A couple of reviews of books about 16th century England

Both reviewers are prominent historians. Keith Thomas reviews The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford. It’s a study of Elizabethan spies and intelligence efforts. He concludes:

Stephen Alford’s engrossing book reminds us that most governments will stop at very little if national security is at stake. When political conflicts are exacerbated by fanatically held religious differences, the outcome is even more deadly.

The other review is by Diarmaid MacCulloch of Eamon Duffy’s Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition. It’s a collection of essays by the author of Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath (both of which I assigned in my classes over the years). MacCulloch is critical of Duffy for overemphasizing popular resistance to Reform and argues in the review that by the mid-Tudor period, the lines between Catholic and Protestant were fairly clearly drawn, that Duffy tends to overemphasize Catholic sentiment, and occasionally simply misreads the evidence. Most interesting, MacCulloch ends with an anecdote new to me that reveals the complexity of religion in sixteenth-century England:

In 1566, Elizabeth I’s archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, was disconcerted to receive a bill from the bailiffs of the city of Oxford. They were still owed £43 out of the £63 that was their expenditure for guarding and burning Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, back in Mary’s reign. Mary’s government added meanness to its brutality, and had not paid up. “The case is miserable, the debt is just,” the Puritan president of Magdalen College wrote in perplexity to the archbishop. So Parker, feeling that it was only fair, had a whip-round among his fellow Protestant bishops to pay for the expenses of burning England’s most famous Protestant martyrs. I wonder if any counter-reformation bishops would have reimbursed damnable heretics, had they presented that sort of bill.

The Commemoration of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls, called in the Book of Common Prayer 1979 “The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. The Feast of All Souls has its origins in the early Middle Ages. Apparently it was first celebrated at the great Abbey of Cluny in the 10th Century. Cranmer eliminated it from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. In the sixteenth century, it was closely tied to the Doctrine of Purgatory which came under sharp attack from Protestant Reformers.

We generally collapse the commemoration of all the faithful departed into our observance of All Saints’ by reciting the names of those who have died in the past year during our Prayers of the People. We will do that, but November 2 fell on Wednesday this year, our Wednesday service became our All Souls service. It was beautiful and moving for those of us in attendance.

All Souls is an opportunity to reflect on and remember those who have gone before us, our friends, loved ones, and others who have helped to shape us into the human beings and followers of Christ that we are. It is also a reminder that the Church, the Body of Christ, consists not only of those we see in this life, but all those who have gone before and entered the nearer presence of God.

When I think of Christians’ remembrance of the dead, I always return to Eamon Duffy’s magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, his examination of late medieval piety and the transformation of that piety in the sixteenth century.

The focal point of the Church’s liturgy of supplication for the dead, All Souls’ Day, was properly called the commemoration of All Souls. It was, of course, the desire for prayer which lay at the root of this preoccupation with remembering. The dead needed to be remembered, for the dead were, like the poor, utterly dependent on the loving goodwill of others. For all the stories of apparitions and Purgatory spirits walking to disturb their survivors, it was orthodox teaching that the living hold no direct converse with the dead. For medieval people, as for us, to die meant to enter a great silence, and the fear of being forgotten in that silence was as real to them as to any of the generations that followed. But for them that silence was not absolute and could be breached. To find ways and means of doing so was one of their central religious preoccupations. For what late medieval English men and women at the point of death seem most to have wanted was that their names should be kept constantly in the memory and thus in the prayers of the living.” Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 328.

Treasures of Heaven

Eamon Duffy on relics, occasioned by an exhibition at the British Museum.

some of the central themes of the British Museum‘s magnificent new exhibition. St Hugh’s startling behaviour reflected these themes: the universal medieval belief that relics, the fragmented bodies of the saints, were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene’s relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance – concealed in this instance by its silken cover – or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which some would go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community.