Broken Idols of the English Reformation

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Margaret Aston
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     1136 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1988, Margaret Aston published England’s Iconoclasts (Clarendon Press)—a book of some 450 pageswhich, with its title’s sub-heading, Volume I: Laws Against Images,carried with it the promise of a second volume. In her preface to that book, Aston suggested that, “books, like pregnancies, have their proper terms. Overlong gestation is less likely to produce a Montaigne … than a mountain.” Twenty-eight years later—Aston having published a handful of books and some thirty articles and chapters in the interim—appears Broken Idols of the English Reformation. Appropriately, for a book which charts the triumph of the word over the image (though the volume also has just under a hundred carefully selected illustrations), Broken Idols runs to over a thousand pages—with Aston’s bibliography adding just under eighty. It is a formidable mountain and—since sadly Aston died before the work could be published—an Olympian memorial to a much admired colleague, who inspired both by her example, and by her stimulating company. Text, bibliography, and images (none merely illustrative, all subjected to analysis) pay tribute to Aston’s remarkable scholarship. 

Having discussed scriptural and secular laws against images in England’s Iconoclasts, Aston’s stated focus in Broken Idols is on “the objectives and activities” of the iconoclasts. This is a large cast that runs from monarchs and parliaments to godly ministers, magistrates, and laity, the last periodically drawn to “anticipatory action”—popular action on the ground that shifted the terms of debate. The English Reformation of the book’s title is also expansively drawn, from the late 14th to mid 17th century, to chart the irregular rhythms of a process Aston views as never completed. Drawing on ideas shared with both pre-Reformation English movements (notably those associated with medieval Lollardy, on which Aston first published) and continental—Genevan—reformers, England’s iconoclasts subscribed to a belief in the intangibility of spirit. Therefore, they exhibited a deep suspicion of the corruptibility of flesh and world in a religion that, in accordance with the then dominant Aristotelian hierarchy of the senses, privileged the eye, favoring the visual arts in representations of the Trinity and holy family, and in embodied representations of the saints. Aniconic preaching drew on Old Testament examples of the godly prince and scriptural injunction to destroy images (notably in the Second Commandment) in order to condemn their polluting presence in God’s temple. This elevated ear over eye, and stressed the obligation—of true religion and believers—to worship and live lives in fulfilment of God’s word. Part 1 offers a discussion of that process and of the ideas animating it, broadly chronologically conceived. By the early 17th century, the process of destruction was far advanced, iconoclasm having seemingly captured church and state, but England’s Joshua, Edward VI aside, English monarchs proved inconsistent in the strength of their commitment. Under Charles I, a renewed emphasis on the Beauty of Holiness in God’s temple—with the elevation of altar over pulpit, sacrament over preaching—helps to explain how England’s mid-century Revolution was also, in large part, a war of religion, demonstrating the centrifugal force of scriptural injunctions which placed obedience to divine duty above obedience to negligent monarchs, and which promoted (sometimes accidentally) a role for the individual’s conscience.

Parts 2 and 3 cover similar chronological ground, but focus on the targets of reform: representations of the saints and the Trinity, the music of bells and organ, images of the cross and crucifixion, and church windows. There is richness in these long chapters, as well as profitable detours—for example, that explaining how St. George survives to become Protestant England’s patron saint. Cumulatively, they demonstrate how the association between images, both new and unreformed, and what was seen to be the threat of a return to “popery” under Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud, led to a thorough reformation of cathedrals and churches (and not just images in sacred space) by the authority of Parliament and actions of popular crowds, “abolishing superstition by sedition,” as even some protestants feared. The treatment of each of these objects of destruction is also broadly chronological and generously drawn: for example, the chapter on the cross devotes almost two hundred pages to its subject, which Aston suggests, became for the godly, a touchstone of reforming iconoclasm. Throughout, the writing is limpid, the scholarship scintillating in its breadth, the argument(s) both clear and subtle, and proper attention is paid to both the ambivalences in and between Protestant(s’s) attitudes to the image. Throughout, Aston seeks to understand and explain, rather than to criticize or condone. Those who lamented their loss and sought to shelter images, seeing only deformation in reformation, are also given their due. 

Aston realizes we may never be able to recover the exact tally of destruction, though the recent and continuing discovery of hidden and buried images leads her to call for an archaeology of iconoclasm. Despite the multiplicity of examples she draws on, there remains much work to be done on the patterns of regional and parochial iconoclasm. And there are periods in the process she charts, notably the considerable iconoclasm in the reign of Elizabeth I, about which more still needs to be discovered. Yet, the force and importance of Aston’s work lies not in numbers, but rather in its demonstration of the centrality of religious debate and violence—not something the English generally like to acknowledge—to what she argues was a program of “mental engineering,” redrawing the boundaries between the sacred and profane, recasting political and personal relationships to the divine, and (not altogether successfully) displacing memories of a pre-Reformation past, nevertheless recalled by the survival of broken idols allowed to remain in the English church by those rejoicing in reformation—but reminding others of the world they had lost.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Walter is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Essex.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

The late Margaret Aston (1932-2014) was Fellow of the British Academy in Medieval History. She formerly taught at Oxford, Cambridge and the Catholic University, Washington DC. Her work focused on dissent both before and during the Reformation and iconoclasm and her publications included The Fifteenth Century, Faith and Fire, The King's Bedpost and England's Iconoclasts.


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