Homage to the Old Religion

Susan Brigden

  • The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.1400-c.1580 by Eamon Duffy
    Yale, 704 pp, £29.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 300 05342 8

At the Reformation a world was lost that could never be recovered. The images and altars, the dooms and roods of the parish churches, the towers and cloisters of the religions houses were desecrated. But the loss and profanation of the treasures donated over centuries was nothing compared to the shattering of the beliefs they had symbolised. For Catholics, the desecration threatened the end of mediation, propitiation and spiritual solace: the loss of community between the dead and the living. It is this lost physical and mental world, as well as this desolation, which Eamon Duffy discovers and, wishing it had been otherwise, movingly describes.

In the first part of the book, Duffy wants to show the vitality and appeal of late medieval Catholicism; and to prove that it exerted a diverse and vigorous hold over the imagination and loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation. He succeeds triumphantly. He begins, not as the reformers did, with the Word, but with the Catholic liturgy. At the heart of this was the Mass, within which ‘the redemption of the world wrought on Good Friday, once and for all, was renewed and made fruitful for all who believed.’ At the elevation of the Host, the people were ‘transported to Calvary itself, and gathered not only into the passion and resurrection of Christ, but into the full sweep of salvation history’. The lives of the people were marked by the rites of passage of the Church: by baptism, marriage and extreme unction. Beyond these sacraments were the myriad festivals of the Catholic liturgical year. Duffy’s account of the feast of Candlemas, and his explanation of the imaginative power of its ceremonies, is typical of the force and range of his arguments in this part of his book.

The words ‘magical’ or ‘superstitious’ have been applied too often to late medieval religion, by the reformers themselves, and then by those historians who, Duffy claims, have followed the reformers’ strictures too blindly. Duffy passionately refutes the claims that there was a schism between the ‘religion of the people’ and the religion of a literate élite, that the orthodox teachings of the clergy were only partially understood and partially practised, and superstition and paganism prevailed. Duffy’s argument is that a shared repertoire of symbols, prayers and beliefs bridged the gulf between the literate and the illiterate.

Incantatory prayers, supernatural promises, and invocations against the Devil were characteristic of late medieval religion. In Religion and the Decline of Magic Keith Thomas asserted that the medieval Church had done a great deal to weaken the fundamental distinction between a prayer and a charm, and to encourage the belief that there was a virtue in the mere incantation of holy words. Duffy seems to provide vivid evidence to prove that case. How orthodox was the recitation of this catena of sacred names, interspersed with 47 signs of the cross to conjure away evil spirits?

Omnipotens + Dominus + Christus + Messias + Sother + Emmanuel + Sabaoth + Adonay + Unigenitus + Via + Vita + Manus + Homo + Ousion + Salvator + Alpha + et Oo + Fons + Origo + Spes + Fides + Charitas + Oza + Agnus + Ovis + Vitulus + Serpens + Aries + Leo + Vermis + Primus + Novissimus + Rex + Pater + Filius + Spiritus Sanctus + Ego sum + Qui sum + Creator + Eternus + Redemptor + Trinitas + Unitas + Clemens + Caput + Otheotocos + Tetragrammaton +

Duffy finds that this sequence, dating back to the 11th century, was sanctioned by the Church in its official liturgy, and collected by the most learned and orthodox Catholics. He argues that such prayers were ‘a manifestation of popular religion, but it was a popular religion which extended from the Court downwards’. Certainly, religion transcended the usual distinctions of rank and degree, yet in his anxiety to portray a religious landscape peopled other than by ‘Lollards ... and leisured, aristocratic ladies’, he neglects the devotional novelties of the age which were, in their way, prophetic of change. The mystics whose highest ambition was to rise above the physical imaginings of the mind might have had less in common with their contemporaries who imagined the precise pains of Purgatory than with those later reformers who, as Margaret Aston brilliantly showed in England’s Iconoclasts, strove for a faith which worshipped God in spirit and truth and cast out the ‘idols of the mind’.

The contemplative spirituality which was one characteristic of late medieval piety is not a central theme of The Stripping of the Altars. For the most part, the faith described by Duffy is more concerned with the objective things of religion than with the ‘inward steering after the privy spirit of God’. Doubtless the austerity and otherworldliness required by such meditation was given to few. Yet Duffy argues that the liturgy of the Church did inspire inward contemplation: the actions of the priest, figuring the actions of Christ, focused the minds of the people, and prepared them to participate in the Church’s worship. At Candlemas, the procession and ceremonies, enacting the journey to Jerusalem and Mary’s offering of Christ in the Temple, were intended to lead the laity to spiritual communion with God through the vivid imagining of the events of Christ’s life and death. Duffy cites the fainting, visionary account of Candlemas by the eccentric, neurotic Margery Kempe: ‘hir mende was raveschyd in-to beholdyng of owr Lady offeryng hyr blisful Sone owre Savyour to the preyst Simeon in the Tempyl, as verily to hir gostly undirstondyng as [if] sche had ben ther in hir bodily presens.’

The same scene was enacted in the late medieval religious plays, which Duffy claims had a lasting impact on the popular imagination of Christ and of His Passion. Yet his insistent denial of pagan or sub-Christian elements within lay religion may sometimes look like special pleading. An old man of Cartmel, told in James I’s reign of Jesus Christ and His saving power, remarked: ‘I think I heard of that man ... once in a play at Kendal called Corpus Christi play, where there was a man on a tree and blood ran down.’ For most historians the story reveals an abyss of religious ignorance, and suggests that there may have been many others, now as then unknown, whom the essential Christian message never reached, either through the Catholic liturgy or by Protestant evangelism. For Duffy, it is indicative of the extraordinary didactic power of the religious plays, and the disastrous catechetical consequences of their suppression.

In the Middle Ages, and later, Catholics believed that the holy could be served by art; that Jesus and His mother could be portrayed in physical form. Before the Reformation the nave of every parish church was dominated by the Rood, the great crucifix – ‘the icon of Christ’s abiding solidarity with suffering humanity’ – and was filled with images of all the saints who inspired the parishioners’ devotion. The worship of saints derived from the belief that these holy men and women, beatified in Heaven, not only exemplified holy, perfect lives, but through their intercessory relationship with Christ, could aid, or punish, their votaries on earth. Duffy explains how the saints’ spectacular torments and miraculous preservation made them symbols of transcendent power; each gave the promise of particular miracles to a laity perpetually fearful of fire and famine, illness, pain and death. In many of the vivid illustrations in the book, these helper saints gaze out serenely (or not so serenely, in the case of St Erasmus, who is being disembowelled). While Duffy acknowledges the elements of pagan fertility-cult and folklore in, for example, the worship of St Wolstan (‘Priapus’, ‘god of their feldes in Northfolke’) he hardly admits that the worship of saints was challenged by others quite apart from the reformers.

Learned Catholics had long been concerned by the materialism and excesses of the cult; they were convinced there were too many images, encouraging the wrong sort of worship. The danger was that the image might be worshipped, not for the saint it represented, but for itself, as a totem. One of Margery Kempe’s companions on pilgrimage to Rome in 1414 took with her an image of Christ, which she would dress in little shirts, and ‘kiss as though it had been God Himself’. (Four hundred years later, Lord Byron thought that Venetian women kissed better than any other, which he attributed to the worship of images and ‘the early habit of osculation induced thereby’.) Thomas More, who would become a saint himself, might insist that simple people could read images for what they were: ‘Take the simplest fool ye can choose, and she will tell you that Our Lady herself is in Heaven ... and will tell you a difference between an image of a horse and a horse indeed.’ Yet privately, to Erasmus, he compared the suitors at court to those London wives, who, praying to an image of the Virgin by the Tower, ‘gaze upon it so fixedly that they imagine it smiled upon them’.

Erasmus appears only fleetingly in this book, but it is often implicitly against his original criticisms of contemporary religious mores that Duffy defends late medieval religious practice. Erasmus asked in his Praise of Folly: ‘Could anything be so foolish – or, I suppose, so happy – as those who promise themselves supreme bliss for repenting daily those seven short verses of the holy psalms – the magic verses which some demon is believed to have pointed out to St Bernard?’ He stresses the folly in this; Duffy the comfort. For Erasmus, the cult of the Virgin detracted from the proper place of Christ in Christian devotion: ‘the common ignorant man comes near to attributing more to her than to her son.’ Some of the most eloquent parts of Duffy’s book show Christ in His rightful place at the heart of the believer’s faith and worship and it still remains to explain why the humanists – both Catholic and Protestant – felt a passionate need to restore the redemptive work of Christ to the centre of religious attention; why they feared that all the rites and relics, pilgrimages and pardons might reduce Christianity to a mockery of what Christ came to do.

Medieval Catholicism held the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the English people. Never has the point been made before in so powerful a synthesis as this. The splendid achievement of the first part of his book leaves Duffy facing a formidable challenge in the second: to explain how it was that Catholicism, which was neither decadent nor remote from the needs of the people, should have been cast out within two generations, and how England became, eventually, a Protestant country. The systematic destruction of the old religion may be easier to understand than the conversion to a new. Catholic losses were not all Protestant gains.

With the advance of reform Duffy is hardly concerned. The power and, for many, the truth of the central doctrines of Protestantism are never admitted; nor are the spiritual doubts that assailed many Catholics. William Roper, despairing of his salvation, was converted, if only for a while, to Lutheranism, for he was ‘fully persuaded that faith only did justify, that the works of man did nothing profit, and that, if a man could once believe that our Saviour Christ shed His precious blood and died on the cross for our sins, the same only belief should be sufficient for our salvation. Then thought he that all the ceremonies in the Church were very vain.’ There were many others like Roper (except they never returned to Catholicism), but Duffy ignores them. Protestant insistence that Purgatory was found nowhere in Scripture, once accepted, could free at a stroke all those who lived in terror of its pains, and the countless souls who lingered there, awaiting final redemption. That the doctrine of Purgatory may have been exploited by the clergy for economic gains also came as a revelation. Scripture, too, provided profound reasons for denying the invocation of saints and for finding the worship of images contrary to the laws of God. But this is not part of Duffy’s story.

If the power of the new doctrine is not admitted as a reason for the advance of reform, then its explanation must be found in the power of the Tudor state. We are told of Henry VIII’s ‘diktat’. Yet Henry lacked the resources, if not the will, for tyranny. Duffy is surely right that the Protestants were, in the first generation of reform at least, very few, but it is in the way of revolutionary movements for a few prime movers to have an impact far beyond then numbers. Thomas More warned good Catholics, before the break with Rome came, that there was as great a difference between them, complacent in their ancient faith, and the rabid reformers ‘as between frost and fire’. For the most part, the Catholics did not know how to defend a faith which had never needed defending, except by waiting faithfully for its return. The advent of reform had brought profound divisions within a community which religion had previously united. Duffy shows the unity in the first part of the book, but hardly the bitterness which ensued. The Protestants were later able to taunt recusant Catholics with the words Dominus vobiscum, for it seemed He was not with them.

The second part of The Stripping of the Altars is not to be compared to the first. As a history of the Reformation, or even of the destruction of the old faith, it seems strangely threadbare. One tiny aside is indicative: Sir Walter Ralegh, that quintessential Renaissance man, is described as ‘Waller Ralegh, the seaman’. Duffy is not writing here from the most promising sources, and cites hardly one manuscript. For a historian so sensitive to the debt of the present to the past, and of the claims of the dead on the living, he is curiously unmindful of some of those historians who have gone before. He suggests, for example, that it is something new to interpret Mary’s restoration of the Catholic religion as vital and innovative, but we are all taught that now.