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The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional…

The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (1993)

by Eamon Duffy

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Now a classic study of the changes in the life of the Church in the English Reformation.

Everyone seems to have a bias on this topic; I should declare mine: I am an Anglo-Catholic, liturgically on the conservative side and doctrinally more or less aligned with, say, Rowan Williams. As such I have no antipathy towards late mediaeval catholicism as such, and on theological grounds a good deal of criticism to make of the reformers under Edward and Elizabeth. (See, for example, the serious criticisms levelled by Dix against Cranmer and his colleagues, never really rebutted.) Note that Duffy's study is one of life "on the ground", as it were, but one's doctrinal views can influence how one reads the text.

This is carefully researched, though (as is the case with most histories of this sort) individual details may be contested, or at least challenged as not necessarily as ready for generalization as they might be, especially as actual use will have varied considerably in different areas of the country and parish by parish: the late mediaeval world, just beginning to adjust to the printing press, was not a very uniform one. Nevertheless, Duffy's arguments can, I think, be said to represent a position which are, or should be, the default, at least inasmuch as they show (1) that the devotional life of the late mediaeval world was not arid, but lively, and that the observances of the rhythms of the church year were deeply integrated into the life of the community; (2) that the doctrine expressed by the observances of the typical late mediaeval parish (or many late mediaeval parishes) was not some kind of aberration away from the broader tradition of catholic belief; (3) that the English Reformation did considerable harm to the fabric of daily life, especially after its Henrician phase, but beginning even under Henry; (4) that prior at least to the ham-fisted attempts by Mary Tudor to restore the catholic faith there was more sympathy, generally, with the old religion than with the new.

The defaced statues, smashed windows, and ruined rood-screens (however many were a product of this phase of the Reformation and however many of the later depredations of Cromwell's soldiers) are an effective metaphor for the damage to devotional life the book describes.

It lies outside Duffy's scope, but it is worth pointing out that (despite the type of evidence put forward in More and Cross's Anglicanism, drawn largely from the Caroline and Jacobean divines) the overall thrust of the Elizabethan settlement and even more of the final compromise after the Commonwealth was to exclude most of the traits which we would now identify as Catholic within the Anglican Church, downplay many others (bishops were kept but no particularly high doctrine was officially declared for their order), and exclude most of the elements of "the beauty of holiness" which even rather middle-of-the-road parishes used to take for granted as a characteristic of Anglicanism. You could find isolated exceptions, but in general it is true to say that the doctrinal and devotional revivals of the Oxford Movement and the improvement in liturgy and church design which came out of Cambridge a little later were relying on a very thin thread of continuity indeed within the Church of England. ( )
1 vote jsburbidge | Sep 22, 2016 |
Henry VIII ran amok in the churches. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
For Professor Duffy, it seems that any religious practice, no matter how superstitious or bizarre, is a Good Thing. An anti-Protestant polemic strangely unconcerned with the purity or truth of religion.
  cstebbins | Apr 10, 2016 |
A strong Counter-Reformation polemic: it would be more convincing if this were all we knew. This is brilliant social history but it conveniently stops with 1580, before the Elizabethan Via Media was formed. The author's conclusions give the impression that he is unaware of the efforts of the Anglican Church to save fundamental catholic faith and practice from desecration at the hands of the Puritan Inter-regnum in the 17th century and the efforts of the so-called Oxford Movement to revive the essential catholicity of the Church of England. So, 16th century "Protestantism" becomes the scapegoat for England's loss of "true" piety. Of course, Eamon Duffy knows better than this.
  davidveal | Oct 13, 2015 |
"On certain feasts objects to be blessed might be brought up at this point: candles at Candlemas, butter, cheese, and eggs at Easter, apples on St James's day". A serious piece of historical research that also makes me feel vividly present in late medieval England, joining in the feasts and penances and rituals, and later on helping to hide the church treasures when they were banned. There's no doubt reform was needed, but I believe this traumatic break, a cultural revolution imposed from above, was a massive blow to the English psyche from which it has never really recovered.
Deservedly popular, this book is always going out on request from the public library where I work. ( )
  PollyMoore3 | Jun 13, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300108281, Paperback)

This prize-winning account of the pre-Reformation church recreates lay people’s experience of religion in fifteenth-century England. Eamon Duffy shows that late medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but was a strong and vigorous tradition, and that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically respectable religious system. For this edition, Duffy has written a new Preface reflecting on recent developments in our understanding of the period.
From reviews of the first edition:
“A magnificent scholarly achievement [and] a compelling read.”—Patricia Morrison, Financial Times
“Deeply imaginative, movingly written, and splendidly illustrated. . . . Duffy’s analysis . . . carries conviction.”—Maurice Keen, New York Review of Books
“This book will afford enjoyment and enlightenment to layman and specialist alike.”—Peter Heath, Times Literary Supplement
“[An] astonishing and magnificent piece of work.”—Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"This profoundly influential book re-examines events leading up to the Reformation and enriches our understanding of the period. It recreates lay people's experience of religion in the pre-Reformation church showing that late medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but was a strong and vigorous tradition, and that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically respectable religious system. For this edition, Duffy has written a substantial new introduction, including a discussion of the Lollards and reflections on recent developments in Reformation studies."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300060769, 0300108281

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