Daily Archives: December 31, 2011

Initial Thoughts on Stripping of the Altars

For some reason, the books I most like to read are quite expensive. With no lending seminary library in the area, that means I normally have to wait until Christmas time to get a fresh crop of theological reading material. Well—Christmas has come and so has my reading list!

At the top (thanks to my awesome in-laws!) is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars. For those unfamiliar with it, this book was originally published in the late 90’s and is now into a second edition. It is at the heart of a revisionist reassessment of the state of late medieval catholicism and the history of the English Reformation(s). The old view was that late medieval catholicism was a mass of impenetrable superstition just ripe for a Reformation which was eagerly embraced by all right-thinking English-speaking people. In this work, Duffy has two main sections: the first uses social historical techniques (looking at wills, bequests, court cases, etc.) to document the vibrant and coherent character of late medieval devotion; the second section challenges the assumption that the Reformation was a movement just waiting to happen that had wide popular support.

I’m about a third of the way through it and have a few thoughts which will likely be expanded later (and as I read more):

  • This is a great book—learned yet still very readable and highly informative! In this first part in particular, it shows what can be done when social history is done well.
  • This is also a very large book, tipping the scale at 700 pages. While I’ve seen it referenced quite a lot, I’m guessing that this is a text that falls in the same class as Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy: it’s referenced more often than actually read…
  • It’s both informing and corroborating my earlier hunches concerning the prymers and their relationship to the early Books of Common Prayer. I suspect I’ll be writing quite a lot more on this connection.
  • In a sense, sections of it remind me strongly of Percy Dearmer’s little book on the history of the Church of England. That is, it portrays the 15th century in mostly idyllic terms and the Reformation as a rupture caused by a powerful few. I’m looking forward to the second section where I hope he will draw a clearer picture of this.
  • Sometimes he seems to suggest that the evidence he gathers means more than it does. Being able to point to texts is important (and is often all we have to go on); demonstrating how widely read, held, and representative they are is a different story entirely.
  • Social history is a terrific tool but always errs in the direction of the anecdotal. As a result it must be well deployed in using it to help solve the previous problem. But its anecdotal character can be used to conceal as well as reveal.
  • As he points out in the intro, Lollards rarely appear and they are reckoned as naught in the main. On the other hand, he’s quite right that so often scholars focus on the marginal groups rather than trying to sketch a picture of mainstream orthodoxy. I appreciate that and am thinking of how Aelfric fits into his time.
  • All in all, so far, I highly recommend it!