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Unstripped altars again

12 October 2012

Nicholas Orme reads a new survey of the church scene before the Reformation

The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and vulnerability before the break with Rome
G. W. Bernard
Yale University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT812 )

GREAT pillars of the Church in Tudor Eng­land collapsed like dominoes: papal power, monasteries, images, pilgrimages, and Latin services. Did that signify the Church's vul­nerability, or its vitality - the fact that it was at the centre of royal policy and national life, and emerged in some ways stronger than before?

Professor G. W. Bernard sets out to ex­amine this issue before the break with Rome. His book would be better entitled The Early Tudor Church, because it begins with a study of the case of Richard Hunne, allegedly murdered while in the Bishop's prison in London in 1514. It certainly considers evidence from the 14th and 15th centuries, but does so chiefly to explain the period from the 1480s to the 1530s, not to recreate the Church's history since 1300.

The author addresses a number of sig­nificant aspects: the monarchy (dominant over the Church long before Henry VIII), bishops, religious orders, parish clergy, the laity, criticism of the Church, and heresy. His account is based on deep and wide reading, mainly of published works, and it collects together a large amount of valuable informa­tion. He is judicious and detached, presenting neither an account of an England fervently Catholic nor one of such superstition and corruption that it was moving irretrievably towards Reformation.

Why, then, did I finish it with some dis­appointment? One reason is the work of Eamon Duffy. He based his Stripping of the Altars firmly on what happened in England's 10,000 parish churches, especially on Sun­days. It is understandable that a later his­torian should wish to take a different approach, and Bernard covers aspects of the Church which Duffy did not, but worship is not really here. The word is not in his index; and nor is "liturgy" or "service". Duffy used lay people's prayer-books to understand their religion; these, too, are ab­sent from this book.

Worship was the bedrock of the Church. Whatever the apparent changes of the Re­formation, a Sunday mid-morning service, led by a priest and clerk, with a set liturgy that did not expect literacy and involved the parishioners very little, while they sat in order of rank on pre-Reformation seating looking at a pre-Reformation rood screen, survived the 16th century in all these respects. Any church history needs to emphasise this.

It is a challenging task to deal with the range of topics addressed in the book. One needs to be careful in saying that friaries were endowed (this was hardly true in most cases); that the basic prayers were readily available in English (most primers were in Latin until the 1530s); or that there was a "profusion of chantries" in parish churches (most churches had none). What the author calls "confratern­ities" were actually a range of institutions: stores, companies of young men, maidens, and wives and guilds. "Confraternity" is best used of the associations run by religious houses which had little social basis.

This is a useful book, but it struggles to summarise the complexity of the Church in the early 16th century, after 1000 years of organic growth. Worship, as Duffy realised, is an essential part and a uniting strand.

Professor Orme's books include histories of Exeter Cathedral and of the Church in Cornwall.

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