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 Memory and the English Reformation


Edited by Alexandra Walsham, Bronwyn Wallace, Ceri Law

and Brian Cummings


Cambridge: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. xvi + 448 p. ISBN 978-1108829991. £90


Reviewed by Jacqueline Rose

University of St Andrews




The Reformation, the editors of this volume write at the end of their introduction, was ‘less … a unitary moment of rupture than … an ongoing struggle to reconfigure the nation’s ecclesiastical and cultural heritage’ [45]. The length and legacy of that struggle are core themes of this volume, which offers insights into the way in which the process of reform merged with memories of it, and bled into historical treatments, with influences on historiography lasting to the present day. The conscious and sub-conscious, deliberate and unintended, shaping of memory – early modern understanding of which gave it a liminal place between fact and fiction – affected textual, visual, and material culture. ‘Conversion’, meanwhile, was a description of how material artefacts were reborn, mirroring the process of renewal of the souls of their users [140].

Several chapters outline the decades-long process in which epithets were established as labels for events, or idioms became inscribed. Johanna Harris charts the way in which the epistolary idiom of Protestant martyr letters, sufficiently established by the mid-1500s for Catholics to satirise it, was widespread enough to be recognised and recycled a century later. Harriet Lyon’s chapter demonstrates how it took almost the same length of time for ‘the dissolution of the monasteries’ to emerge as a shorthand summary of Henrician expropriations of religious houses, and reminds us of the often critical accounts of it by seventeenth-century writers. Yet while the dissolution is one headline of Henrician England, even its critical and retrospective shaping provides some form of fixed reference point. No such fixed point can be offered for the start of the English Reformation. As the two chapters that (excepting the introduction) bookend the volume show, England has no 1517 and – even more strikingly – has never felt the need to invent one. Peter Marshall suggestively remarks that this reflects the nature of the identity of the Church of England, while Alec Ryrie points out that even claims that reform involved a return to an older, purer, church were vague on what true church had been restored (and when).

Liturgical silence on Reformation history was significant, given ‘medieval and early modern liturgies were display cabinets for public memory’ [422]. The performance of worship associated with the new Book of Common Prayer also involved selective memory of which once-familiar rituals and gestures were still to be performed. Not practising ceremonies could imply they had been forgotten, continuing to use those castigated as remnants of ‘popery’ might have been habit or deliberate defiance, or ignorance as to their meaning, banning them implied they were more theologically significant than they were meant to be. Others might see them as a repository of social memory, or a reservoir of rituals that marked a pleasing continuity with an older church. As Arnold Hunt notes when discussing this topic, contemporaries might also puzzle over what these rituals meant to parishioners, having to undertake a quasi-anthropological investigation into their contemporaries [378]. This was not the only manifestation of memory that unsettled early modern people, who might feel (as Joe Moshenska explores) some anxiety as to whether the ex-devotional object that had become a plaything for their child was a doll or an idol.

Other episodes designed to make or unmake memory also pose challenges for twenty-first-century scholars trying to interpret them. One of the most striking of these is the defaced missal analysed by Brian Cummings. The ‘relentlessness joined with destructive zeal’ [359] evidenced by the cuts of the pictures that would have featured particularly prominently in the York Use seemingly involved an unusually intense savagery. Did this, Cummings asks, reflect horror or anger? Were the shape and positioning of the cuts deliberate? And why was the same object then used to record James VI’s escape from the Gowrie conspiracy and its ownership still marked in it into the 1660s? Some motivations to alter memories of pre-Reformation objects may be irrecoverable. Other incompatible traditions of memory cannot now be untangled: the different versions of the story of Thomas More’s hair shirt and its provenance are a good example, narrated by Victoria Van Hyning, of how competing narratives authorised groups by implicitly transferring religiosity to them, and were glossed over by later accounts of More and his family.

Whether it was Margaret Roper or Margaret Clement who was the trusted recipient of More’s hair shirt, it reflects the role of women and family in transmitting memory and/or relics. Tessa Murdoch’s account of the afterlives of sacred silver includes examples of the passing of such objects through families, and the gradual transition of reliquaries to relics. Matthew Parker’s family were the first keepers of his ‘Roll’, an account of his life whose format nevertheless suggests an intent to create a formal record or artefact. Forgetting was, as Ceri Law’s analysis of this document shows, as important as remembering, particularly for those like Parker who had not become martyrs or exiles during Mary Tudor’s reign. Indeed, as both this and other chapters show, it was less a case of remembering vs forgetting than of selective remembering, with a battle over who did the selecting. An argument over defacement or effacement of ‘idols’ was one about the part-preservation as well as part-destruction of the material remains of medieval religious culture. What was left could be, as some had it, ‘Monuments of our indignation’ [241] rather than testaments to a land but halfly reformed.

In other cases the Protestant reworking of history failed: the positive memory of Henry V proved difficult to eradicate (as shown by Susan Royal), while Catholics remembered in ways that demonstrated their dynamic modes of resisting reform. Emilie Murphy’s account of post-Reformation Catholic musical miscellanies shows how they were repositories of individual, social, and collective memory, forms of protest as well as records of lamentation. Contrasting what ‘has been’ with what ‘is now’, they still suggest reform was an ongoing process rather than a decisive break.

Just as the experience of reform engaged all the senses, then, so too were memories of it aural and visual as well as textual. The reworking of medieval Doom paintings of the weighing up of souls, routinely removed during the Reformation, into the image of the weighing of the Bible against ‘popish’ relics, is an apt example explored by Tara Hamling. Used in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, it was repeated on ballads, employed domestically as part of a chimneypiece, and reappeared on a banner in the Civil Wars. As Hamling shows, different iterations could be less elaborate, but they were not crude. Furthermore, they probably penetrated to the level of tenant farmers who had a visual cue to remember religious change every time they settled by the fire.

And this too is suggestive. Memories differed, competed, and were contested; sometimes they may have been shared, but either way they were inescapable: from chimneypieces to campfires, from quotidian activities to battles in what has been called a war of religion. An output linked to a UK research-council funded project run in the years surrounding the 500th anniversary of a date that was for centuries not really deemed relevant to the English Reformation, this volume also occasionally alludes to the ongoing tensions in remembering Reformation now. As it shows, these difficulties are as deep rooted as the phenomenon they seek to recall. The English Reformation will remain, as it has always been, as difficult to remember as it is impossible to forget.



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