Author Eamon Duffy talks about his new book: Fires of Faith

What does Fires of Faith tell us about the consequences of religious brutality?

Later generations built the reign of Mary Tudor into a protestant national myth – innocence and truth pursued by popish brutality. I hope the book shows that matters were not quite so simple. A lot of the catholic restoration was won by brilliant writing and preaching, and by impressive organisational grip. And even the repressive side of the story was never straightforwardly a matter of moral dark and light. Many of the hunters shrank instinctively from violence, pitied the victims, and struggled for loopholes to release them. Many of the victims approved of punishing heresy, but thought catholics, not protestants, were the ones who should be suffering. And, sadly, I fear the book also provides some evidence that rigorously planned and ruthlessly pursued persecution achieves results, though that’s not a notion with much appeal in our time.

How do your research and your beliefs intersect?

I’m a Roman Catholic, and I suppose my books are marked by an imaginative empathy for the feel and texture of popular catholicism. Empathy can be a wonderful tool for a historian, helping you to see what others miss. But inevitably, there’s a price. Sympathy for some of the people of the past can entail a lack of feeling for others. That’s why we always need different historical perspectives on the same issues and episodes. But in Fires of Faith I have tried to do justice both to the idealism of those who imposed catholicism under Mary Tudor, and of those at the receiving end of that sometimes savage zeal. And that’s why the book devotes so much space to the grim topic of the burnings.

Read more about Eamon Duffy, historian, radio & television broadcaster and author. His latest book Fires of Faith is available now from Yale University Press.

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1 Comment

  • June 22, 2009

    Pamela Norris

    I was gripped by this book, which I suspect will interest the general reader as much as the specialist. Duffy’s prose is clear, elegant and admirably readable. He argues his case on the basis of patient delving through the records, and comes up with persuasive evidence of the care, skill and success with which Mary’s Counter-Reformation campaign was planned and executed.

    I particularly liked his study of Cardinal Pole, who emerges as far more capable and morally attentive than is always recognised. But what is perhaps most fascinating is Duffy’s account of a nation caught between Catholicism and Reformation, and the sheer logistics of trying to reinstate the traditional religion when so many of its props had been dismantled and its preachers turned Protestant or driven into hiding.

    As for the burnings, so repulsive to modern sensibilities, Duffy does his best to explain them in their contemporary context, so that the reader is better able to evaluate what they were intended to achieve. This doesn’t make them any the less horrible, but it does give insight into how people thought.

    In the end, it is the experience of the victims that stands out most vividly. How, one wonders, did they have the courage to face such suffering? Duffy’s account of religious belief and popular piety sheds a brilliantly illuminating light on the terrors and aspirations of individuals for whom God and the fires of hell were as familiar as breathing, and conscience quite literally a matter of life and death.

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