The Late Medieval English Church: vitality and vulnerability before the break with Rome
By GW Bernard (Yale University Press)
- Reviewed by Eamon Duffy
GW Bernard is one of the ablest, and one of the most disputatious, of early-modern English historians. An archival bloodhound with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Tudor sources, he is famous for espousing unfashionable views, and for his relish for academic fisticuffs.
Turning academic orthodoxy on its head, he has argued that Henry VIII laboured for years to keep Anne Boleyn out of his bed, only sleeping with her once he could see his way clear to making an honest woman of her (and legitimating their offspring) by marriage.
More recently, he has challenged the widely held view that Anne was an Evangelical who helped influence Henry towards Protestantism, while arguing, equally controversially, that she was probably guilty of the multiple adulteries and the incest with her brother used to justify her execution.
In his new book, Bernard turns his fire on ‘revisionist’ accounts of the pre-Reformation Church in England, and in particular the basically positive account of late-medieval English religion outlined in the present reviewer’s 1992 The Stripping of the Altars. Or rather, he wants to add a corrective appendix.
"Without wishing to dispute anything, details apart, of its overall view", Bernard feels that it "did not tell the full story", since it left us with the problem of explaining how it could be that so apparently successful and vigorous a form of Christianity could have been overthrown by the Tudor reformers.
Hence, he believes, the late-Medieval Church must have been marked by ‘vulnerabilities’ which have been ‘ignored or played down in much current writing’, and which make that overthrow more intelligible. The point of this book is to explore those vulnerabilities.
This Bernard does in a series of chapters considering both early Tudor religious institutions, like the episcopate, and the monasteries, as well as some key expressions of late-medieval piety and lay activity, such as lay confraternities and pilgrimage.
The basic strategy in each chapter is the same. Bernard examines the conventional historiography to set out the case for the prosecution, suggesting that such institutions were corrupt or ineffective, then puts the counter-evidence that they were in fact not doing so bad a job.
In almost all cases, he endorses the more favourable reading, but points to what he sees as problems and snags. So the early Tudor bishops get a beta-query-plus mark for effort, for having made ‘an awkward system work fairly efficiently’: some, like John Fisher, were edifying preachers and pastors, making it ‘reasonable to say’ that the majority made a ‘fair job of their responsibilities.’ But, ‘it is also reasonable to conclude that that was not always enough.’
Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000328/booksandart
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Southampton University entry for Prof Bernard: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/history/about/staff/gwb.page
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