- Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher edited by Brendan Bradshaw and Eamon Duffy
Cambridge, 260 pp, £27.50, January 1989, ISBN 0 521 34034 9
- The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation by Robert Whiting
Cambridge, 302 pp, £30.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 521 35606 7
- The Reformation of Cathedrals: Cathedrals in English Society, 1485-1603 by Stanford Lehmberg
Princeton, 319 pp, £37.30, March 1989, ISBN 0 691 05539 4
- Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England by David Cressy
Weidenfeld, 271 pp, £25.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79343 8
- The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the 16th and 17th Centuries by Patrick Collinson
Macmillan, 188 pp, £29.50, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 43971 6
- Life’s Preservative against Self-Killing by John Sym, edited by Michael MacDonald
Routledge, 342 pp, £29.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 415 00639 2
- Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 by Nigel Smith
Oxford, 396 pp, £40.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 19 812879 7
Henry VIII’s jurisidictional quarrel with the Papacy was not resolved, and its consequences are with us still. In Henry’s eyes the dispute was one of authority, not doctrine, but doctrinal questions soon became involved. His quarrel coincided with religious ferment on the Continent and with the emergence of religious diversity in England, as the religious teachings of Luther and Zwingli spread in the late 1520s and early 1530s. But for the divorce, Henry would no doubt have continued to stand firm against heresy, and he might well have been successful. But once he had broken with Rome and asserted his royal supremacy over the Church, he relaxed his persecution of dissent. He needed his royal supremacy preached up and down the land. And who better to preach it than Thomas Cranmer or Hugh Latimer, full of Continental learning, opposed to Papal pretensions, and keen to see Henry as a godly prince who would destroy idolatry and embrace true religion. Henry had not intended to go so far along that road of reformation, but he had unleashed a process that proved lasting.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 12 No. 13 · 12 July 1990
George Bernard’s review (LRB, 14 June) contains a number of comments on my book Perfection Proclaimed which show that he has misunderstood it. First, I do not take my sources ‘more or less at face value’. My intention was to examine radical religious expression more closely than previous accounts in order to free it from the pejorative descriptions of hostile witnesses which have invariably coloured subsequent understandings, sympathetic or not (and it is quite clear in which camp Dr Bernard places himself). Where possible, I sought to show how such expression functions in radical religious worship and politics. Dr Bernard mocks my recounting of Abiezer Coppe’s extravagant gestures, but in fact I analyse Coppe’s understanding of his own prophetic role as he textually recounted it, rather than presenting it in a naive, unmediated way. Far from a ‘face-value treatment’, the book attempts to give a more satisfactory account of radical religion by setting text against context.
Second, I certainly do isolate a series of sub-cultures known by their jargons (not however, pace Bernard, a ‘clear category’), but far from seeing both groups and individuals as distanced from ‘organised religion’, I try to show the nature of the continuities between the radicals and the rest. Bernard’s description does not make sense. He refers to my subjects as ‘half-educated or self-taught’, but he thereby excludes others who were formally educated, and it is the connection between the educated and the semi-educated which was so important. I make no claims for any quantitative dimension of radical affiliation or literacy, but one cannot ‘exaggerate the volume of such writing’. We know roughly how much was published even if some works have now been entirely lost. A great many books were published at the time (probably out of all proportion to the number of radical personnel). Evidence of radical book-collecting which survives shows that the translations in particular were popular. I am also rebuked for taking ‘the wider context of Civil War and Interregnum Puritanism’ for granted. It was not my aim to challenge this context, although I think I have made some contribution to our knowledge of its shifting internal dynamics.
Third, I am accused of confusing ‘form and content’, of privileging radical expression over radical ideas and projects. For many radical prophets, ultimately powerless as they were, ‘form’ was their ‘content’ (to use Dr Bernard’s terms): their awareness of outer reality. The confusion was inherent in radical religious culture.
Dr Bernard’s problem seems to be that he cannot take religious radicals seriously: they are ‘nut-cases and fruitcakes’. Such labelling of course enables us to marginalise them into silence. I give them a chance to speak, partly in order to understand how expression and behaviour which was and is regarded as insane could have a function and set of meanings within a particular community. That is why one gives lots of space to interpreting the nearly incomprehensible. It seems to me most worrying that a professional historian should allow a very irrational prejudice to cloud his view of the irrational in history.
Keble College, Oxford