They would not go away

Conrad Russell

  • England’s Iconoclasts: Laws against Images by Margaret Aston
    Oxford, 548 pp, £48.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 822438 9

This is a much-needed book. Perhaps no issue, not even those much-discussed issues of Justification by Faith and election, is as central to the debates of the first century of the English Reformation as that of idols or images. In this case, everything is in the word, for one man’s image was another man’s idol: for one, the terms were almost synonyms, while for another they were as opposite as God and the Devil. The issue not only divided theologians: it divided parishes. The altar stone the Marians recovered from the road at Smarden in Kent was potentially divisive: the altar stones at Sutton Valence and Hartlip, which had been built into the fireplaces of Master Harper and Master Norton, were potential sources of riot. The divisive potential of ecclesiastical ornament lasted right down to, and into, the Civil War, as illustrated by the churchwarden of Bromsgrove, who was reported to the Long Parliament for saying he had saved their church windows, and cared not a fart for any orders of the Parliament not confirmed by the king. Images were not only objects of belief: they were visible symbols of the unity of communities, and an unsuccessful symbol of unity is a symbol of disunity. Images were not an issue, like predestination, which authorities could ever hope to confine to the learned obscurity of the schools: they would not go away, even when taken down. A parish divided on whether to bow to the altar was as hard to manage as a Parliament divided on whether to bow to the mace.

The great strength of Dr Aston’s book is her ability to come to this issue with a Medieval background. She does not merely give us the 15th-century background her readers will expect: she gives us the Byzantine background of the iconoclastic controversy. Never again will we need to search our sources to see when Jewel and Foxe were quoting truly and when they were tailoring their sources: we can check what was available to them, and how they used it. The book’s strength on Lollardy is expected, and is informed by a valuable awareness that in the 15th century, ‘heresy was not like a door that is either shut or open.’ The 15th-century contributions to the debate, including those of Wycliffe, were mostly in an area of questionable orthodoxy, rather than of heresy. Here, there is a vital difference between Wycliffe and many of the later Lollards, who were often concerned with what Dr Aston calls the church’s ‘maladjusted economy’. They were the inventors of the analysis, beloved of William Tyndale and many early Protestants, that ‘Popery’ had grown up because it was for the profit of the clergy. It was this belief which enabled early Protestants, up to and including Jewel, to believe the mists of Popery would disperse before the clear light of the Gospel: it was later on, when preachers were forced to accept that Popery, like idolatry in the Old Testament, appealed to something very deep in the human spirit, that the whole issue grew more complex.

Dr Aston is particularly interesting on Luther, who, like Wycliffe before him, was much less extreme than many who later invoked him. Luther was among those to whom an image and an idol were not the same thing: an image was only transformed into an idol by the act of being worshipped, and the physical representation was not itself sinful: ‘if it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?’ It was this distinction which enabled Luther, in opposition to Karlstadt, to adopt a position of ‘tarrying for the magistrate’. Images, for Luther, did not have the infectious quality which made it necessary to destroy them instantly by popular tumult.

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