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.

Dr Aston traces with great care the slow shift in the English Reformation from a position resembling Luther’s, which was able to distinguish between images and idols, to one which held that the nature of man was, as the Old Testament had claimed, so deeply prone to idolatry that all images could be expected to become idols. She does not altogether tackle the disillusionment which this realisation represented for Protestants, nor how far it represents their own struggle to come to terms with ‘the uses of literacy’. Behind the recognition that all images were potential idols lurked the recognition that Popery would never be eradicated, and therefore that schism in the Christian Church was there for ever. Some understanding of this would have enriched Dr Aston’s understanding of the increasing desperation behind Protestant iconoclasm. Instead, we have an equally valuable analysis of the chopping and changing of the Henrician and Edwardian formulae, and of the reaction of writers and preachers to them. This tells us a lot about the religious balance of Henrician England. One example may show the knife-edge on which the Henricians were trying to walk. They allowed images, but not the worshipping of images, and decided it was wrong to put candles before the image of saints, but right to put them before the crucifix.

This middle section of the book, dealing with changes in official positions from 1530 to 1559-60, is the section which will be most heavily used for undergraduate teaching. We are deeply in Dr Aston’s debt for the provision of such an exact analysis, showing in each case how people were adapting and tailoring the formulae before them. The shift towards iconoclasm under Edward is charted, and we are shown the increasing readiness of Protestants to answer yes to Archbishop Arundel’s old question: ‘were it a fair thing to come into a church and see therein none image?’ The conspicuous exception to this trend, as many readers will expect, was Elizabeth I. That Elizabeth differed sharply from her bishops (or most of them) is something we have now been taught to expect. Dr Aston does not merely make the point, but proves it with a textual analysis of the differences between the articles used by the Elizabethan visitors in 1559 and the text of the Royal Injunctions a few months later. Between the two lies the whole difference between an image and an idol. It will come as no surprise to those schooled in the theological reconstruction associated with the names of Dr Tyacke and Dr Lake that the one bishop apparently on the Queen’s side was Edmund Guest, Bishop of Rochester and the Queen’s almoner. Most of the others differed sharply from the Queen, and the result was an uneasy compromise: ‘The iconoclastic bishops ... won the de facto right to enforce their opinions, did not win ... the de jure position they wanted.’ Thus in imagery, as in theology, the Elizabethan compromise made it possible for two fundamentally opposed positions to continue, both with some justice, to claim the title of orthodoxy. Dr Aston, using a valuable discussion of the sources invoked in the Sherfield case under Charles I, says that ‘ultimately the Elizabethan compromise did as much to foster as to camouflage conflict.’ The study of images leads her, as the study of theology led Dr Tyacke, to reject the old Anglican-Puritan antithesis: she concludes that ‘iconomachy may not have been the chosen path of the Supreme Governor, but it indubitably was the received teaching of a great many loyal members of the Church of England.’ This book will be a valuable companion to, and support for, the Tyacke realignment of English ecclesiastical politics.

All these points, of course, are designed to answer the question: how. They do not bear on the much more fascinating question why. In writing for the late 20th century, the age of the visual aid, it is much more difficult, and much more challenging, to explain the horror idolatry provoked among many who witnessed it. It is a horror rarely felt and rarely understood these days: in 1959, when the Senior Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, bowed at the name of Jesus when saying Grace, it was only the senior retired Fellow who felt moved to protest. How do we convey, to a generation which is immune to it, a disgust which stretches from him back to the early Lollards? This is a much deeper challenge to our historical understanding, and unless it can be met, the study of English iconoclasm will be at best half a success. Those who, fashionably, lament the destruction of images on artistic grounds do not know how lucky they are to look at an image and be able to see only a picture or a statue: they have no need to grapple with the power an image enjoyed in the eyes of its believers, and no need to emancipate themselves from the ‘servile popish fear’ against which Thomas Cartwright protested. It is the immunity from fear which makes the urge to destroy unintelligible. How does this book meet the challenge of making iconoclasm intelligible to the imagination of its readers?

Here, Dr Aston has been less successful: she confesses bluntly that ‘I find it hard to sympathise with the reformers’ zeal for destruction.’ As she says, ‘historians can hardly help having sympathies,’ but those sympathies do not free us from the need to get inside the skin of the subjects we study. It is, indeed, only when we have done so that we can afford to be unsympathetic in the knowledge that we are being unsympathetic to the right target. More important, without some understanding of what it felt like to be an iconoclast, we will not understand the subject well enough to set it in its right context, and therefore will not understand the phenomenon well enough to explain it. The book that will make iconoclasm live to a 20th-century reader remains to be written.

England’s Iconoclasts makes some contributions to this task. Dr Aston is well aware how much the growing cult of the verbal against the visual coincided with the rise of printing, and has a shrewd eye for such quotations as one from Nicholas Shaxton, which explains how people may have images ‘only to behold, or look upon them, as one looketh upon a book’. She has an equally shrewd eye for the surgically acute question (coming, naturally from Sir Thomas More), why it was permissible to honour books in physical ways, but not to do the same to images. Printing, of course, does not explain the Lollard insistence that ‘letter written dwelleth,’ but it is possible to link Lollardy with growing literacy, and to see the defence of images as laymen’s books as acquiring an increasingly patronising character as lay literacy grew more common.

It is, however, possible to doubt whether, even in the single case of Thomas Becon, for whom Dr Aston makes the claim, the iconolastic case ever ‘rested on a single premise: the superiority of word over image’. Dr Aston could have devoted more effort to bringing out the extent to which, for early iconoclasts, ‘religion’ and ‘the church’ represented two diametrically-opposed images, not one and the same image, and therefore the extent to which idols represented, not a form of Christianity, but a false worship of false gods, no doubt often adopted for the presumed profit of the clergy who encouraged it. There is no mention (except, interestingly, in the pictures) of the concept of ‘will-worship’: the belief, central to the hotter forms of Protestantism, that it was a sin for human beings to devise their own forms of worship: as William Perkins put it, ‘they that set themselves up a devised worship, set themselves up a devised God.’ Until the perceived irreligiousness of the Popish Church has been adequately conveyed to the reader, such ideas will remain two-dimensional.

Behind this lurks an ideal of what worship ought to be which is very sharply different from the Catholic. Dr Aston, in a sensitively chosen set of quotations from the 15th-century bishop Reginald Pecock, brings out the Catholic ideal of a worship capable of appealing to the senses and to the imagination. As the love of two individuals finds expression in physical touch and embrace, so physical treatment of images, such as kissing them, or creeping to the cross, ‘ought not to be scorned or rebuked’. What she does not adequately bring out is that to the hotter Protestants, this was precisely what was wrong with images: they appealed to the senses, and that was no way to worship a God who was never an object of sense-data. It was a central point of Protestantism to identify faith with the understanding, not with the senses. The stress on Justification by Faith only made this appeal to the understanding more central: religion was something which was to be understood, not merely felt. An appeal to the senses, then, did not lead to God: it led, at best, into a blind alley, and at worst into the broad way which led to damnation. This was why, at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, new churchmen like John Howson were able to complain that their fellow Protestants were turning churches into schools: when Reformers and Catholics talked about worship, they were often not talking about the same thing.

It was not that Protestants were indifferent to the appeal to the senses, as the parallel case of the Puritans and music will show. In 1642, when the Parliamentary troops occupied Hereford Cathedral, they were so overcome by the beauty of the singing that they could not forbear dancing in the choir: they understood the beauty, but not that it could be a form of worship. It was because they agreed with Bishop Pecock that the devotion to an image could be like sexual relations between humans that they were so determined to exclude it from worship, and so frightened when they found it there. The Homilies, in a remarkable passage, claimed that it was as impossible to be in the presence of an image without committing idolatry as to be in the presence of a harlot without committing fornication. The more they conceded the power of visual imagery, the more vital it was to them to exclude it from the church, where it had no place. This is part of the reason why sexual imagery became so constant a theme of attacks on idols. Thomas Bilney denounced Our Lady of Willesden as a ‘common bawd’, and Zwingli complained of the image of St Barbara, ‘got up fine like a prostitute’. The image of the Whore of Babylon, the Romish strumpet, painted in new ways to make her more lovely, allowed a rich proliferation of such imagery. It was because the appeal to the senses in worship had to be discredited that such sexual imagery was not, like Pecock’s, comfortably domestic, but lewd and demeaning. It was a natural progression which led from here to describing Our Lady of Walsingham as the ‘witch of Walsingham’.

There is room for speculation about the theories of representation behind much iconoclastic writing, which occasionally show echoes of Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Bishop Hooper’s insistence that it was possible to learn more of a live ape than of a dead image, if both were brought into a school to teach, raises questions about the theory of representation which I am incompetent to pursue, but there is surely something here worthy of investigation. Hostility to the theatre could have been usefully considered under the same heading.

Today, in what is arguably becoming a post-literate society, these questions are peculiarly hard to pursue, but for that reason, perhaps, they may also be peculiarly topical and peculiarly worth pursuing. Bishop Reginald Pecock, by far the most sensitive and perceptive of the defenders of images, argued that: ‘the eyesight showeth and bringeth into the imagination and into the mind within the head of a man much matter and long matter sooner, and with less labour and travail and pain, than the hearing of the ear doth. And if this now said is true of a man who can read stories in books – that he shall much sooner and in shorter time and with less labour and pain in his brain come to the remembrance of a long story by sight, than either by hearing other men’s reading, or by hearing his own reading – much more is this true of all those persons who cannot read in books; namely, since they shall not find men so ready to read a dozen leaves of a book to them as they shall find ready the painted walls of a church, or a stained cloth, or images spread abroad in diverse places of the church.’ Would it be straining imagination to read in this passage the creed of an articulate TV producer? And would it be straining credulity to suggest that the viewer, precisely because there is ‘less labour and pain in his brain’, may be losing as well as gaining something? And would it be wrong to follow the Reformers in suggesting that that something may perhaps reside in the understanding?

Recently, one of the actors in Dallas was assaulted at Atlanta Airport, in disgust at the misdoings of the character he was portraying on screen. Can we, pondering on this story, perhaps find it easier to understand the Reformers’ conviction that the image could easily turn into the idol, and that in the process the viewer faces a real danger of confusion between appearance and reality? Those who merely find this story amusing would have followed Pecock and More: those who can see in it cause for alarm may perhaps go on to understand what iconoclasm was all about.