Book Reviews

Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650 by James D Tracy
Illustrated 387 pp, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, $29.95

hardback  paperback 

Protestantism and Roman Catholicism carve up the textbooks. But the difference that really mattered in Reformation Europe was between godliness and worldliness. A life-changing religion of conversion challenged the Christianity of ordinary people, a part-time Christianity that is content to leave some areas of life unaffected. Godly zealots for the reformation of culture took the gospel to the rootless masses of growing towns. They invaded the underevangelized countryside, supplanted local religion with universal cults, blew the bellows among the tepid and policed non-Christian thoughts and tastes. To historians in the future, the Protestants will appear less as a countercurrent than as a spot of turbulence within this great wave.

Meanwhile, for a well informed, critical, independent-minded but essentially traditional view of the subject, we have a new conspectus by James D Tracy. He is masterly in absorbing information and masterful in organising it - sceptical of fashion, clear in exposition, fluent in communication, unremittingly scholarly. Europe’s Reformations displays in print his efficient, engaging classroom manner. The fact that I disagree with much of it does not make me admire it less or recommend it less warmly.

Tracy writes for readers who need to be told that Apollo is ‘one of the ancient gods’ and Mary is the mother of Jesus. He sacrifices space to basics. He feels obliged to include accounts of episodes of supposedly religious warfare, even though the battles and massacres tell us nothing about religion except the feebleness of its moral impact. England gets a whole chapter, whereas there is virtually nothing about critical arenas like Poland and religious missions sent beyond Europe. High politics absorb nearly half the book. In consequence, Tracy has not time for matters as important as art and music, mysticism, curriculums, sacramentals and the transformation of Europe’s old sacred landscapes of shrines and remembered miracles. He even has relatively little time for what he really wants to say.

This is a pity because his message is important and some of it is right. He shows that the Reformations were essentially similar to movements that preceded them in the Middle Ages and continued into modern times, though he is still too inclined, I think, to claim innovations. He takes it for granted that the Catholic and Protestant Reformations can be treated together, though in practice he gives little space to Catholicism. He rightly, and unfashionably, insists that the Catholic movement was both a Catholic reformation and a counterreformation, though he exaggerates the extent to which it was shaped by reaction. He points out that the growth and social diffusion of confessional ‘identities’ were necessarily slow maturing processes, but gives little attention to the problem of how and when they happened. He brilliantly summarises research on urban reformations but leaves out the role of factionalism. He argues that Catholicism after the Council of Trent perpetuated a medieval ‘pluralism of religious perspectives’, but does not exemplify this challenging thesis. He identifies reform of society as the evangelicals’ aim but does not follow this up. Sex, for instance, was never something divines recommended; but now they were united in thinking it did least harm when licensed by themselves as part of an attempt to monopolise social rituals.

Tracy acknowledges that ‘the Catholic and Protestant Reformations had many of the same objectives’ but instead of developing this insight he concentrates on the differences. He points out that the Reformations have analogues in Orthodox, Confucian, Jewish and Islamic tradition, but he misses the chance to draw the most interesting parallels, which place Western European events in a worldwide context of movements for the recovery of ancient texts and ‘pure’ traditions in the early modern period.

Not all his judgements are sound. He sticks to the view that the Reformation was an expression of anticlericalism, in defiance of most of the work done on this subject since 1925. This may be a result of a rare slip: Tracy believes, contrary to fact, that there was almost no anticlericalism in Castile. He suggests that religion was not ‘a familiar motive for war’ in 16th century Europe and that Calvinism became ‘the majority religion’ in the 17th century Netherlands. He interprets court statistics as evidence that reformed Genevans became ‘less quarrelsome ... and more honest’, whereas they really reflected the diminishing zeal of denouncers. He regards Catholicism as unique in endorsing ‘existing social and ethnic distinctions’, whereas he would have found many more Protestant cases had he looked more widely. He praises Calvinist success in building a Christian community without giving due weight to his own findings: these ‘communities’ were often grim theocracies that victimised ‘sinners’.

In general, I think Tracy’s decision to make doctrine the focus of the book is a mistake: he is good at explicating it but poor at making it important. There can hardly be an utterance made by a Protestant on a matter of faith in self-awareness as a Protestant that has not been echoed by a Catholic. This applies to the three points of doctrine Tracy regards as defining: the unique authority of Scripture, the priesthood of all believers and salvation by faith. To most people, doctrine means little; and most early modern investigations showed ignorance or indifference, even among people prepared to fight for their faith. This suggests that what mattered to them were aspects Tracy has little time for, such as the experience of worship, the comradeship of congregations, the charisma of leaders and people’s responsiveness to rival claims to authority.

The divisive issues of the Reformation were historical rather than theological. The question could be put thus: Was the church founded by the apostles, or had some disfiguring discontinuity set in? A Protestant might answer that the church was a wayward child or diabolical changeling. Luther denounced the See of Rome as the foundation not of an apostle but of the Devil. Yet even here, the Reformation debates were conducted with a shared aim: the retrieval of ‘purity’. The Roman church’s search for apostolic credentials was not initiated in response to Protestant reforms: it was part of a tradition of pursuit of primitive models of church life and doctrine. The goal was to build a future directly on foundations unearthed from the past - literally unearthed when, in the 16th century, archaeology began to play a part.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto


The reviewer has kindly agreed to allow the Tyndale Society to reprint this piece entitled Real Zeal: 500 Years ago Europeans got serious about religion which appeared in the New York Times on 11 June 2000. His recent books include Millennium and Truth, A History.

Reginald Pole: Prince & Prophet by Thomas F. Mayer
CUP 2000, ISBN 0 521 37188 0


Kidnap links the lives of Reginald Pole and William Tyndale. Continental agents of Henry VIII made numerous plots to snatch the King’s inconvenient papist cousin, and smuggle him back to England for trial - even one by the same Henry Phillips who brought Tyndale to his death. But, protected by powerful friends, Pole avoided capture. Instead his 70-year old mother, the Countess of Salisbury, and Pole’s elder brother, were arrested and executed for treason. Safely in Italy, Pole received the news with little outward distress, it was remarked by his companions. Later he commented that now he felt close to the martyrs because of the sufferings of his own family.

The detail well describes the oddly detached aristocrat who was to die, within hours of his cousin Mary Tudor, in office as Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury. His timing was impeccable, for he had already snubbed Elizabeth who resented that he had not visited her, even when her sister was clearly fading and her own succession was imminent.

Pole’s life was a series of might-have-beens. Although the front-runner for the papacy he missed becoming Pope by one vote in the final count, mainly because he obviously did not want the triple crown. His openly ambitious rival got it - and had to bear Pole’s rebukes against loading a greedy bastard son with too much church patronage.

Reginald Pole was an elitist, an aristocrat in religion as much as in life. ‘One of the people’s principal failings was their avidity for scripture that led to innumerable controversies’ he wrote in Of Church Reform. Brought back by Mary to oversee England’s return to Catholicism he preached: ‘Not every man should make himself a studier of Scripture to learn it of his own wit & labour, for he that maketh himself a scholar will make himself a master & a teacher’. In January 1558, at the Convocation of the English church called at Oxford, he authorized an Index of prohibited authors and banned books, which included Tyndale.

This scholarly biography shows us what fired the Reformation far more graphically than any Puritan diatribe. Pole was devoted to the Church from childhood. He was learned, deeply devout, an inspired writer, a beloved, modest, gentle and saintly man. He detested violence, opposed the burning of heretics, and was so open to the ideas of the reformers that it was said of him that ‘to the Roman church he died a Lutheran’.

Mary Clow, July 2001

Lollards and Their Books by Anne Hudson
ISBN 0 907628 60 5, The Hambledon Press, 1985


Tune through the dials of a short-wave radio, and listen to the voices from afar; they are sometimes clear, but often shrouded in static, and unidentifiable. Similar impressions pass through my mind whenever I read about the Lollards. Theirs is a tantalising story, but a frustrating one, draped in mystery.

Lollard manuscripts - so often anonymous and undatable, except through educated guesswork - pose big headaches for historians. Centuries of scholars, playing sleuth and anxious to reach publishable conclusions, have sought to attach precise historical names and dates to these texts. However, these ancient manuscripts do not give up their secrets without a fight; for every 10 questions answered, a dozen more pop up in their place.

Lollards and Their Books (a collection of papers by Anne Hudson from the period 1971-83) acknowledges the challenges of Lollard history, and pours cold water on some long-accepted theories of manuscript authorship. As you might expect, ‘Lollards’ is a work of immense erudition. It is not, however, a text for the general reader. This is partly a question of subject:

It has been the misfortune of Wyclif and his followers to arouse great emotions, whether of admiration or opprobrium, and to remain little read. The fault does not lie entirely on the side of the critic: despite the undoubted interest of Wyclif’s ideas, these ideas were often expressed in repetitive and tendentious argument in difficult scholastic Latin; his English followers, despite the vernacular in which they mostly expressed themselves, inherited their master’s repetitiousness and often wrote for initiates of the sect in a form of expression that a modern reader finds hardly less opaque. (p. 1).

Moreover, quotations in Latin and Middle English are provided without guidance. My rusty A-level Latin was pushed to its limits. Nonetheless, Tyndalians who are prepared to persevere will find much to relish here.

I picked up my copy of Lollards and Their Books at the Let There Be Light exhibit in London in 1994 - a watershed in many Tyndalians’ lives. Shame on me for not reading it sooner! The Lollards’ forays into Bible translation bear comparison with Tyndale’s far more successful efforts 150 years later; and Reformation enthusiasts will enjoy identifying the many historical similarities involved.

Here we have a movement that began within a University setting and then spread forth into the world of the ploughboy. As with the Jesus movement centuries beforehand, we find in the Wycliffites a band of fanatical disciples who moved beyond their founder’s core beliefs, while continuing to preach in his name.

In the saga of the Lollards, we encounter beastly, pigheaded villains, turncoats and fence-sitters. However, we also meet brave heroes who took incredible risks for their faith - men who made an irreplaceable contribution to the thought and language of their era.

It is tempting but dangerous to strain these historical parallels too far. The disputations between Lollards and the ecclesiastical authorities are puzzling and do not always fall into predictable patterns (the battle lines were more sharply drawn between Tyndale and More two centuries later). In the late 1300s, some confusion was to be expected - a new era was dawning, and the Church was scrambling to respond to a new and mysterious threat. It is from the Wyclif period that new official checklists of questions for heresy-hunting interrogators appear. We glimpse the Lollards’ trepidation as the pendulum swings against them, and that dreadful law, De Haeretico Comburendo, hits the statute books in 1401.

What was it about these ‘true preachers’ that was so objectionable? Was it their use of a distinct terminology and phraseology, a practice evoking the early days of Christianity itself? To take one example, the Lollards favoured the adverb ‘groundly’, meaning ‘deriving from Scriptural evidence or authority’.

The Lollards’ embrace of a common phraseology pointed to a degree of discipline, unity, and cohesion. In their writings, they favoured such rhetorical formulae as ‘Many men say…’ or ‘True priests believe…’ This must have projected an aura of confidence, most unsettling to those in power.

Pinpointing the precise role that the English language played in the Lollard controversies is no simple task. Indisputably English was a key factor; even when writing in Latin, Lollard authors would specify English as their mother tongue. And yet there was no precise mathematical equation, English = Heresy. Indeed, Hudson mentions historical figures who objected to the Wycliffites but supported the vernacular. And some English-language texts which historians had reflexively identified as Lollard have now been shown to be nothing of the kind.

But at the time the story unfolds in the late 1300s, our national tongue was flexing its muscles and poised to strike, two centuries after Anglo-Saxon bore the mortal blow of the Norman invasion. Despite the sneering of elites, English had become a language with something to say, not merely a medium for transactions in the marketplace. Poised to resist its onslaught, with the swish of a Serpent’s tail, was Latin - ancient, rule-based, with a rich tradition and literature all its own.

The English language at this juncture was a completely different breed. For one thing, it was not homogeneous. There is a contemporary reference to a London man who had a Bible in ‘English of Northern speech’, reckoned to date from a hundred years previously, i.e. the early 1300s. As described by Hudson, there was a linguistic gulf between the North and South of England, requiring translation from one form of English to another (mainly, but not exclusively, from northern dialects into southern or Midland versions).

Hudson’s portrayal of the budding English language is replete with charming details. In the ‘Northern’ version of one English document, the verb form ‘must’ is replaced with ‘behove’ constructions, while the particle ‘anon’ - acceptable in the South - was replaced with ‘swiftly’, ‘hastily’, or other variants. Authors had some discretion to pick and choose, and the word ‘idiolect’ certainly made a useful addition to my vocabulary. How the medieval mind must have quailed at the chaos and turmoil of it all! Rich linguistic ferment lay in store for future generations. Authors from as early as the Tyndale era openly acknowledged the strides which the English language had made over the preceding 150 years.

Lollards and Their Books transports us into a remote and distant world. That fine English custom, ‘agreeing to disagree’, was an alien concept in those days. Hudson invokes describes one fence-straddler's cheerful attempt to bowdlerise a Wycliffite text - to retain its acceptable elements while purging the heretical material. But this was an exception; in that era, a heretic who made good points was still a heretic, and that was that!

One hesitates to criticise Lollards and Their Books - except for one point, where Hudson seems to underestimate the powers of memorisation of the early Reformers. Few today would think of committing the New Testament to memory, and yet such feats of brainpower were not unheard of in the Middle Ages. The sole reference to Tyndale is a puzzler; contemporary historian John Bale credited Tyndale with responsibility for the edition of a text entitled The Examination of Sir John Oldcastle, an eminent Lollard. Tyndalians today are accustomed to more extensive commentary on their man, but Hudson’s book predates the modern-day Tyndale revival by some years.

These are minor quibbles. Find this book, read and inwardly digest!

Neil Inglis, July 2001

The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd ISBN 0-385496-93-1, Anchor Books, 1999, 480pp, $17.50

Any biography of Thomas More has to answer one fundamental question. Why? Why, out of all the many ambitious politicians of early Tudor England, did only one refuse to acquiesce to a simple piece of religious and political opportunism? What was it about More that set him apart and doomed him to a spectacularly avoidable execution?

The innovation of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of More is that he places the answer to this question outside of More himself. He is able to see More not as an early individualist (as in Robert Bolt’s gorgeously anachronistic play, A Man for All Seasons), or as an early ultramontane absolutist (in the vein of much 19th-century Roman Catholic hagiography) or even as a twisted and conflicted bigot (as in Richard Marius’s biography, Thomas More). Rather, Ackroyd sees More simply as a particularly sensitive, and elegantly playful, representative of a vibrant, late-medieval, Catholic England. The key word here - and the core of Ackroyd’s analysis - is vibrant. For Ackroyd, More’s Catholicism - the faith he died for - was a tangible, sensual, dynamic way of life, a way of both being in the world and of not being in it, a culture that had by no means run out of steam by the 1530s. What More’s death meant, then, was a simple and understandable resistance to vandalization, a refusal to accept the wrecking of a successful and beautiful civilization for the banal sake of a royal divorce.

What was this civilization about? Ackroyd, both a biographer and a novelist, begins his book with an immersion in it. The prologue is inspired, for it tells us entirely what is to come. It gives us the first truly significant thing that happened to More. And it is a baptism:

At the church door, the priest ... made a sign of the cross on the infant’s forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby’s mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the Devil from its body with a number of prayers. ... The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odor of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself.

The publicness of this religion is something Ackroyd intuitively grasps. He has an ear and a nose for physicality, and he deploys his expertise in the history of London to illustrate this faith. Rather than condescending to medieval Catholicism, Ackroyd empathetically observes it. This is the first biography of More to have absorbed the small revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last 20 years - pioneered by historians like Christopher Haigh and Eamonn Duffy - and is able to see England, through the mists of Protestant and Whig propaganda, as one of the most authentically Catholic countries in the history of Europe. In an early chapter, Ackroyd evokes the meaning behind the sacrament of the eucharist as well as any theologian I have ever read. Or take his evocation of the city of Coventry’s Corpus Christi plays of the 14th and 15th centuries:

Hell mouth was characteristically a painted set of gaping jaws, perhaps on a separate smaller wagon wheeled in front of the main pageant; the unfortunate victim could then be seen to be devoured alive to the sound of pipes, drums and gitterns. ... It was a highly embellished dramatic art, with certain scenes played out in the street with noise and bustle, while others were presented in the solemn stillness of a holy picture. Adam and Eve wore white leather costumes to symbolize their nakedness, the prophets wore golden wigs while Judas was conventionally adorned with one of flaming red; yet, on the whole, the actors wore contemporary dress. The Corpus Christi play was not an historical entertainment, but a restatement of the eternal truths and episodes of the faith.

It is the simple concreteness of this religion that makes its exponents, like More, so alien to us. Ackroyd’s sharpest insight in this regard relates to More’s legendary sense of irony. It is because belief was so entrenched, Ackroyd argues, because the medieval secular world was so richly saturated with spirituality that More (and others) could entertain such whimsy about it, could play with words, and humor, and wit, in a way that mocked the transience of everything mortal. So for the first time we can read Utopia, for example, and see its sense of play as fully integral to its meaning. It is a book, after all, narrated by a man called Raphael Hythlodaeus, a name derived from the Greek for ‘one who is cunning in nonsense or idle gossip’. Utopia (‘no place’) contains a river Anydros (‘river without water’), a city, Amaurotum (‘dark or dimly seen’) and a ruler, Ademus (‘one who has no people’). It is in this context that More’s fierce attack on political utopianism can be fully understood (as powerful in its way as that of Plato, to whose Republic More’s treatise owed much). These kinds of games, these subtle hints at meaning and nonmeaning, are premised on a small band of elite readers and a political order in which settlement is assumed. And it is only when we can see the depth and power of that settlement that we can see the true nature of the irony with which More famously greeted the world, a man who spoke, according to a contemporary, so soberly that ‘few could see by his looke whether he spoke in earnest or in jeaste.’

By showing us the fabric of that political and religious settlement, Ackroyd successfully delineates the vast complexity of More’s faith. This perspective alone can help us understand how More could engage, as he did, in brutal court intrigue, while flogging himself at night for spiritual penance; how he could be such an effective and funny lawyer, while longing for monasticism; how he could have been the author of sometimes vicious, crude and unsparing diatribes against new heresies, and yet also of such profound and subtle texts as his final De Tristitia Christi; and how he could have succumbed to martyrdom with such understatement and yet such resolve. These were not contradictions. They were modulations of a man who saw absurdity and contingency everywhere because he saw God everywhere. And they were dramatic shifts that reflected the seismic shock that More’s England was experiencing in the early 16th century.

Not that Ackroyd is deaf to the Machiavellianism of More’s career. (It is quite likely that More read Machiavelli and was appalled by him.) Ackroyd details More’s enmeshment in the power structure of London’s merchant elite and the country’s legal system. He is a little soft on More’s factional maneuvering in the Henrician court, especially his plotting on behalf of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. But he is effective in detailing the last years of More’s life as an essentially political marginalization, even while More clung to every last, frayed thread of power he could. The fascination of More, of course, comes from the fact that he was not simply a saint or a writer. He was actually Lord Chancellor of England, a cunning protege of Thomas Wolsey and no innocent ingenu in London politics.

One odd innovation of this book is Ackroyd’s insistence on reproducing all quotations from the period in their original spelling and grammar. At first, this irritates. But as Ackroyd folds the reader into More’s world, you begin to see the reason. Ackroyd is intent on showing why More was for a long time seen as a truly powerful literary presence, regarded as one of the most accomplished poets of the early 16th century. Ackroyd also wants us to see More as a gutter polemicist, a Londoner steeped in the vernacular and able to deploy the low in defense of the high. More’s Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer is a classic of this vituperative genre. By the time it is written, much of what More loved was under threat, and so he wrote accordingly. In it, More constructs an imaginary dialogue with the Protestant Bible translator William Tyndale that makes our contemporary political invective seem positively benign and humorless:

Tyndale:     Marke whyther yt be not true in the hyest degree. ...
More:        Tyndale is a great marker. There is nothynge with hym now but
             marke, marke, marke. It is pitye that the man were not made a
             marker of chases in some tenys playe …
Tyndale:     Iudge whyther yt be possible that any good sholde come oute
             of theyr domme ceremonyes and sacramentes.
More:        Iudge good crysten reader whyther yt be possyble that he be
             any better than a beste oute of whose brutyshe bestely mouth,
             commeth such a fylthye fome.

More’s descent into vulgarity, as with his descent into persecution of heretics, must be seen, Ackroyd persuasively argues, in the context of More’s singular judgment of what was going on in England in the 1530s. More gambled that Henry’s divorce was far more than a simple adjustment of political power. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he clearly saw what he believed to be the end of Christian civilization as he knew it. He glimpsed, precisely and methodically, what the assertion of secular authority over church law meant. He foresaw the vandalism that would soon sweep across the English church, the first truly totalitarian attempt by a modern state to expunge not just political but spiritual resistance to its hegemony. And he saw it first.

None of this fully explains, however, More’s contemporary luster. Ackroyd’s biography became the best-selling book in England for a while, in part, perhaps, because it arrived at an apposite time. It is easier now to see, in the wake of the pseudoreligion of the Diana cult, how great a loss was the kind of popular, tangible religiosity Ackroyd evokes and More defended.

It is also easier to see now, at the twilight of the nation-state, that national sovereignty, as More understood it, may not possess the final word in the history of Europe. As England finally moves to undo its legal and political separation from Europe, over 400 years after Henry VIII began it, it is easier to see More as perhaps prescient, rather than reactionary. And as cynicism grows on both sides of the Atlantic about political leaders, it is hard not to long for More’s principled interaction of politician and writer, believer and fool, lawyer and prophet. More’s sanctity was flint-edged, to be sure, and Ackroyd captures this with a historicism as punctilious as Holbein’s portraits. But More was also more than a saint. He was a believing ironist and a politician who chose death over the splitting of legalisms. Less a man for all seasons, perhaps, than a tonic for ours.

Andrew Sullivan

Editor’s Note

This is reprinted from the reviewer’s own website with his permission.

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