Memory and the English Reformation
- ISBN: 9781108829991
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: November 2020
Scholarly interest in the social and cultural construction of memory has never been higher. No wonder, when it so neatly brings together textual analysis, material culture, heritage studies, and a host of other fields, methods, and approaches. In Memory and the English Reformation, editors Alexandra Walsham, Bronwyn Wallace, Ceri Law, and Brian Cummings bring together leading scholars of various approaches into one volume to examine the competing ways people have remembered, commemorated, and memorialized the Reformation in England. According to the editors, the Reformation was an attempt to reshape social memory by disavowing medieval commemorative culture and forming new modes of memorialization. The volume also explores modern memory by inviting the reader to examine the way the Reformation in England became identified as a unified historic event.
In the first essay, Peter Marshall starts off with an examination of the event most people associate with the reformations in Europe—Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenburg. Marshall explores how this pseudo-event became the starting point of the reformations. For Marshall, the important point is not that the event likely did not happen, but rather the image of Luther and the ideological uses it serves. It has been used as a focal point for German unification and volk freedom culture (a populist, nationalist movement focused on German ethnicity) almost more than it has been used as a religious symbol.
More interestingly, the pseudo-event was not commemorated in England for centuries because its church was founded on different impulses and wished to be seen as both Catholic and reformed. In fact, Marshall tells us, England has never seemed intent on setting an anniversary date for its Reformation at all, which has made it difficult to commemorate or fit into the larger puzzle of the reformations on the Continent. Marshall’s overall point is that these anniversaries are less about historical accuracy than mainstreaming ideologies about origins and causation, as much for Germany as England.
The second section of the book explores place and materiality. In “Monuments and the Reformation,” Peter Sherlock shows how modern monuments to the Reformation are used to assert modern concerns. In this case, he examines the plaque laid in front of Queen Elizabeth’s tomb in 1977. The plaque seeks to bring together all those divided by the Reformation by claiming all to have acted in accordance with their conscience. As the monument was erected during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Sherlock says it implies that reconciliation is possible when one reduces participation in conflicts to matters of conscience and chooses to forget the horrible acts that were done in the name of that same conscience. Sherlock breaks the flow in this essay by jumping over to explanations of how church monuments of the 17th century avoided the scourge of iconoclasm because they memorialized individuals rather than soliciting prayers and exhorted onlookers to a godly life. Though the essay is insightful, and Sherlock’s intent to demonstrate how monuments could be tools used to construct social memory by effacing certain aspects of the past is preserved, it would have been useful for the two sections to be tied more neatly together.
Law examines the lives of those English reformers who did not flee to the continent during the reign of Mary I. Popularly considered to have been more concerned with conformity than with exile or possible martyrdom, those who stayed were assumed to have not been as strongly convicted as their exiled counterparts. Using the life writing of Matthew Parker, who later became the archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I but who lived in relative obscurity during Mary’s reign, Law argues that the writings memorialize Parker in such a way as to attribute to him a form of godly suffering that could alleviate the charge of conformity, especially when framed as being the will of God. Complicating her analysis is that it is unclear whether Parker wrote contemporaneously or after the fact. Nevertheless, Law astutely states that the format of the writing, a roll, indicates it was meant for circulation. Therefore, readers can assume that Parker was aware of the need to explain his decision to stay in England. The roll was subsequently used as a primary source for Parker’s life, and thus was created the prevailing narrative of him as having suffered privation and loss of status while trusting completely in God. In this chapter, Law easily demonstrates how Marian humiliation was used to good narrative effect once Elizabeth came to the throne.
In the final section of the book, “Rituals and Bodies,” Arnold Hunt assesses how the study of gesture in the nascent English church can tell much about how it negotiated history. In particular, Hunt engages with the myth that Protestant worship was devoid of gesture and, therefore, order or reverence. He argues that contrary to what contemporary Catholic polemicists wrote, the early reformed church was adept at accommodating medieval ritual gesture while giving it a new and more reformed meaning. Hunt’s work is done within the understanding that the Reformation was not simply experienced as words and images but that it was an “embodied reformation, in which doctrine and belief were materialized in gestures and body techniques” (491–92). Hunt does a brilliant job of using a body-focused material approach to help the reader understand that gesture and meaning were as important to reformers as traditionalists, and that reform of the body, which is often treated separately, was actually a consequence of reformed religious thought.
Memory and the Reformation is a remarkable collection of essays that does exactly what it sets out to do—show the reader how memory has been repudiated, rehabilitated, valorized, and memorialized, intellectually and materially. Readers will come away with greater insight into the uses of history and, in particular, the knowledge that memories of the Reformation have always been, and will continue to be, contested.
Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Alberta.Autumn Reinhardt-SimpsonDate Of Review:January 30, 2022