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!

15 thoughts on “Initial Thoughts on Stripping of the Altars

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    I have read it through three times, and think it is one of the most impressive historical works I’ve ever read! In fact, I went out immediately and bought “Voices of Morebath”, “Marking the Hours”, and “Faith of Our Fathers”—and I intend to buy “Saints and Sinners” and “Walking to Emmaus” as soon as I have the money. (Derek: you should surely see “Marking the Hours”.) My impression is that Duffy is an incredibly learned and very well-spoken Roman Catholic scholar—which means, of course, that his scholarship will be vaguely tinged with his own convictions, but on the whole I think he is very academically respectable (and certainly engaging). You’re absolutely right on the anecdotal thing, but at least most of his anecdotes are fun!

  2. MAG

    This post is inspiring me to go dust off my first-edition copy and actually read it! I bought it for a seminar some years ago, before 1) I was an Episcopalian, 2) I was obsessed with Anglicanism, and 3) I was into the history of liturgy.

  3. Gillian Barr

    Two words for you regarding the lack of a seminary library near by: “Interlibrary loan.” It’s not just for academic libraries. Any book an academic library can get for you, your local public library system should be able to get, if you have a modicum of patience. Almost always free, or very modest cost imposed by the loaning library. Befriend your local reference librarian, learn when their less-insanely-busy times are, and get them to explain whatever the local process is for demonstrating that you’ve checked the local catalog and this is what you need from ILL . . .

  4. Annie

    Love love love this book. Haven’t read it in years but I own it and did read it in its entirety (thanks to his Tedness). Enjoy reading your thoughts on it.

  5. Derek Olsen

    That doesn’t surprise me at all!

    That is a great suggestion!

    I thought you’d appreciate this one.

    I find that it dovetails nicely with the conference where we met. Indeed, some of the work done and presented on there I think comes out of some of the material and methods first started here.

  6. bls

    Probably doesn’t count, but I just finished watching “The Tudors” on Amazon Prime.


    (And have never been so grateful for freedom of speech and religion in my life…..)

  7. Kevin LaGree

    As it happens, I am reading “The Stripping of the Altars” as well, Derek – loaned by a friend. I know Duffy best through his literate book reviews done occasionally for THE TABLET. I’ve enjoyed “Altars” so much I have also acquired “Voices of Morebath”. Based on these comments and previous reviews I had read, I’ve just ordered “Marking the Hours” and “Walking to Emmaus”. In addition to his superb scholarship, Duffy served for a time as president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he is a fellow.

  8. (Rev) Wm D. Loring

    I shall have to read this one — earlier reviews put it on my ‘sometime’ list but your comments encourage me to upgrade that ranking.
    Incidentally, my interest in liturgy goes back to High School years, and I actually first read Shape of the Liturgy then (about 60 years ago), and in those years it seemed to be fairly widely read (mostly by those older than I, but sharing that interest) and I hope Stripping the Altars will have similar success.

  9. William Tighe

    Somehow nobody on this list has mentioned Duffy’s most recent, and most likely most contentious, book, *Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor* (Yale, 2009; paperback, 2010), which argues that Queen Mary’s restoration of Catholicism in England was in all respects a smashing success (although, of course, he finds much to deplore about the persecution that accompanied it), and that it would have been irreversible had Mary lived longer than she did. (This is also the judgment of the “Anglican agnostic” historian Christopher Haigh in his *English Reformations* of 1993.)

    He also argues that Marian England was the “laboratory” of the later Counterreformation; and that some of Pole’s closest (Italian) friends and collaborators played an important part in the institutionalization of the Counterreformation in the Archdiocese of Milan under St. Charles Borromeo from the 1560s onwards.

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