Book Reviews

Brian Cummings, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace Oxford University Press, 2002, 340pp hardback £39 ISBN 0198187351.

This is a very good, and very important, book. Brian Cummings, who is Professor of English in what was then named the School of European Studies in the University of Sussex, opens Reformation theology and early modern literature, and shows them to be not separate activities, but the same thing.

This is indeed new. With great, and most approachable, learning, Cummings retakes the territory from recent popular historians who deny that anything really happened at the Reformation, even to pretending that the English Bible did not exist. Starting in Northern Europe with Luther and Erasmus, Cummings shows, as his subtitle states, the effects of the symbiotic life of the revolution in humanist grammar and the troubling revelation of grace. New understandings of languages were needed, in the work of recreating the old ones of Hebrew and Greek.

Tyndalians warm to Professor Cummings, whose fine paper in Reformation 2 on Tyndale and Justification has been seminal: who gave, memorably, a lecture at the Antwerp Conference in 2002:and the Ninth Hertford Tyndale Lecture in Oxford in 2003 on Hamlet’s Luck: Shakespeare and the Sixteenth Century Bible. (He is also a valued member of the Society’s Publications Committee.)Tyndalians will welcome insightful pages onTyndale at work as translator of subtle Hebrew and Greek (more of that below), and especially the overdue recognition that Tyndale was writing theologically in English, something unprepared for. Theology had meant Latin for many centuries: until Tyndale, English lacked a vocabulary for it.

This is a big book and not for the faint-hearted. It is a technical work for professional scholars. At the same time it is exhilaratingly accessible to any serious reader, writing full of insights. ‘Like Moses,’ writes Cummings, ‘Erasmus was destined to die in the fields of Moab, short of the promised land’ (p.148). He piercingly fixes the controversy between Erasmus and Luther as ‘a dialogue of the deaf’ (ibid.). The book reveals a mind with great learning at full stretch, wholly at home in the scholarship of religious and linguistic culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries throughout Europe, and, with light touches, modern theory (Foucault, Derrida).

Brian Cummings is a wise and witty guide. Of the 1516 Novum Instrumentum, he remarks ‘Before anyone had even heard of Luther, Erasmus had announced a new religion based on literature’ (p.102); he perceptively sees the Praise of Folly as ‘a prototype Preface to the New Testament’ (p.106). His unravelling of the cat’s cradle that Luther’s Ninety-five Theses have become is as good as can be found. His incidental clarification of just exactly why Tyndale was right to object to Fisher’s mistranslation of Galatians 5 is definitive. His grasp of how new Tyndale was theologically makes even more reprehensible the dismissive assertions, still current, that in theology Tyndale was merely a tiny Lutheran.

Part One, almost half the book, is about Northern Europe, taking its cue from Montaigne, ‘Nostre contestation est verbale’. PartTwo, under headings of Vernacular Theology and Protestant Culture, is about The English Language and the English Reformation 1521-1603, matters that were to Europe ‘a messy offshore affair’ (p.157). Part Three, Literature and the English Reformations 1580-1640, properly shows Calvinism and its opponents in later Tudor and Stuart England, with wonderful pages on, among others, George Herbert. The final two sections, on recusant poetry (particularly Southwell) and Donne, lead to an epilogue on Milton. The one hundred and fifty pages of the third part stay long in the mind. It is writing to which I shall frequently return, full of sudden shafts — the exclamations of Donne’s ‘Batter my heart’ sonnet he revealingly calls ‘shouts in the dark’ (p.397).

I have not space to comment more fully on one of the twin running themes of the book, what is meant in the NewTestament by the gift of grace, perhaps seen most clearly, even shockingly, in the poems of Herbert. Instead I want to draw attention to Cummings’ pages 196-204, on Tyndale as Hebrew grammarian, developing the opening of ‘W.T. unto the Reader’ in his 1534 New Testament.The Hebrew of God’s commands in Genesis 2 and 3, he shows, is necessarily grammatically ambiguous. That allows the serpent to seduce Eve, as it were, grammatically, making the mechanics of the Fall to be not eating the fruit but agreeing to the suggestion that the commands of God are open to debate, or harmless experiment. ‘What the woman has understood as a command, the serpent has turned into a wish or perhaps a suggestion, to be bargained over or reasoned with’ (p.203). Tyndale understood, and used for the serpent an English grammatical ambiguity by means of the conditional modal auxiliary ‘should’, linguistically different from ‘shall’. ‘Theologically, it is easy to see why he [Tyndale] should want to respect these distinctions. A God who makes commands and a God who merely makes predictions are two different Gods, as the serpent brilliantly realizes’ (p.204). Tyndale, of course, as Cummings goes on to point out, could not avail himself of any grammar of the English language — none existed until 1586.

This learned, vigorous and lively account of the times of turmoil in theology, and the larger cultural crises, is a refreshing stream flowing through what has often been unhappily barren, and war-torn, land.

David Daniell, November 2004.

Julia Keay Alexander the Corrector: The tormented genius who unwrote the Bible Harper Collins £16.99 269pp ISBN 000713145.

Mrs Keay has written a very good book. It is a book which badly needed to be written, for no biography of its subject has been written for many years. But who was this man Alexander Cruden? His name is strange to some, and he is nothing like as well known as his near contemporary Samuel Johnson. Yet there are similarities between the two men: both produced works of reference of immense erudition: Johnson his Dictionary of the English Language, Cruden his Concordance to the English Bible. And Cruden’s magnum opus has never been out of print since it was first published in 1738.

Mrs Keay evidently believes that Cruden should be better known, and it is to be hoped that her book will achieve this object. Her research has been meticulous, and she has brought to life an eccentric and enigmatic man, and the times in which he lived.The picture which emerges is that of a man who, despite his oddities, is singularly attractive — and yet so alien to present day thought that he puzzles us.

Alexander Cruden was born in Aberdeen in 1699 and died in Islington, London in 1770. Much of his life was difficult: on no fewer than four occasions he was committed to a madhouse. Mrs Keay argues convincingly that Cruden was not in the least mad, and that his incarceration arose from the hostility of those who wished to silence him. Such incarceration could easily be arranged by persons of influence at that time.

Cruden’s trials might well have broken another man. He seems to have survived them remarkably well, and to have been buoyed up by constant prayer, a profound knowledge of scripture — large portions of which he knew by heart — and a deep conviction that even in his troubles there was a divine purpose. In his later years he appears to have achieved a deep serenity and a considerable degree of public acceptance.

What can be said of such a man? His lasting memorial is his concordance, which has helped generations of Christians in their study of scripture. How many of us stop to think of the formidable scholarship, and the colossal devotion and organization, which went into its compilation? It was an astonishing achievement for one man: with the exception of a few articles and prepositions, every word of the Bible islisted in alphabetical order, and the appropriate references given. For good measure, he also compiled a concordance to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Nor was Cruden merely an academic or theoretical Christian. In his sixties he secured a reprieve for a young sailor under sentence of death for a minor offence — this was no easy task and required great persistence. In his will he left a sum of money to the City of Aberdeen to be used for the purchase of coal and other necessities for the city’s poor. For him, faith had to be demonstrated in good works.

Mrs Keay has done us a great service by writing so well about this interesting and unusual man. She has written a beautiful book: by all means purchase a copy - preferably two copies, one as a present for a friend.

Robin G. Everitt, August 2004.

Andrew Chibi, Henry VIII’s Bishops: Diplomats, Administrators, Scholars and Shepherds Price £50.00 Hardback James Clark & Co November 2003 ISBN 0227679768

In this comprehensive work, which follows the lives of the sixty-nine bishops who served under Henry VIII Dr Chibi not only asks why the Henrician bishops have acquired such a poor historical reputation but also examines the deep impact which these men exerted upon the monarch’s reign.

Henry VIII’s bishops were a diverse and interesting group of individuals who had a profound influence on both king and country in the early modern period. They came from all social rankings, were highly educated and had become bishops through talent and ambition and yet their historical reputation remains unflattering. This study, set within the dual context of court and diocese, breaks new ground in presenting the Henricians as a microcosm of wider society and as the fulfilment of that period’s expectations of a bishop.

The book is both an extensive examination of the careers, lives and thinking of an elite ecclesiastical force and a comprehensive review of the background to the early English Reformation. The focus is very much on those men who were caught between church and state, court and country and spirituality and temporality. Dr Chibi takes an in-depth look behind the scenes of Henrician England’s religious, social and political turmoil to see the workings of a group of men dedicated to stability and truth: men who were caught between service to the king and service to God.

Andrew A. Chibi has taught Reformation Studies and Tudor history at the Universities of Southampton, Derby, Manchester Metropolitan, and Trinity and All Saints College (Leeds). He is currently lecturing and tutoring at the University of Leicester. He is the author of:

He also has two forthcoming works:

The above information is from website:

Richard Marks, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England Sutton Publishing. viii + 344 pp £25 ISBN 075090802

On the eve of the Reformation the churches of Catholic Christendom were aglow with eye-catching devotional images. In a not untypical English church — Marks focuses on Eaton Bray (Beds.) — there were well over a dozen such. In the larger and more richly endowed churches there were many more. Surprisingly, the role of images in English popular devotion has never been the focus of proper systematic study. In this absorbing new book, Richard Marks rescues the subject from this long neglect. He demonstrates beyond any doubt the centrality of images to the practice of medieval religion.

In England in the sixteenth century the assault on devotional images was more complete than anywhere else in Reformation Europe. Orders were issued for the removal of images in 1550 and again in 1559. This means that the subject which Marks is examining is, in some sense, a virtual one. Relatively few medieval images have come down to us. Marks constructs his picture not only from extant images but also from documentary sources such as churchwardens’ accounts and wills. Marks’ trawl through this material has been thorough. His book is illustrated by a wealth of illustrative example, particularly from his own area of the east Midlands.

Marks associates the rise of image devotion with the appearance of a more personal and affective piety in the twelfth century. Before the twelfth century, pictorial images in churches had generally taken the form of wall paintings whose function had been largely didactic: to instruct an illiterate faithful in the Christian message. From the mid-twelfth century, however, the place of narrative art was increasingly taken by single-figure images of saints. There was a shift to seeing the saints as intercessors, through whom the faithful could obtain their grace and favour. Marks associates these developments with the progressive exclusion of the laity from active participation in the Mass. Once the Host had been elevated in status and the laity were reduced to the role of passive observers, so people’s religious emotions were diverted into image devotion.

Marks does not believe, as some historians have, that the use of images was confined principally to the upper classes. In his view nearly everyone (the Lollards apart) felt their attraction. Reception and understanding of images, however, would have depended on the viewer’s own position — that is, on his or her age, status, gender and occupation. It would also have depended on cultural determinants relating to the image — for example, the image’s display, appearance and position. For Marks, images were multivalent. They had no identity independent of the viewer.

Yet within the space of a few years in the sixteenth century the world of images was swept away. In his last chapter Marks turns his attention to the process of destruction. Like Eamon Duffy, he stresses that there was nothing inevitable about what happened.If Queen Mary had lived, the outcome might well have been very different. All the same, the reader is bound to be struck by the sheer thoroughness of the wipe-out. It is tempting to wonder how deep the roots of image devotion actually were. As Marks reminds us, image worship had not always been a feature of Western Christianity. It had arisen in the twelfth century in response to a particular set of circumstances. Moreover, as Marks says, it owed much to clerical leadership. Conceivably, once clerical leadership was removed, the shallowness of the roots was exposed.

It is tempting to speculate, in conclusion, about the connection between the removal of images and the belief system of the post-Reformation world. When the images were removed, what if anything took their place? It is hard to see that texts from Exodus and Paul’s Epistle to Timothy on whitewashed church walls could have been a substitute even in a culture more literate than the one that preceded it. Did crystal ball-gazing perhaps satisfy some of the aspirations that had earlier gone into image devotion? Quite possibly it did. But Marks is not tempted into venturing speculations outside his field. What he has given us here is a major study of medieval popular culture. Quite simply this is the most important book on medieval religion since Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars.

Nigel Saul
This review by Nigel Saul first appeared in History Today July 2004.

Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, xxii+ 458 pp. £20 ISBN 0631234799

There is no questioning the impact of Professor Eric Ives on the historiography of Tudor England. Since the 1960s he has been developing an approach which encompasses everything from the politics of local patronage and office to the intimacies of the king’s closest relationships. A high-point in the expression of this interpretation was undoubtedly his 1986 biography of Anne Boleyn, to which this is effectively a second edition. In 1986 he described a world dominated by a king and his court, but a king who was open to influence, so that the strands of shared interest might draw together courtiers into factions with a role in the privy chamber and in the crown’s local offices to use what leverage they had to influence him. Most dramatically, of course, it was a world in which the queen herself might be brought down by the machinations of a master intriguer, Thomas Cromwell.

Here, in this new work, we have once again the qualities which made this interpretation so influential. There is a keen sense of the evidence, of diplomatic affairs, of the minutiae of the record and its context. The sweeping argument does not displace a vivid eye for detail, enhanced here by the use of Henry’s inventory, unavailable in 1986.The writing is fluent and well-paced, drawing the reader along especially in the later sections with the horrifying speed and brutality of the coup that destroyed the queen and her associates.

Yet the new work has its frustrations. The problem with this book, at least for anyone who wants to follow the way the debate on Anne and her world is developing, is the relatively indirect way in which it tackles the controversies its predecessor provoked.To an extent this is something imposed by the publisher, in that the format, with references presented in columns at the end of the work, does not support more extended treatment of sources, primary or secondary. It is also, however, the purpose of the author: Professor Ives repeatedly makes assertions akin to those of his earlier work and references them to secondary work now more than twenty years old. A clear example appears very early. Professor Ives sets out to introduce us to his view of the nature of Tudor political society, centred on the court, and the nature of the court, centred on a king who might be open to influence, in the very first pages of the book. Undoubtedly there are subtleties to read into the account: the strength of the king’s will is acknowledged more openly than sometimes in the past, for example. Yet many of the sources upon which the account is based are distinctly long in the tooth. We have David Starkey’s work on the development of the privy chamber — naturally; but we have little of the work which has since developed it and qualified it. In fact, a very large proportion of this book replicates precisely or very closely what was published in 1986.

Yet Ives’ argument has moved on. Readers of this journal will be most interested in the development of his approach to religious change in the 1520s and 1530s. In 1986, of course, the argument was relatively simple. The king’s adoption of anti-papalism, and his toleration of reformism even at the highest levels was driven by the queen: partly simply through a recognition that these measures might give him the wife he wanted, but also more directly as a result of Anne’s evangelical outlook and activism. Hence, for example, Ives’ account of the way in which Anne was instrumental in the process by which Tyndale’s Obedience of the Christian Man came to the king’s attention. Anne, with her brother, was ‘feeding the king with ideas’

For Ives in 1986, Anne returned from France in 1521/2 with tastes already formed — if not yet a French evangelical then at least a woman with an instinctive ‘affinity’ with the Christian humanists of France (1986, p. 319). This has, of course, been challenged: whatever Anne’s involvement in reform after her return to England, the call has been for some indication that this had roots in her time in France and was not a response, once back in England, to the interest of the king himself. And here we have one of the most significant areas of development since the 1986 biography, one that Ives has been pursuing for the last ten years. The single chapter in the 1986 Anne Boleyn on ‘Anne Boleyn and the Advent of Reform’ has become two, one ‘The Advent of Reform’, the second ‘Personal Religion’. The key element here is a venture into the analysis of Anne’s books and her reading. In response to the challenge that there is no evidence for Anne’s ‘conversion’ in France, Ives now counters with the argument that Anne’s atunement to French humanism, and especially to the importance of the bible in the (French) vernacular, was so precise that, given her lack of direct contact with France in the period after her arrival in England, it can only be accounted for by an existing commitment. There is also now a clearer focus on the difficulty of making sharp distinctions in the world of the 1530s. A telling quotation added in 2004 is Lucien Febvre’s reference to ‘magnificent religious anarchy’ (p. 267).

In fact, if there is a shift in the overall argument of the book, religion plays a major role in it. With a clearer definition of the ideas underlying Anne’s religion comes a new emphasis on one practical manifestation of that faith. Anne is presented as espousing the need to reform monasteries rather than to secularise their property: the model: Matthew Parker’s Stoke by Clare in Suffolk. This is seen as presenting a direct obstacle to Thomas Cromwell’s plans, and an additional trigger to the breakdown of relations between the two which motivated his alleged conspiracy to destroy Anne. Where in 1986 diplomacy and the search for an imperial alliance had primacy, now this runs alongside Cromwell’s anxiety about the way the first dissolution statute would be put into effect. The 2 April 1536 sermon of Anne’s almoner, John Skip, which has been presented as a sign of Anne’s too-late switch to follow a newly conservative Henry, is now for Ives both a clarion call for non-schismatic reform’ (p. 282) and an attack on the impending looting of the church.

The final pages, on the queen’s fall, accommodate some of the recent critique of Ives’ assertion of Anne’s innocence. More space than in 1986 is devoted to the suspicions about Anne’s relationships with her brother and with her courtiers (especially Henry Norris and Francis Weston). We now even have the musician Mark Smeaton possibly confusing courtly love with true love. Yet all this sits alongside the continuing certainties that Cromwell plotted Anne’s fall, and this ultimately makes for an implausible cocktail. Given the admissions now of the currency of rumour, Ives’ legalistic pleas that what was alleged against Anne and her co-accused did not technically constitute treason, or that the divorce approved by Cranmer on 17 May meant that any relationship with Norris was not adultery, seem more awkwardly strident. We have, in many ways, shifted away from a dependence on the world view of Eustace Chapuys, full of insubstantial but apparently all-powerful factional alliances, and resorted more firmly to that of the early Elizabethan protestant clergy, of Anne the favourer of the Gospel and a martyr to its cause. For them only the identity of the villain, Cromwell, would be surprising. In his 1986 epilogue Ives found in Elizabeth’s accession a vindication of her mother and, reproduced in 2004 word for word, this sentiment now rings truer with the argument of the book as a whole.

Dr. Tim Thornton, University of Huddersfield, December 2004