All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

Laura Sangha

On Tuesday 16 January, in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishops and Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on ‘the damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church’. It reads:

The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed…

…Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

MANDATORY CAPTION: (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

For a Reformation historian this was a fascinating moment. It was also humorous (in a sort of bitter, 2017 way), since the Daily Mail immediately took offence at this show of remorse, declaring that since Henry VIII’s ‘war with the Pope’ began 500 years ago, and that it wasn’t even a required subject for the National Curriculum, it was hardly a ‘burning issue’. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Strictly Come Dancing Star provided a quote, saying:

These gestures are pointless. The Archbishop has not put anyone to death, as far as I know… Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation… You might as well expect the Italians to apologise for Pontius Pilate.

I’m looking forward to discussing all this with my students this term. There’s certainly a lot to be said of the way that the media are reporting this statement as an ‘apology’, as well as to ponder in the emphasis on unity and the healing of past divisions. Of course, Widdecombe is right that modern Christians are not individually responsible for what happened in the Reformation, but I disagree with the implicit argument underpinning the Mail article, that the Reformation is ancient history, and nothing to do with ‘us’. Since our understanding of the past and of where we came from is intimately tied to the way we conceptualise our contemporary identities, the way that we think of and interpret that past has a direct and immediate importance for the present. Members of the Church of England today are informed by, and understand their institution with reference to the past, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the evolution of the Church and to reconsider contemporary responses to it in this anniversary year. Continue reading

Horrid ghosts of early modern England, part II: creeks, screeks and…bacon?

Laura Sangha

In my last post I explained the protestant position on apparitions – which was that they were most likely to be the work of the devil. However, the evidence provided by a range of cheap, short contemporary pamphlets suggests that ‘lived experience’ of spirits was rather different for many people. These five page pamphlets reported news of spirits and haunted houses, and a rash of them were published in England between 1670 and 1700.

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Dramatic news of the horrid ghosts of early modern England, part I

Laura Sangha

This is the first of three posts on early modern ghosts. Part 2 is here. Part 3 was published on All Hallow’s Eve and can be seen here.

grave-yard

St Johns Church, Leeds, in R. Thoresby, Ducatus Leodiensis (1715)

In seventeenth-century England the sepulchre was surprisingly likely to open its ponderous and marble jaws and cast up the dead. Apparitions in questionable shapes regularly made the night hideous and reduced people to jelly with fear. This belief was not restricted to old wives and children either, since people from all religious groups and every social level encountered ghosts, from servants to clergymen, soldiers to scholars.

[What, has this thing appeared again tonight?]

Traditional catholic belief, folklore and protestant theology each contributed to the contemporary understanding of what these ‘things’ were. Often apparitions had a clear purpose: they might appear to prophesy, to announce some strange eruption to the state, to reveal the location of treasure they had buried in life, or perhaps to request prayers for the soul that would ease their fate in the afterlife.

However, the nature of these apparitions was not something that was immediately obvious to those who encountered these spirits of health or goblins damned. An apparition might look like or wear the clothes of someone recently deceased, but its true nature could not be discerned from its appearance. Supernatural encounters with mysterious, otherworldly beings could be dangerous to the living, and were not to be entered into lightly.

[It wafts you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it
] Continue reading

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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Fantastic Thoresby V: a late seventeenth-century Christmas

Laura Sangha

Last week Jonathan laid bare the attack on Christmas in England in the 1640s and 1650s, describing the puritan campaign to convince the public that Christmas was popish and profane, and to persuade people to abandon the traditional merry-making that took place on 25 December. This got me wondering about the resilience and enduring popularity of the festival. Specifically, what did Ralph Thoresby do when the day came around each year?

Thoresby’s Christmas 

Ralph Thoresby

Ralph Thoresby, antiquarian, pious diarist, author of the first history of Leeds.

For those of you that haven’t met him yet – Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) is the pious Leeds antiquarian and life-long diarist that I am currently researching (view the related posts here).[1] Disappointingly, but probably predictably, Thoresby’s diaries suggest that Christmas didn’t register that much on the antiquarian’s radar – Thoresby didn’t gorge on plum-pottage and mince pies, he didn’t entertain lavishly, he didn’t feast with his neighbours, and there is no evidence that he even indulged in a little tipple. On the morning of 26 December 1680 he did write that he ‘lay too long’ in bed, which we might chalk up to overindulgence the day before, but since Thoresby’s regular habit was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray, we probably shouldn’t read too much into this supposed sloth.

Why do I say that this lack of interest is quite predictable? It is because Thoresby began his life as a moderate nonconformist, attending both dissenting meetings as well as Church of England worship (though in the 1690s he conformed fully to the Church of England). In Thoresby’s case, his nonconformity was of a distinctly puritan flavour, so his lack of enthusiasm for the festivities of the Christmas season are in keeping with his austere style of piety, his avoidance of unsuitable company and his horror of idleness. Yet clearly times had changed – this was the 1650s no longer. On Christmas day Thoresby did attend Church without fail (by contrast, during the interregnum churches were locked on December 25), often hearing a sermon ‘suitable to the day concerning the birth of Christ’. 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