Peter Marshall

Reformation Blues

The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome


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Those of us who write or teach about the English Reformation have for some years now been wrestling with a problem variously termed the ‘revisionist dilemma’ or the ‘compliance conundrum’. Basically, explaining the success of the Reformation, and the relative lack of popular resistance to it, used to be straightforward, when the terms of reference were those of the Reformation’s own Protestant inheritance: the Church was deeply corrupt, its clergy unpopular with the laity, and its teachings largely obscure and alienating. But in the last quarter of a century or so, a silver-tongued syndicate of influential scholarship, usually termed ‘revisionist’, has torn up and rewritten the script. In the light of Eamon Duffy’s epoch-defining study of ‘traditional religion’, The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the late medieval Church appears to have been flourishing rather than in decline in the century before the break with Rome, confident and effective in its articulation of the faith, and deeply responsive to popular needs. Hence the problem: if everything in the garden was so rosy, why the riot of uprooting and replanting that took place in the sixteenth century?

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