The Stripping of the Altars

A friend of mine and I sometimes argue about A.I. He contends that it is literally impossible for the Singularity to happen. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who stated that whether or not the Singularity “actually” happens won’t matter if people believe that it has happened. Our perception of reality trumps “reality” all the time, and then calls that reality into being. If you believe that you have an imaginary friend you act on that belief and shape your life around it. Those choices count much more than the fact that Billy the Rabbit has no actual physical existence.*

Perception obviously shapes historical analysis as well and can easily trump “facts on the ground.”

Sean McMeekin has written The Russian Revolution: A New History that challenges the version of events that I (and many others) learned in high school. Because of newly declassified documents available, McMeekin has solid footing for his conclusions. Textbooks told us that,

  • Russia was hopelessly backward and corrupt
  • The people were starving
  • The army wouldn’t fight in WW I, but the Czar made them anyway
  • That the people rose up spontaneously with the Bolsheviks, etc.

Naturally, the Left in Europe and America eagerly accepted this narrative–it was a narrative they very much wanted to be true.

We now know that

  • Bolsheviks paid the modern equivalent of hundreds of dollars per person per protest, which came direct from German financing
  • The Red Army in the Civil War (1918-1919) had lots of help from Sweden, it was not a purely popular movement
  • The Russian army in WW I actually fought well most of the time and had high morale until the Provisional Government made catastrophic errors after Czar Nicholas abdicated
  • Czarist Russia actually had a milder justice/police system than most any other comparable westernized country.

McMeekin points out perfectly well that a) Communism is bad, and b) Communists lied and manipulated to get into power, and then promptly dreadfully abused said power. But what this doesn’t tell us is why Lenin and Trotsky won and could maintain power, if they didn’t necessarily represent the people.

Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 attempts something similar. The standard narrative of the English Reformation generally assumes, that, yes–Henry VIII was a bit of wild boar, but Catholicism had reached a decrepit state and the laity, on the whole, wanted change. In some ways, then, the Reformation proved a blessing in disguise for Catholicism, as it spurred on their own revival. Duffy’s extensive research seeks to change our perception of the Catholic church in England leading up to the momentous decade of the 1530’s. Duffy combines copious research with an intimate and engaged style. One can see why this book won awards for historical writing in England. Duffy avoids any direct comments on the theological controversies that surround the book, but stays engaged as a writer through the ebb and flow of events he describes.

Duffy uses a few different lenses to make his points. Many assume that the laity must not have understood services in Latin (however much Latin was known in AD 1000, it was the language of scholars and clergy by the mid-15th century), and therefore disengaged themselves from liturgical life. With multiple types of sources, one in fact sees almost the opposite. Participation in church life on Sundays and other important feasts formed a crucial part of the lives of nearly everyone. Many laity gave gifts to churches not just of money, but of items for liturgical use. Indeed, in the English church at least, the clergy had responsibility for the adornment of the altar, but the laity for the nave of the church. Different sources indicate that the laity saw this not as imposition or burden imposed from the clergy, but as a privilege and a chance to take responsibility for the “their” church. We do not see a distant, “authoritarian” clergy in England in the century leading up to Henry VIII. We instead see partnership between clerical authority and the people.

Ah, but perhaps the laity blindly followed along to a service and a faith of which they had no understanding? Certain treatises or plays from the time do make a boorish cleric or layman the butt of fun for his lack of knowledge. Duffy cites a few examples of such things, but urges us not to make too much of such texts. We should not assume that such characters reflected standard fare. Such literary characters had comic effect precisely because they defied typical expectations. No one laughs at a man walking down the stairs, but if he tumbled down, that would be different.

Another standard narrative has the printing press prepping the ground for the Reformation by giving voices to those outside the theological and cultural mainstream. Once people read such material, they jumped on board with change. Again, Duffy pulls the reins. Indeed many printers had a good business selling books . . . with Catholic theological primers and prayer books topping the list. The “Book of Hours” (a compendium of prayers for different times of day based on the prayers recited by monastics) topped lists, selling thousands of copies and going through several editions for decades. More surprisingly, most of these books were written in Latin, not English. The people bought them either in spite of, or perhaps even because of, this fact.

Duffy speculates at length what this might mean. He points out that having the books themselves served as a mark of devotion. The books contained many pious illustrations as well. But good evidence exists that people knew the content and meaning of at least some of the psalms and prayers through repeption, participation in church life, and so on. In the post-printing press world we assume reading the only path to knowledge, but it ain’t necessarily so.

Having started the freight train of revisionist thought, Duffy (who keeps his own religious opinions unstated throughout the book) keeps going . . .

Many Reformation scholars assume that restriction of lay participation in religious life created a great need that reformers could exploit. Thus, the Reformation succeeds not so much through doctrinal change but by giving the laity new roles and responsibilities in their worship. Perhaps a grain of truth exists in this, but overall Duffy disagrees, citing numerous examples of popular devotions and practices that if anything, the laity foisted on the clergy. From Duffy’s perspective a healthy lay input of practice and devotion existed across England during Henry’s reign, which combined easily with the universal liturgical worship.

Ok, but surely the Catholicism of the time with all of its “smells and bells” must have emphasized a remote, distant, God, one we can access only through Mary and the saints, and so on. Wrong again. Duffy devotes significant space to the place of saints in late medieval religion, prevalent as it was. But this devotion to saints took nothing away from their sense of closeness to Christ. Both in formal liturgical worship and prayer, and in popular religious expressions (often in the form of “mystery plays”) the consistent emphasis came down on the side of Jesus as our brother, sharing in our humanity and sufferings, and so forth.

Duffy adds little new to our understanding of Henry VIII. We suspect that Henry broke from Catholicism for political reasons overwhelmingly, and Duffy’s research backs this view. Henry concerned himself exclusively with stability. He wanted to keep people quiet and so keep “traditional” religion. His problem lay in that to break with Rome, divorce Katherine, and marry Anne, he needed the support of religious leaders who wanted much more than to simply replace Henry with the Pope. Henry occupied an island by himself. Most wanted to stay Catholic. Others wanted more evangelical Protestantism. No one besides Henry’s wanted his solution–he fell “in between two stools.” And so, while he constantly had to reign in more zealous Protestants who stirred up trouble by changing too much too fast, he could not get rid of them and have his various marriages legitimated.

Some Catholics resisted openly, but I think that–whether Henry consciously intended this or no (I think not)–Henry’s regular reigning in of people like Cranmer and Cromwell gave Catholics hope that he would return to Catholicism. They might legitimately think that time favored them. Perhaps Henry’s ministers caused all the problems, and he might dismiss them any day now. In other words, “rocking the boat” might easily appear against their interests. In actuality, this movement of two steps forward, one step back, brought them further away from shore over time. This can explain the relative lack of resistance to Henry’s changes.

Edward VI reigned but a few years, though certainly all in a Protestant direction. Then, a truly Catholic Queen Mary followed, and it looked as if the temporizing strategy of most Catholics during Henry’s reign might pay off. As Duffy indicates, a truly fair picture of Mary Tudor’s (“Bloody Mary”) reign has yet to emerge.** Duffy shows that Mary tried temporizing to a degree herself. She did not immediately try and revert to the full Catholic liturgical rites, but instead first pushed things back to the state of things during her father’s reign. Again, Catholics could see things moving their way. But Mary’s short reign threw things decisively in favor of Protestantism, as Elizabeth came next.

Duffy shows us convincingly that the movement towards Protestantism never had majority support until Elizabeth’s reign. So we then must wonder why the English Reformation happened at all. A few theories exist:

  • Catholicism had grown corrupt, the laity desiring change, but kept in the dark by dumb, corrupt, obscurantist clerics. If one only wants to accept half of what Duffy claims, this view makes no sense of the actual evidence.
  • The people wanted more things that were distinctively English, as a form of rebellion against the cosmopolitan elitism of the late Renaissance. Thus, the English Reformation had more to do with native/national feeling than religious belief. But this won’t fly either–Duffy points out countless examples of English Catholic churches “localizing” certain practices and celebrations of saints–often ahead of the church hierarchy. Their practice of Catholicism had distinctive English elements. Besides, while the liturgy continued in Latin, numerous other religious works existed in English approved by the Church.
  • Catholicism remained strong, but societal elites, from the gentry on up, had grown distant from popular piety through the distribution of private prayer books and private family chapels. The English Reformation worked because Henry VIII appealed to the aristocrats of little piety with gifts of land, and to other sincerely religious elites who disdained the “vulgar” and distinctly physical practices of English Catholicism ca. 1500.

I have strong sympathy with this view, but Duffy disagrees with it for a few important reasons:

  • Many aristocrats made it a point to furnish churches with liturgical decorations and stayed involved with church life
  • Many aristocrats made a point to continue to fund the printing and distribution of Catholic materials.
  • Many aristocrats became central pillars of Catholic resistance, especially during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

At least we can say that the English Reformation, while supported by some aristocracy, did not primarily involve class divisions.

Duffy never offers a direct answer to the question of how exactly the marginalization of Catholicism happended, but he leaves some bread crumbs for us to follow. Part of the success of Protestantism involved time. The slow, steady move away from religious practice of 1530 sometimes changed course, but the overall direction favored Protestant innovations or simplifications. By the 1580’s only a minority of closet Catholics and the very old would remember “the way things were.” From a Catholic perspective, Protestants eventually cooked the frog in the pot.

Another subtle attack made deep inroads, one that piggy-backed with prevailing Renaissance humanist methodology. Catholics believe/d that holy water actually contains spiritual power and grace from God. It is not only or even primarily a mental reminder of one’s baptism. Holy images actually serve as a way to enter into the real presence of the saints, not just as a mental reminder that they once existed and led holy lives. Because Henry wanted to change and also not change things, many of his lieutenants attacked not the images themselves, or the use of holy water in itself, but their meaning and interpretation. For Henry’s reformers, such things served only to remind us of this or that. Their continued use provided continuity, but this new interpretation laid the foundations for their eventual removal. As the saying goes, if to appreciate the music you have to listen to the notes they are not playing, well, you can do that at home. To change the reason or the meaning of the action will effectively change the thing itself.^ The proof lies with the pudding . . . what Anglican church today uses holy water, incense, or venerates images as part of their worship?

I say that this piggy-backed on humanist methods because with the Reformation one saw a contemporaneous change in other areas. Renaissance humanists wanted things clean and tidy. They removed multi-colored stained glass in many cathedrals and replaced it with clear panes. They significantly curtailed the so-called “mystery plays” done by the laity, so prevalent in medieval times. Previous historians wrote with an eye towards myth and meaning, but starting around 1500 historians switched towards embracing exacting accuracy, and “fact.” The general trend for these scholars involved moving away from a “messy” physical/spiritual interaction towards the clean, unfettered world of the mind. Henry’s use of this trend put him squarely on the crest of the wave of deconstructing meaning that has only started to reverse itself within the last four or five years.

Duffy’s justly praised work leaves us with some uncomfortable questions.

Though this is a minor point, those committed to a view of “temporizing” with change have to face up to the fact that this strategy failed miserably for Catholics. Maybe it would have worked had a few things been different, but we know that temporizing failed. I have a natural sympathy with the dictum of Don Fabrizio Cabrera in The Leopard who states that, “we must change so that things stay the same.” Maybe sometimes this would work. But just as obviously, sometimes it fails, and one needs to hold the line at all costs. We should acknowledge that our preference for either prudent compromise or steely resolve comes from temperament, and examples of the prudence of both approaches litter the pages of history. Hopefully we can cultivate wisdom to know when we need one or the other. In the case of the English Reformation, even if Henry kept everything the same minus the Pope, well–it turns out you can’t have Catholicism without the Pope.

More substantively, The Stripping of the Altars may challenge one’s view of history, as it has mine. I would say that up until about 7-8 years ago, I leaned heavily on the side of history proceeding mainly from the bottom up. That is, I saw things happening because for better or worse, “the people,” or “the culture” brought it into being. Unless someone decisively challenges Duffy, this emphatically was not the case with the English Reformation. Rather, a few people close to power at the top managed within a generation to end centuries of belief and practice. This picture fits with emerging work on the Russian Revolution, and possibly the American Revolution as well. It fits with the aftermath of the Obergefell decision has had on our culture. It fits too with how people have responded to COVID, and how quickly the world fell in line. History may very well proceed from the top-down even in our more democratic age. For as much as Catholics here and there found bold or wily ways to resist change in pockets, they lacked cohesive national leadership.

Perhaps one should lean towards compromise most of the time. But, regardless of one’s convictions, every man, culture, and faith needs a solid center that will not budge when it encounters the world.


*For example, if we make a progressive algorithm and feed it to a computer, and tell the computer to make decisions based on the algorithm–or–if we made decisions based on the computer algorithim–who has agency and volition in this scenario? I say that in the above scenario we act as is the computer has volition, for we follow its commands. This matters much more than the technical origins of the algorithm.

**If we look at strictly the numbers, Elizabeth persecuted Catholics far more than Mary did Protestants, though of course she reigned for a much longer time. As a further aside, the image we have of Mary owes much to John Foxe’s Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, an indication of how a particular image/book at the right time can sway centuries of opinion.

^I.e., if you change the meaning of marriage from a sacramental union showing forth salvation to something instituted primarily for human happiness, you end up with marriage subordinated to human happiness–and there are plenty of ways to be happy as a couple without marriage.