Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: "The Reformation Experience"

Eric Ives is very well known as the biographer of Anne Boleyn; he has also written on the claims of Lady Jane Grey to the throne--in this book, however, he narrates the religious history of England in the sixteenth century with the subtitle "Life in the Turbulent 16th Century". Ives does cross the Channel to look at the Protestant Reformation on the Continent, but his focus is on England and the Tudor Dynasty. Although the subtitle emphasizes "experience" Ives encounters the common problem of lack of resources telling us about what the ordinary person in the 16th century experienced as his or her religious life continually changed during the Tudor era: the break from Rome and more subtle and unstable changes under Henry VIII; the radical Calvinist reformation during the minority reign of Edward VI; the restoration of Catholicism under Mary I; and the long term establishment of the Church of England as the via media during the long reign of Elizabeth I.

Like Eamon Duffy before him, Ives examines parish sources and other materials to interpret the reaction of Catholics to the more or less Protestant changes in their religious life--but what Ives tries to do is understand people's feelings about their religious experience. We don't have Pew research polls for sixteenth century England, so this is ultimately frustrating. For instance, like Duffy, Ives describes the religious experiences of English Catholics before the Break from Rome and establishment of the Church of England: the Mass, the Sacraments, the Liturgical Year, Prayer for the Dead, the material culture of the parish church, etc. But then Ives asks, how did all this outward activity influence the personal spirituality and beliefs of Tudor Catholics? He really cannot answer that question, of course--but it is an important question. As Eamon Duffy commented in a later edition of his ground-breaking The Stripping of the Altars, it is a mystery how the English people, the majority of them at least, gave this all up with relative ease. He notes that the tug of war between regret of losing the beauty and coherence of "traditional" or medieval Catholicism and obedience to religious changes proclaimed and enforced by the government is indeed hard to fathom and understand.

That's a question I'll bring up on my radio program, The English Reformation Today, this Saturday, August 11, as we continue the series by examining the Catholic Church before the Reformation. I found Eric Ives' book to be an interesting counterpoint to Eamon Duffy's Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition. Whereas Duffy regrets the loss of visual and material religious culture, Ives exults in the creation of a written and aural literary culture--whereas Duffy points out the lessening of mystery and transcendence, Ives appreciates the communication of religion and morality to the common person.

I recommend Ives' The Reformation Experience, but note that the reader might ultimately be disappointed in his attempt to understand what it was like to live through those changes. He admits that he comes at the English Reformation as Protestant with "a background in English evangelical conformity" in his Introduction and that informs his interpretation. He is, as he hopes, irenic and fair in his interpretation. I particularly benefitted from his chapters on the Elizabethan religious settlement, especially when he discusses the oppostition of the Marian bishops in the House of Lords. They had gone along with Henry VIII's Supremacy and had taken his Oaths, but suffered buyer's regret as they recognized that "Catholicism without the Pope" was unsustainable. Cuthbert Tunstall and other bishops soon suffered imprisonment, usually under house arrest, and removable from their sees with the establishment of the Church of England.

Please note that I purchased this book.

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