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 +

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