Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars is so indispensible! If I had to be on a desert island and couldn't follow up on G.K. Chesterton’s advice to have a book about building ships, I would want to have Duffy's book with me. It definitely changed our view of the English Reformation. Note that Alec Ryrie comes at the English Reformation from a distinctly Protestant view, but appreciates Duffy’s achievement so well:
As an interpretation of English Reformation history, there was nothing particularly revolutionary about The Stripping of the Altars. The argument, essentially, was that pre-Reformation English Catholicism was a vibrant, popular, unified and flourishing tradition; a tradition that was then wantonly, deliberately and violently destroyed by a small clique of Protestant extremists. Others had made similar arguments, and while this picture can be overstated, precious few scholars today reject it entirely.
Duffy's particular achievement, though, was to show us "traditional religion" (not "popular" religion, he insists: the elite shared it, too) at parish level. And Duffy, an Irish Catholic born in 1947, understands this tradition in his bones. He can explain how, for example, an illiterate people could fully understand a Latin liturgy even if they could not actually translate it. He rescues medieval Catholicism from both the caricatures of later Protestantism and the condescension of later Catholicism. . . .
But he has changed the discipline, for three reasons. First, the sheer mass of evidence his scholarship has accumulated. This is a fat book, which, as a review quoted on the cover insists, is "not a page too long". Second, it makes sense of so much else. Scholars with Protestant sympathies frequently agree with Duffy about much of what happened, if not with his tone of lament. His rehabilitation of Mary I - long remembered as "Bloody Mary" - has been particularly compelling.
Lastly, the passion with which he writes gives the reader not merely a shrewd historical argument but a compelling vision of what it meant actually to live this traditional religion. It is a vision that a secular historian could not have given us.
In the chapter on Edward VI, ("The Attack on Traditional Religion III: The Reign of Edward VI") he recounts the Ashless Ash Wednesday of 1548, which followed the Candle-less Candlemas of the Feast of the Purification. Palm Sunday was palm-less that year, of course, and no processions--no Creeping to the Cross on Good Friday. The entire edifice of Catholic culture and liturgy was being dismantled in England.
Blessed John Henry Newman moved his listeners to tears at the first Catholic synod held in the Diocese of Westminster on July 13, 1852 when he preached his sermon on the Second Spring:
Three centuries ago, and the Catholic Church, that great creation of God's power, stood in this land in pride of place. It had the honours of near a thousand years upon it; it was enthroned in some twenty sees up and down the broad country; it was based in the will of a faithful people; it energized through ten thousand instruments of power and influence; and it was ennobled by a host of Saints and Martyrs. The churches, one by one, recounted and rejoiced in the line of glorified intercessors, who were the respective objects of their grateful homage. Canterbury alone numbered perhaps some sixteen, from St. Augustine to St. Dunstan and St. Elphege, from St. Anselm and St. Thomas down to St. Edmund. York had its St. Paulinus, St. John, St. Wilfrid, and St. William; London, its St. Erconwald; Durham, its St. Cuthbert; Winton, its St. Swithun. Then there were St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, and St. Hugh of Lincoln, and St. Chad of Lichfield, and St. Thomas of Hereford, and St. Oswald and St. Wulstan of Worcester, and St. Osmund of Salisbury, and St. Birinus of Dorchester, and St. Richard of Chichester. And then, too its religious orders, its monastic establishments, its universities, its wide relations all over Europe, its high prerogatives in the temporal state, its wealth, its dependencies, its popular honours,--where was there in the whole of Christendom a more glorious hierarchy? Mixed up with the civil institutions, with king and nobles, with the people, found in every village an in every town,--it seemed destined to stand, so long as England stood, and to outlast, it might be, England's greatness.
But it was the high decree of heaven, that the majesty of that presence should be blotted out. It is a long story, my Fathers and Brothers--you know it well. I need not go through it. The vivifying principle of truth, the shadow of St. Peter, the grace of the Redeemer, left it. That old Church in its day became a corpse (a marvellous, an awful change!); and then it did but corrupt the air which once it refreshed, and cumber the ground which once it beautified. So all seemed to be lost; and there was a struggle for a time, and then its priests were cast out or martyred. There were sacrileges innumerable. Its temples were profaned or destroyed; its revenues seized by covetous nobles, or squandered upon the ministers of a new faith. The presence of Catholicism was at length simply removed,--its grace disowned,--its power despised,--its name, except as a matter of history, at length almost unknown. It took a long time to do this thoroughly; much time, much thought, much labour, much expense; but at last it was done. Oh, that miserable day, centuries before we were born! What a martyrdom to live in it and see the fair form of Truth, moral and material, hacked piecemeal, and every limb and organ carried off, and burned in the fire, or cast into the deep! But at last the work was done. Truth was disposed of, and shovelled away, and there was a calm, a silence, a sort of peace;--and such was about the state of things when we were born into this weary world.