The study of the English Reformation—some would prefer to say English Reformations—has undergone a veritable series of revolutions since 1980. Largely gone are the assumptions, indebted more to the enduring rhetoric of Protestant martyrologies than the rigorous study of historical documents, that English people by and large disdained the late medieval church and therefore welcomed the religious changes they experienced under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. Earlier accounts depicted the Reformation as gradually, and for the most part smoothly culminating in the triumph of a distinctively English brand of Protestantism: the Anglican via media of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1603). Over the course of the last three decades, however, scholars who identify themselves as revisionists (or, more recently, postrevisionists) have argued for the vitality of traditional religion in England, shown how hesitant many people were to abandon the old faith, and demonstrated that “uniformity” was more often an ideal than reality. Along the way, a “religious turn” has led scholars to take increasingly seriously the specifically theological claims for which partisans on all sides of the English Reformation argued, fought, lived, and died. Yet notwithstanding all these developments, as well as the myriad scholarly books and articles in which they have been contested, few have attempted to step back and survey the course of the Reformation anew. None has done this more effectively than Peter Marshall, the author of Heretics and Believers. His new book offers a roughly chronological account of the English Reformation that takes seriously the findings and implications of recent scholarship. The result is a tour de force, a narrative of one of the most formative periods in English history that is in equal parts readable, detailed, insightful, and creative. Marshall gracefully leads his reader through four periods of England’s long sixteenth century. He begins, in “Reformations before Reformation,” with the late medieval world: a time of traditional belief and observance but also of internal dissent and criticism of the Roman church. In “Separations,” he turns to the unexpected eruption of conflict between England and Rome in the middle of the reign of Henry VIII, then in “New Christianities” considers the tumult and uncertainty that marked Henry’s later years and the reigns of his son Edward VI and daughter Mary I. Finally, in “Unattainable Prizes,” Marshall documents the search for religious consensus undertaken, often in vain, by the government of Elizabeth I. (About the abrupt end of Marshall’s narrative a decade before Elizabeth’s death I shall have more to say momentarily.) Heretics and Believers begins with a lucid statement of scholarly conviction. Marshall forcefully rejects functionalist approaches to the history of the English Reformation, those that claim that in the sixteenth century, theological language served primarily to mask disputes about politics, economics, or more simply, power. Precisely because religion was of such existential importance, and precisely because religious ideas and practices were inextricably woven into the fabric of late medieval society, the Reformation “inevitably had profound effects across the entire spectrum of organized social activity and lived human experience” (xii). In his preface, Marshall makes clear that he will adopt neither the traditional narrative about the Reformation nor any particular revisionist retelling of it. Instead, his intent is to tell a nuanced story about the constantly changing relationship between religion and the state in Reformation-era England. For Marshall, without the backing of King Henry and successive monarchs, the English Reformation could not have happened. Yet “virtually from the start, the imposition of the Reformation was the pyrrhic victory of the English state,” one that eroded the authority of the crown and created space for the very religious diversity that official policy tried to suppress (xii). Marshall’s narrative pays careful attention to the many episodes in which subjects and groups of subjects resisted religious change either openly—in rebellions and public refusals to subscribe to new ideas—or covertly, in various forms of what contemporaries denounced as Nicodemism. Marshall’s preface reveals that those interested in a highly theoretical analysis will search in vain. Indeed, his book self-consciously steers clear of scholarly infighting, with the main text of Heretics and Believers eschewing “much if any direct reference to the numerous academic debates and controversies in which the study of the Reformation abounds” (xi). However, Marshall’s endnotes (which, in view of their richness, one can only wish had been printed as footnotes) reveal the extent of his mastery of the field, as well as his unassuming but often brilliant synthesis of conflicting views. Especially worthy of praise are three overarching qualities of Marshall’s narrative, each of which responds to a common deficiency of previous scholarship. First, Marshall integrates levels of analysis that are often carried out separately. Here theology, law, politics, society, culture, and religious practice are seamlessly interwoven in a manner that takes seriously both the interdependence of these categories and the fact that early modern people would likely not have perceived them to be as distinct as modern-day readers might suppose. Marshall’s account of the ways in which English people lived out, or were required to live out, their faith is superb: his attention to changes in and conflicts over officially authorized prayer books and church vestments, just as much as evolving forms of popular devotion, grounds his narrative in human experience. Second, particularly in the part of his book entitled “New Christianities,” Marshall deliberately emphasizes the many pluralisms of the English Reformation. Not only did official forms of religion change over time, but at any given moment competing theologies and forms of worship contended with one another for dominance. Finally, in view of the criticism that the study of the English Reformation has been quite literally insular, Marshall very effectively describes the relationships among English reformers, their continental counterparts, and the emerging confessional movements of the mid- to late sixteenth century. Both the length of Marshall’s book (579 pages of relatively small type) and the wide readership of this journal render an overall summary of his narrative otiose. Likewise, while specialists may quibble with (but, given the quality of his scholarship, likely will not object too deeply to) Marshall’s representation of their favorite individuals, events, or religious movements, this is also not the most appropriate venue for disagreement over particulars that will be little known outside relatively small circles of scholars. What remains for comment, then, are some matters about the audience and overall tone of Heretics and Believers—a book that, frustratingly, may be too long and too detailed for survey courses, yet too under-theorized for graduate seminars. On the positive side of the ledger, Marshall has written an extraordinary history of the English Reformation for nonspecialists, both academic and nonacademic, who wish to learn more about a period of English history that he characterizes as “a vocal, vibrant national conversation, about issues of uttermost importance, and one from which few voices were ever entirely excluded” (578). Few prominent actors in Reformation England desired religious pluralism, but Marshall is right that the failure of any one version of Christianity to triumph securely over all others may unintentionally have created cultural and rhetorical space for choice in religion—a legacy that Reformation England bequeathed to some of its most famous heirs, including the early anglophone colonists of North America. But it is a pity that Marshall’s book, long though it already is, does not take its narrative up through the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign much less through the establishment of the colonies in Massachusetts Bay, Virginia, and Maryland, each settled by a different brand of English Protestants. Unexpectedly, and unfortunately, the book peters out in the late 1580s, with the publication of the second and more polemical edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Marshall observes that in these years, “more than one grandiose project of Reformation peaked and ebbed,” and “never again would… an opportunity present itself to restore England to the fraternity of Catholic nations” (570). However true, this denouement is unsatisfying. Especially in contrast to Marshall’s own undergraduate textbook, Reformation England (Bloomsbury, 2003), or his The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009)—both of which pursue developments in religious and social history through the middle of the seventeenth century—the reader of Heretics and Believers cannot but feel cheated of more. In the end, however, this too is a sign of Marshall’s excellence as a historian and narrator: it is only a very well-written long book that one wishes were longer still. In Heretics and Believers, Marshall has delivered a volume that is intellectually solid, extraordinarily well researched, easily accessible, and enjoyably rewarding, even for the hardened specialist. For those outside the field of Reformation studies who have noticed and been intrigued by recent developments in the study of the many Christianities of Tudor England, this is a book that will well repay reading. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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