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Reformation Blues The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome

By G W Bernard (Yale University Press 304pp £25)

Those of us who write or teach about the English Reformation have for some years now been wrestling with a problem variously termed the ‘revisionist dilemma’ or the ‘compliance conundrum’. Basically, explaining the success of the Reformation, and the relative lack of popular resistance to it, used to be straightforward, when the terms of reference were those of the Reformation’s own Protestant inheritance: the Church was deeply corrupt, its clergy unpopular with the laity, and its teachings largely obscure and alienating. But in the last quarter of a century or so, a silver-tongued syndicate of influential scholarship, usually termed ‘revisionist’, has torn up and rewritten the script. In the light of Eamon Duffy’s epoch-defining study of ‘traditional religion’, The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the late medieval Church appears to have been flourishing rather than in decline in the century before the break with Rome, confident and effective in its articulation of the faith, and deeply responsive to popular needs. Hence the problem: if everything in the garden was so rosy, why the riot of uprooting and replanting that took place in the sixteenth century?

G W Bernard, recent biographer of Anne Boleyn and author of The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, takes the matter in hand. The Late Medieval English Church does not quite bill itself as an extended commentary on Duffy’s work, but that is the clear subtext. The book is notable for its focused attention to areas of late medieval religious life that Duffy chose not to consider in detail: the role played by bishops, the state of the religious orders, the significance of Lollardy. It is also bookended with a close reading of an episode revisionist historians have tended to dismiss as unimportant: the Richard Hunne affair of 1514, when a furore was caused by the suspicious death of a critic of the clergy in the Bishop of London’s prison.

But Bernard’s superbly researched and coherently argued study is far from being either a hatchet job on Duffy or an atavistic reversion to Protestant instincts about pre-Reformation Catholicism. We could reasonably characterise its overall thesis as ‘yes, but…’. Putting it another way, Bernard provides us with a kind of Ofsted report on the late medieval Church. Its condition is assessed in a number of key areas: episcopal governance, priestly pastoral effectiveness, lay knowledge and understanding, the state of the monasteries, and the response to threats of heresy. While never judged to be ‘outstanding’, performance is often rated as ‘good’ and never less than ‘satisfactory’. The vibrancy and vitality of late medieval religious life is fully acknowledged, but at the same time a recurrent theme is that the Church had a talent for getting the worst of both worlds – making imposing claims to political rights and privileges it could not in practice enforce, and setting standards of sanctity and austerity its personnel could not for the most part fulfil. Hypocrisy, the characteristic Christian vice of all ages, was much in evidence, and much remarked upon.

In making these points, Bernard writes pellucid, jargon-free prose, with an easy, persuasive style. Somewhat belying a reputation as a provocative historical gadfly, he provides judgements that are nuanced, measured and often relatively uncontroversial, though a chapter arguing that late medieval Lollardy did not really have any coherent existence but was – like witchcraft – an artificial construct of the persecuting authorities, is sure to ruffle some feathers. Throughout, Bernard displays an enviable command of the vast secondary literature, and a secure grasp of technical points, both administrative and doctrinal. Just occasionally, one senses a lack of intuitive feel or the anthropologist’s eye for the inwardness of late medieval religion. In Bernard’s assessment of lay people’s devotional habits, ‘mechanical’ is, for example, a favoured adjective. But to label religious rituals or observances in this way is a value-loaded interpretation, not an unproblematic description of them. Bernard is also a little loose in his use of terms like ‘magic’ and ‘superstition’. But these are minor outbreaks of ‘presentism’ in a generally sure-footed and empathetic presentation.

So much for the wallpaper, furniture, windows and doorways; what about the large-eared creature at the centre of the room? This is not a study of the causes of the Reformation. Bernard sensibly concedes at the outset that ‘the historian cannot unknow that the Reformation happened’, but he does not believe that any of the ‘vulnerabilities’ he enumerates made the Reformation inevitable, nor that addressing them earlier would have prevented the Reformation taking place. They simply made it easier for Henry VIII to implement his radical policies in the 1530s, and here Bernard makes great play out of the fact that the late medieval Church was a ‘monarchical church’, under the effective practical control of the Crown long before the formal declaration of royal supremacy in 1533–4. Yet this was equally true of Spain or France, states and societies that remained on the Romeward side of the Reformation divide, and places where inadequacies and abuses among the regular and secular clergy were just as much in evidence as in England. The ‘vulnerability’ of the late medieval English Church, as Bernard would probably concede, can thus be seen as a vulnerability of retrospect, or alternatively as something like the normal state of affairs in medieval Christendom. What readers will not get from this book is much understanding of why, from the 1520s onwards, a minority of English Christians, nurtured in the bosom of the pre-Reformation Church, turned so vehemently and violently against its core teachings and values. G W Bernard supplies an immensely valuable dossier of circumstantial and contextual evidence, but the mystery of the English Reformation remains unsolved. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41

j u l y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11

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