About Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham, and is on twitter as @CREMS_Bham and @drjpwillis

Introductory thoughts

This introductory post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Tara is an Art Historian by training and has published widely on the impact of the reformation on visual and material cultures, for example in her monograph Decorating the Godly Household.  Here she reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Why are we here? We’re here to acknowledge, celebrate and reconsider Patrick Collinson’s seminal lecture ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’.  This hugely influential paper (published in 1986) which also informed chapter 4 of his book of 1988, The Birthpangs of Protestant England, has shaped a generation of scholarly enquiry into the impact of religion on culture, and of culture on religion, in post-reformation England.

My main interest, of course, is the visual arts – or to use Collinson’s term, pictorial arts, and especially the so-called ‘decorative’ arts in a domestic context. I want to offer, therefore, a few brief thoughts on how scholarship has tended to categorise sources and spaces, and the implications of these compartmentalised groupings for our understanding of Protestant attitudes to the image.

Categories of Image

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‘Joshua’, one of a set of painted panels with Old Testament figures, c.1600.  Victoria and Albert Museum. Copyright V&A, London

Since its publication 30 years ago, new work across disciplines on visual and material culture has uncovered a wealth of extant physical evidence that challenges the notion and process towards ‘iconophobia’ as established by Collinson. And yet, in the main, scholarship has tended to retain his basic framework, but point out that iconophobia couldn’t have extended to certain kinds of artwork in certain kinds of setting. Yet this newly noticed visual material has remained marginal. One of the reasons Collinson’s framework has survived the pressures placed on it by studies engaged with categories of surviving visual culture is that these artworks are deemed to be, well, not very good. Vernacular English art is judged rather embarrassing in its crude, awkward quality and this, together with an association with low culture and ‘lesser’ settings such as ‘cheap print’ or private houses, has allowed it to continue to pass relatively unrecognised. It has not been incorporated within the canon of early modern cultural forms.

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After Iconophobia?

After Iconophobia? An Online Symposium

Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis

aiIn 1985, Patrick Collinson delivered Reading University’s Stenton lecture on the topic ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation.’ More than thiry years on, this essay (published in pamphlet form in 1986 and in revised form as Chapter 4 of The Birthpangs of Protestant England) has gone on to shape a generation of scholarly enquiry into the impact of religion on culture, and of culture on religion, in post-reformation England.  Scholars have accepted, rejected, and modified Collinson’s arguments, but one way or another they continue to exert a powerful influence over reformation studies today.

If you haven’t read Collinson’s original article/chapter, we would certainly encourage you to do so, although reasons of copyright prevent us from uploading a copy on the public internet.  Still, the definitions of his two key terms may well be of interest:

iconophobia definitions

Tara and I therefore felt that the thirtieth anniversary seemed like a timely point to take stock and re-examine Collinson’s initial thesis, as well as flagging up some of the new directions that study of the areas explored in his original lecture (religious drama, songs and ballads, and pictorial art) was taking.  What is the current consensus regarding ‘iconoclasm’, ‘iconophobia’, ‘the second English reformation’, and the relationship between them?  In the summer of 2015 we gathered together a dynamic group of international scholars, under the auspices of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) and with the generous support of the School of History and Cultures, for a two-day workshop to consider the legacy of his seminal essay, as well as exploring the most exciting present and future trends in the field.  Given the success of previous online symposia at the ‘monster – history from below; voices of the people; addressing authority – we decided to widen the conversation further by presenting our thoughts in an open forum and inviting responses from anyone with an interest in the topic.

A new post will be published every few days over the coming weeks. We begin with some introductory thoughts (Hamling) and broad reflections on Collinson’s original thesis (Morton) and its relevance for the ‘long’ English reformation (Sangha).  We then move on to consider some more detailed case studies, such as dramatic representations of God’s word (Streete) and of god himself (Tasker), as well as dramatic representations of Elizabethan portraiture (Stelzer).  Next come some considerations of visual and material culture in the form of Doom imagery in print and paint (Dhillon), domestic imagery (Morrall) and the material culture of the post-reformation parish church (Orlik).  Finally, the symposium considers potential future areas for research (Green) as well as whether an essay as audacious and sweeping as Collinson’s could still be written (Ryrie).  We finish with some concluding thoughts (Willis).

The aim of this online symposium is not to present these pieces as finished ‘publications’ for posterity. Rather we hope that they will serve as spurs to discussion. You are thus warmly invited to reply to these posts with your questions, comments, suggestions and critiques, or join the conversation on twitter via #aftericonophobia.

Table of Contents

  • Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis, ‘After Iconophobia?’
  • Tara Hamling, ‘Introductory thoughts’
  • Adam Morton, ‘Definitions and Phases of Reform’
  • Laura Sangha, ‘Protestants and Images in the Late Seventeenth-Century’
  • Adrian Streete, ‘Collinson and Drama’
  • Jan Tasker, ‘The Presence (and Absence) of the Supernatural in Elizabethan Drama’
  • Emmanuel Stelzer, ‘Staged Portraits in Early Modern English Drama’
  • Malcolm Jones, ‘English single-sheet prints c.1580-c.1620 in the light of Collinson’s 1985 lecture’
  • Richard Dhillon, ‘Fragments of Doom in Post-Reformation England’
  • Andrew Morall, ‘The Case for Domestic Imagery’
  • Susan Orlik, ‘Somerton: a Parochial Case Study’
  • Ian Green, ‘Future Directions’
  • Alec Ryrie, ‘Historical Reflections’
  • Jonathan Willis, ‘Concluding Thoughts’

If referencing pieces published here, we suggest the following citation: Author, ‘Title’, in Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis (eds), After Iconophobia? An Online Symposium (2017) [URL: Date Accessed].

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Understanding Sources: Churchwardens’ Accounts

To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Jonathan Willis

I have a confession to make: I love churchwardens’ accounts, and in this post I want to tryPicture1 to convince you that they have something to offer pretty much everybody interested in researching, reading or writing about early modern England.  As well as co-editing Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources with Laura, I contributed a chapter on ‘Ecclesiastical Sources’, and one of the nice things about editing or co-editing a volume like this is being able to choose exactly what you want to write about!  I happen to be, of course, a reformation historian, and so sources relating to or generated by the Church are naturally something I’m going to be interested in.  But in that chapter, and in this post, it is my intention to show that ecclesiastical sources in general (and churchwardens’ accounts in particular) are of enormous interest and value, almost no matter what area of history you are interested in.  Politics?  Economics?  Society?  Culture?  They’ve got it all! Continue reading

Hidden gems of Tudor Church reform: the equal opportunities that never were, and dressing up smart for God…

Jonathan Willis

Chasing up some last-minute references for the book I’ve been writing up over the past year or so on the Ten Commandments, over Easter I found myself making use of a local academic library to consult Gerald Bray’s editions, prepared for the Church of England Record Society, of the Anglican Canons and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum.  As I sat in this unfamiliar space, surrounded by undergraduates feverishly working on essays and revising for their exams, I couldn’t help but be struck by what seemed like some of the more unlikely concerns of sixteenth-century reformers.  The topic of Tudor Church reform doesn’t exactly promise thrills, spills and adrenaline from the outset, but it does occasionally provide a fascinating insight into a range of social and cultural prejudices, alongside the rather more predictable fare of the duties of churchwardens, the alienation and renting out of ecclesiastical goods, and the nuts and bolts of the process of episcopal visitation.

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On periodisation: religion, early modernity, and ‘The Reformation’

Jonathan Willis

In some ways, ‘The Reformation’ (I’ll explain the excessive punctuation in a bit) may seem like an odd contribution to a blog mini-series on periodisation.  After all, surely ‘The Reformation’ was a thing, an event, something that happened, rather than a neutral description of a period of time (although, as we are coming to discover, there is rarely anything neutral about how anybody, let alone a historian, parcels up the past).  As Laura mentioned in her introductory post, use of ‘The Reformation’ to describe a period of time tends to have most currency in North America, where ‘Ren-Ref’ is a convenient shorthand for the periods of the renaissance and reformation, c.1400-c.1600, or c.1350-c.1650, or c.1300-c.1700; well you get the idea…  I am a product of the UK Higher Education system, however, having never studied or worked in the US or Canada, and so I’m going to leave ‘Ren-Ref’ to one side for now.  Instead, there are two related questions I want to address in this post.  Firstly, how useful is religion in helping us to define the early modern period?  And secondly, how should we define the chronology of ‘The Reformation’ itself?

Religion and Early Modernity

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A less contentious way of measuring time?

To what extent can we define early modernity with reference to developments in the religious sphere?  For the sake of argument, and because one post can’t do everything, I’m going to work within the eurocentrism of the term early modern, and accept for now its customary definition as c.1500-c.1700.  In some ways, there is a fairly good case for arguing that the early modern period saw within it some fairly distinctive developments in matters of religion, and that therefore these developments do help give a sense of coherence (or at least, of coherent incoherence) to the period as a whole.  To start with the most obvious, we might characterise the early modern period as one which witnessed at its outset the collapse of 1500 years of broad religious unity: provocatively, one recent overview of early modern history has taken as its title Christendom Destroyed.[1]  The Protestant Reformation, and the growth in number of religious sects and denominations that broke away from the previously hegemonic monolith of the (Roman) Catholic Church, and subsequently from one another, could plausibly be seen as the defining characteristic of the early modern age. Continue reading

‘Christmas Imprisoned’: the ‘popular’ assault on the festive season

Jonathan Willis

It is beginning, as the seasonal classic reminds us, to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Shops are blaring out Mariah Carey and town centres are aglow with fairy lights, whilst trees festooned with tinsel are popping up everywhere. A good many of us, I expect, are rather looking forward to Christmas. Whether it is as a religious festival, a great big party, a consumer frenzy, a chance to get together with our loved ones, or even just an excuse to take some time off work, there is no denying that Christmas at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a still major cultural phenomenon, and a calendrical landmark of great prominence.

Christmas Fireplace

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care…

What Christmas is not, today, is a political issue. Continue reading

Voices of the Disgruntled: ‘Green-Ink Letters’ in Elizabethan England

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Jonathan Willis, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Jonathan uses some rather intriguing letters found amongst the Elizabethan State Papers to raise some crucial questions about the relationship between eccentric individuals and the wider culture they belong to – what we might term the ‘Menocchio question’ .

Jonathan Willis

A few years ago, I stumbled across an interesting letter in the Elizabethan State Papers. I would say that it was ‘by accident’, but it wasn’t really, as I was actively looking for references to the Ten Commandments, as part of the monograph I’m currently writing on the reformation of the Decalogue. Still, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find what the calendar compliers described as ‘two letters to the Queen from Robert Banister, a great quoter of Scripture, yet mighty vehement against some Puritans who plagued him’, and which the caption on the letter itself (dated 1578) records as ‘two letters to Queen Elizabeth by Robert Banister a Religious mad-man, who seems to have concedid great indignation against the Puritans his prosecutors’.[1] Banister’s letters were written in black ink, but otherwise seem to fit the modern definition of a letter written by a card-carrying member of the green-ink brigade, which one website defines as:

a particular kind of letter writer, who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation, or who believes that a numerical calculation based on the name of the Prime Minister shows he’s an agent of the devil, or who is sure that invisible rays are being beamed into his house by his next-door neighbour to cause him injury, or who puts forward a thesis which, if adopted, will lead inevitably to world peace.[2]

Banister’s letters contained a request for the queen to grant him permission to publish a treatise designed to clear his name from puritan accusations that he was a member of the secretive radical sect, the Family of Love. Banister may in fact have been a familist – his letters are ambiguous. He refers scathingly to ‘the phamily of lewde love’, and claims that never to have been ‘acoynted with any of that sect’, but he also described the puritans as a ‘vile, & most faulse family’, and spoke repeatedly of ‘gods love’. What is clear though is that, familist or no, Banister was a rare Elizabethan antinomian – that is, somebody who rejected the authority of the moral law, or Ten Commandments. His attack on his puritan persecutors was based on the fact that they were pharasaical legalists, ‘English Jues … that spie moses motes in every eye’. Attempts to trace Banister in all the usual locations – parish registers, ODNB, ESTC, CCED, lists of university alumni, etc. – have so far proved fruitless. (If any reader has come across him in another context, I’d be very happy to hear about it!). Still, in a way Banister’s anonymity opens up as many possibilities as it closes down. It seems to suggest that, other than his extraordinary views, expressed in these startling letters, he was an ‘ordinary’ person. Continue reading