Saturday, May 25, 2013

Alec Ryrie on Current English Reformation Studies

Alec Ryrie writes in History Today about the current state of English Reformation Studies:

A generation ago, to study the English Reformation was to participate in a cheerful form of trench warfare. Long-held Whiggish positions were being spectacularly bombarded by Christopher Haigh’s wonderful rhetoric and systematically undermined by Eamon Duffy’s devastating arguments; but they weren’t abandoned without a fight. The whole subject was being reduced to whether there was one English Reformation or several, when it (or they) started and finished and whether anyone actually wanted it. If, indeed, it happened at all.

So, for those of us who grew up in the midst of this battle, it is a little disconcerting to realise that peace has broken out. We are becoming used to a new historical landscape, in which (whisper it) we pretty much agree on the broad outline of events. . . .

He previews some new and upcoming releases, and one of them that looks most interesting is from Cambridge University Press: The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Sense of the Past in Early Modern England by Andy Wood. According to Cambridge University Press:

Did ordinary people in early modern England have any coherent sense of the past? Andy Wood's pioneering new book charts how popular memory generated a kind of usable past that legitimated claims to rights, space and resources. He explores the genesis of customary law in the medieval period; the politics of popular memory; local identities and traditions; gender and custom; literacy, orality and memory; landscape, space and memory; and the legacy of this cultural world for later generations. Drawing from a wealth of sources ranging from legal proceedings and parochial writings to proverbs and estate papers , he shows how custom formed a body of ideas built up generation after generation from localized patterns of cooperation and conflict. This is a unique account of the intimate connection between landscape, place and identity and of how the poorer and middling sort felt about the world around them.

Ryrie mentions that Wood will pay "proper attention to the earth-shaking importance of the Dissolution of the Monasteries" and then continues/concludes:

All this touchy-feely stuff has left some holes, though. The most glaring is Henry VIII’s reign. It is a vital part of the story and little work is being done on it now. Peter Marshall, Ethan Shagan and I have written on the period, but then moved elsewhere. There are some works in the pipeline. Aude de M├ęzerac-Zanetti is preparing a groundbreaking book on the way Henry VIII used liturgy as propaganda. Diarmaid MacCulloch is writing a long-needed biography of Thomas Cromwell, made newly sexy by Hilary Mantel. . . .

The other gap is international. We now all recognise that the English Reformation was part of the European Reformation and some terrific research – Rory McEntegart’s England and the League of Schmalkalden (Royal Historical Society, 2002), David Gehring’s forthcoming Anglo-German Relations and the Protestant Cause (Pickering and Chatto, 2013) and Collinson and Polly Ha’s edited collection The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain (OUP, 2010) – has set it in that context. But most historians of England still don’t ‘do’ foreign languages, much less foreign archives. So we need more – but don’t hold your breath.

One thing is now clear. Whether long or short, singular or plural, domestic or international, the Reformation does now seem inescapably religious. All of these scholars take religious belief seriously (not, of course, uncritically). Best of all, they don’t read their scholarship off from their own religious views. Lake’s atheism, Marshall’s Catholicism or my own Protestantism are not instantly obvious from what we write. Just possibly we will stop fighting over the English Reformation for long enough to be able to understand it.

So Thomas Cromwell is "newly sexy"?

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