Review by Calvin Lane
Attempts at weaving the story of something called “the English Reformation” have occurred since the 16th century. Yet 1964 was a seminal date in the historiography, as it marked the publication of The English Reformation by A.G. Dickens. A blurb by Heiko Oberman for the 1991 revision captured the work’s heft: “There is no alternative in sight.” Since the 1960s, every graduate student working in early modern history had to tackle Dickens, and the verdict was ubiquitous: it is the standard, but there are problems.
The most obvious problem with Dickens’s work is its Protestant triumphalism. Despite its canonical status, historians have long accepted that the English people did not adopt the new faith in droves. In the 1980s and 1990s scholars like Eamon Duffy demonstrated the widespread perseverance of “traditional religion,” but even revisionist treatments did not account satisfactorily for the messiness of religious identity. Dickens’s book retained its place on the canonical list without an alternative in sight — until this past year. Already the winner of the 2018 Wolfson History Prize, Marshall’s Heretics and Believers will be that ubiquitous, standard volume on every scholar’s shelf.
Marshall’s clear chronological narrative engages both scholar and layman. For the former, all the historiographical debates are in the background; for the latter, these disputes go almost unmentioned. This nuance is the book’s strength. Consider Marshall’s rejection, at the outset, of Marxist reductionism: the English Reformation, he asserts, was about religion. Questions of faith were not just cover for “real” concerns, e.g., economics or politics.
Yet, Marshall insists, religion was not disconnected from other spheres of life, including being English. The Reformation was about belief, but it could not only be about belief. This artful and readable account is filled with such sober nuance, and that opening topic flows through the text: how did religion and religious identity become something potentially separable from the public sphere? Can we find the roots of contemporary Western pluralism along with the modern definition of religion as a private affair in the violent conflicts of the 16th century?
While this book is hardly a diagnosis of the advent of secularism, Marshall’s conclusion lands on the Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow, who pragmatically suggested that loyalty to the state be defined as a civil matter while religion was something for the private sphere. That would happen by fits and starts in the succeeding centuries: the 1689 act of toleration allowing for Protestant dissenter churches, the lifting of penal laws against Roman Catholics in the 1770s and their right to stand for Parliament in 1829, and even allowing Catholics to serve as Lord Chancellor in 1974. The possibilities of living successfully with religious difference could hardly be imagined in the 16th century, but as Marshall writes, the rise of religious division and the evolution of new religious identities within the same neighborhoods was unavoidable.
Marshall is right to return continually to religious identity as evangelicalism evolved into varying positions known collectively as Protestant and attachments to traditional medieval religion morphed into papism and later still into sectarian Roman Catholicism. These often politicized identities did not emerge naturally, but rather in reaction to opponents who were often next-door neighbors. During the reign of Mary, the Edwardian Protestant Edwin Sandys riding through London was reviled as a heretic from one side of the street and hailed as a servant of God from the other. By the 1550s a generation had been born into a world of schism in which enemies were not French or Scots, but neighbors.
This book is not merely a social history. Marshall brings to life the intersections between practice, belief, identity, and often physical objects; how and why, for example, hiding altar stones was a common experience in parishes across England, having a rosary at one’s belt became a political statement, wearing a rochet was such a burden for John Hooper, haranguing Elizabeth about a silver cross in the chapel royal seemed a solemn imperative to the queen’s chaplains, and appearing at her execution in scarlet allowed Mary Stuart to speak to Catholics and Protestants across Europe.
Marshall explicates the contents of theological texts like the Forty-Two and Thirty-Nine Articles, but he also examines the way these shaped the lives of individuals and communities. Such engagement, of course, included a lot of violence. But the way violence was meted out mattered too: the purifying fire of the stake for heretics; beheading and hanging for treason. Precious few, however, had a clear view of the specific difference between such crimes.
Marshall highlights how, by the 1580s, Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, denied that many had truly died for their religion but were simply traitors. The logic here utilized a definition of religion that few Protestants or Catholics would have recognized: a matter of internally held doctrinal propositions divorced from action in the world. Such reflected the queen’s Nicodemism, her preference for quiet outward conformity obfuscating what she believed.
But this was not some idiosyncratic quirk; it was the fruit of seismic and repeated shifts in England and thus a safety response Elizabeth learned in her youth. Certainly, those Catholics willing to recuse themselves from their parish churches were unhappy with the status quo, but so were the heirs of the mid-century Edwardian evangelicals who discovered that very many in England believed that being Protestant simply meant eating meat on Fridays.
By the time of the Spanish Armada (1588), the nation was on a happy course of identifying Catholicism as something foreign, but the uniformity of the Church of England was certainly unsettled, and moderation was often a strategy, not a virtue. In the succeeding century, dissent was formally tolerated, Anglicanism emerged, and any notion of uniformity was a lost dream.
With its apt title, Marshall’s Heretics and Believers is a grand story of myriad women and men asking questions about the shape of the Church and what it means to be a Christian. It is the alternative Heiko Oberman could not see decades ago, but one with which, I would like to believe, Dickens would be pleased.