabinet, and did not see papal purple as a sign of dangerous recusancy.

The essays, superbly written, range across themes of Catholic eschatology and anti-Protestant devotional publications to appreciations of 17th-century Quakerism. Duffy, a Cambridge history professor, brilliantly recreates a world of heroism and holiness in 16th-century England.

• Reformation Divided by Eamon Duffy is published by Bloomsbury (£30). To order a copy go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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