The Stripping of the Altars – 50 Years in 50 Books

Eamon Duffy’s landmark account of the pre-Reformation church in England was first published in 1992. The Stripping of the Altars is a major revisionist account of the pre-Reformation church, which recreates how laypeople in fifteenth-century England experienced religion. Duffy shows that late medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but was a strong and vigorous tradition, and that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically respectable religious system.

In this extract, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Duffy reflects on recent developments in our understanding of the period and on the book itself, thirty years after it was first published.

This extract is taken from the new introduction to The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy

Thirty years is a long shelf-life for any historical work, and perhaps especially so for a historical work self-consciously designed as a challenge to received opinion. For all its bulk, The Stripping of the Altars is a polemic, written to contest the account of the English Reformation canonized in a long interpretative tradition that descended from the Elizabethan Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, via the Victorian historian and celebrant of England’s Imperial destiny, James Anthony Froude, and which was still current in the 1980s, thanks mainly to the work and reputation of Professor Geoffrey Dickens. Dickens, the Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London from 1967 to 1977, and for years afterwards probably the single most influential figure in the British historical profession, had published in 1964 an immensely influential textbook, The English Reformation1, an overview that dominated school and university study of the subject for a generation, and which itself achieved something close to a thirty-year shelf-life when an expanded edition was reissued in 1989, three years before the publication of The Stripping of the Altars. For Dickens, the patriotic product of a robustly Protestant Yorkshire childhood, the Reformation was the triumph not only of true Christianity over the “travesty” of medieval superstition, but the natural product of British common sense, and the emergence of “a lay-dominated society with its mind firmly fixed upon moderation, good sense and security in this world. Not for Englishmen the superb follies of Spanish self-martyrdom to a fanatic ideal.”2 The English Reformation, Dickens argued, had been a rapid popular success, prepared for by the decadence and unpopularity of the medieval Church and clergy, and prefigured in the generations immediately preceding the break with Rome in a mounting tide of anti-clerical opinion, and in the growing number of lay dissidents known as Lollards, whose rejection of the follies of the cult of the saints, devotion to the scriptures in English translation, and disbelief in the “miracle of the Mass” provided a receptive audience for the Protestant gospel. Never merely an act of state, the imposition of reform in the reigns of Henry and Edward was nevertheless decisive in lodging that Protestant message securely in the national psyche, and the inept and reactionary attempts of the Catholic Queen Mary, her unpopular Spanish husband Philip, and her ineffective Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole to drag the nation back to medieval reaction were doomed from the start: by 1559, with the reimposition by Elizabeth I of a moderately Protestant religious settlement, the English Reformation was all over bar the shouting.

Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, all pubic domain.

Dickens’s view of the Reformation, the modern expression of a long tradition of Protestant interpretation, was of course more nuanced than this brief précis can convey (he conceded, for example, that further research might lead to a somewhat more positive assessment of Mary Tudor’s reign)3, and by 1992 his synthesis was in any case under attack and erosion from a variety of angles, most directly in the Roman Catholic historian J. J. Scarisbrick’s 1982 Ford Lectures, published in 19844, which argued that “on the whole English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came”,  and in a pugnaciously framed collection of “revisionist” essays by a group of historians challenging the conventional picture of a rapidly successful popular Reformation, edited by the Oxford historian Christopher Haigh, under the title The English Reformation Revised.5 Perhaps equally if more obliquely devastating, in 1988 the doyen of English Puritan studies, Patrick Collinson, published his 1986  Anstey Lectures, The Birthpangs of Protestant England6, exploring the turbulent and contested religious culture of Elizabethan and early Stuart  England. The book was dedicated, with a tact amounting almost to guile, “with affection and great respect”, to Geoff Dickens, “who both led and pointed the way”.  Yet its central thrust, encapsulated in Collinson’s claim that “if I were to be asked when Protestant England was born I would answer . . . after the accession of Elizabeth I, some considerable time after”, directly (or perhaps indirectly) subverted the whole drift of Dickens’s work, as Dickens himself quickly realized.

These were frontal assaults: behind them lay a phalanx of less overtly controversial work on the progress, or lack of it, of the Reformation in the localities, from Haigh’s own pioneering work on Reformation Lancashire to Robert Whiting’s exploration of religion in the sixteenth-century West Country, all of which complicated or questioned Dickens’s optimistic view of the rapid triumph of Protestantism. And yet – “Dickensian” assumptions still loomed large in thinking and writing about the Tudor century: the most influential of Tudor historians, Sir Geoffrey Elton, not himself greatly interested in religion, had absorbed and endorsed Dickens’s conviction that by 1553 England was closer to being a Protestant country than anything else, and Dickens’s negative view of “the Marian reaction” underlay David Loades’s standard study of Mary’s reign, first published in 1979, but reissued in a new edition in 1991.7 And Dickens’s dismissal of the religious achievements of Mary’s reign exerted a profound and distorting influence in unexpected quarters. John Bossy’s brilliantly original 1975 monograph on The English Catholic Community 1570–18508 had transformed the study of its subject and done more than any other work to move “recusant history” from a denominational backwater into a central place in the historical mainstream. Bossy’s defining thesis, reflected in the start date of his book, 1570, was that post-Reformation English Catholicism represented not a revival of “the old religion”, owed little or nothing to Henrician or Marian “survivalism”, but was instead the new and more vital creation of Elizabethan Counter-Reformation activists, a view directly indebted to Dickens’s negative assessment of Mary’s religious policy, and to Dickens’s own early work on Yorkshire recusancy.

My own involvement in these debates was largely the result of serendipity. My doctoral research had been on the history of late eighteenth-century English Catholicism, my post-doctoral work on late Stuart and Early Hanoverian Anglicanism. But teaching commitments, first in King’s College London and then, from 1979, in Cambridge, led me to focus increasingly on the religion of Stuart England, a shift backwards in time encouraged and facilitated by the rich seventeenth-century library holdings of my Cambridge college, Magdalene. Then, in the early 1980s,  three unrelated events converged to turn my attention decisively earlier, to the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. I was invited by Professor Christopher Ricks of the Cambridge Faculty of English to contribute a lecture on the Book of Common Prayer Burial Service to a thematic paper on the literature of “Sex and Death”. I decided to tackle this task by comparing the elaborate medieval Latin burial service with the austerely Protestant rite Cranmer had quarried from it: the realization that, in the medieval service at the moment of committal of the corpse, the priest addressed the dead person directly, whereas in the Prayer-Book rite the minister turned instead to the living mourners round the grave and spoke about the dead only in the third person, would develop into one of the key ideas of The Stripping of the Altars9.

Then, soon after I had arrived back in Cambridge, I learned to drive, began to explore the churches of East Anglia, and had it borne in on me that huge numbers of them had undergone extensive and costly extension, rebuilding and refurbishment in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and that this remarkable surge of activity was funded largely by lay donations and bequests, a massive popular investment in the practice and beliefs of late medieval Catholicism that had left its trace not only in a vast archive of late medieval wills, but in the funeral brasses, carved fonts, rood-screens and wall-paintings, stained glass, and family and guild chapels, which survived in such astonishing abundance in East Anglia. How could all this be squared with conventional notions of a failing church which had forfeited the confidence of the laity?

And, third, at about the same time, I absorbed a brilliant anthropological work, which drew some of its most telling material from the recent upheavals in the English Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. Dame Mary Douglas, herself the product of a Catholic convent education, was also one of the most original cultural anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. Douglas’s work was much concerned with the relative claims of form versus formlessness as values in the ordering of human society, an area of exploration for which she developed a celebrated – and controversial – “Grid and Group” analysis. In Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, first published in 1970 and revised and reissued in 1982, she deployed this analysis to argue for the vital importance of ritual for social life. Written against the background of the sexual revolution, the social and political unrest of the 1960s, and the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Douglas’s book was an attack on what she saw as a disastrous and culturally and socially naïve abandonment of vital symbolic and ritual structures which made for orderly communal life, both secular and religious.  Her own early anthropological work had been focused on the nomadic Mbuti pygmies of sub-Saharan Africa, a people in whose radically loose social structures she saw a reflection of their geographic displacement and general social and material impoverishment. In Natural Symbols she developed a mischievous comparison between the social anomie of the Mbuti and the allegedly more sophisticated forms of informality characteristic of Western society in the 1960s and 1970s, and that underlay much of the dismantling of the ritual and disciplinary structures of the Catholic Church, but which were theologically  “legitimated” by appeal to the Conciliar reforms. In a brilliantly funny chapter, whose undertow of rage was barely concealed, she attacked the widespread “contempt of ritual” in a sympathetic treatment of the instincts of the often despised “Bog Irish”, working-class Irish Catholics, many of whom rated the eating of meat on Fridays as a more serious sin than any breach of the ten commandments. She attacked the contemporary Catholic hierarchy for their surrender to the Zeitgeist in the abandonment of ritual practices like the Friday fast, whose importance in the maintenance of the corporate identity of the Church they had woefully failed to grasp. Douglas’s book was criticized by reviewers as distinguished as Edmund Leach as eccentric, even as Catholic propaganda, though the sociologist David Martin commented that “one cannot help but admire an argument that manages to dish the Reformation, liberalism, capitalism and the revolting students all at one blow”10. Its importance for me lay in its crystallization of my own unease at the sometimes drastically iconoclastic post-Conciliar dismantling of the externals of my own inherited Irish Catholicism, which I now came to see as an example of a wider insensitivity to the fundamental role of ritual in maintaining the cohesion of any society. As Douglas wrote:

The confirmed anti-ritualist mistrusts external expression. He values a man’s inner convictions. Spontaneous speech that flows from the heart, unpremeditated, irregular in form, even somewhat incoherent, is good because it bears witness to the speaker’s real intentions. . . . They can’t take it, the . . . open-minded teachers who seize on a watered-down expression of a faith that has practically lost meaning for them. The Mystery of the Eucharist is too dazzlingly magical for their impoverished symbolic perception. Like the pygmies (I say it again, since they seem often to pride themselves on having reached some high peak of intellectual development) they cannot conceive of the deity as located in any one thing or place.11

For a historian increasingly preoccupied with the nature of the Reformation, all this had a special resonance. I didn’t of course imagine that the ritual revolutions of the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries could be equated, but some of the issues were undoubtedly the same. The calls for the drastic simplification of worship as a good in its own right,  the disparagement of the apparently magical mindset which underlay the ritual framework of pre-Conciliar Catholicism, the abolition of “rote” practices like Friday abstinence in favour of voluntary and private acts of penance, which were held to be superior because more “authentic” – these were in some respects a re-run of the reforming agenda of the sixteenth century, and were often justified with strikingly similar arguments.

With opened eyes, I looked again at my well-thumbed undergraduate copy of Dickens’s The English Reformation, which I had first read, with admiration, soon after its original publication. Now, in its pained dismissal of medieval religion for “its effort to attain salvation through devout observances, its fantastic emphasis on saints, relics and pilgrimages” and its reliance on ritual performance, I seemed to recognize the voice of Mary Douglas’s sophisticated pygmy. How different all this would look, I realized, if one were to consider the evidence of medieval lay and clerical commonplace books, liturgical and para-liturgical rituals, miracle stories, sacramental observances, processions, prayers and talismans so prominent in late medieval Christianity, not on the premise that they were a meaningless mound of mumbo-jumbo, culpably remote from the personality and teaching of Jesus, strong on magic, weak on personal responsibility but, instead, on the working assumption that they represented the ritual building-blocks of a coherent world-view that expressed itself not in individualist striving after personal authenticity, but in powerful symbolic gestures designed to shape and create community. What if one were to write a study of late medieval religion – whose vigour and popularity was increasingly clear to me as I examined both the archival evidence and the rich material culture of pre-Reformation churches and their furnishings  – taking seriously the suggestion that it was in fact what the great social anthropologist Émile Durkheim would have recognized as a symbolic system in vigorous working order, that is, if one attempted to understand and explain late medieval religion in its own terms, by teasing out, in the thick description beloved by anthropologists, how it had worked, and what vision of society and of human destiny it had sought to embody.

Editions of The Stripping of the Altars from 1992, 2005, and 2022.

The Stripping of the Altars was the outcome. The title, borrowed from one of the now suppressed but most eloquent ceremonies of the old Latin liturgy for Holy Week, was a manifesto in itself, summarizing the overall argument of the book. On Maundy Thursday, after the Mass of the Last Supper and procession with the Host to the Altar of Repose, the other altars in the church were ritually stripped of their altar cloths and ornaments in preparation for the stark liturgy of Good Friday, while the ministers and choir recited Psalm 21  (Hebrew numbering, Psalm 22), “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, with its anticipation of the incidents of the Passion – “They have parted my garments among them, and for my vesture they have cast lots.” The altar here becomes a surrogate for the stripped and scourged Christ – resonances which would of course not have been lost on religious conservatives during the iconoclastic destruction of altars and imagery in the reign of Edward VI.

In one sense a late-comer to the revisionist challenge to the received Reformation narrative, what marked the book out from other “revisionist” treatments was, first, the fact that two thirds of its 600-page bulk was devoted to a detailed thematic exploration of the ritual world of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century English parishioners, not least to the liturgy that informed and structured that ritual world, but which few non-specialist historians had attended to12, and, second, the book’s close attention to the lavish surviving material culture of medieval religion  – parish churches and their sacred space, their furnishings, books, images and iconography – not out of an incidental antiquarianism, but as indispensable evidence for any serious attempt to understand the Christianity that the Reformation sought to replace. This aspect of the book was to arouse considerable interest: it drew attention and added impetus to the importance of the parish studies associated with the work of historians like Clive Burgess13 and later Beat Kümin,14 and helped stimulate interest in late medieval English religious art and artifacts, especially the painted screens of East Anglia and Devon, which had featured prominently in the book: this aspect of the book would feed into 2the planning of two major exhibitions, the National Gallery’s Jubilee show “Seeing Salvation”, and the V&A’s 2003 “Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547”15.

It was in some ways a dangerous book for an academic to publish, for its author’s empathy for the religious system that the book scrutinized was clear, inevitably inviting the accusation of religious bias. Most of the reviewers commented on the sympathy, even passion, with which late medieval popular Catholicism, or, in the book’s preferred term, “traditional religion”, was handled, and more than one suggested that the book marked the regrettable rise or revival of “denominational history”. This seemed to me a curious, even risible suggestion, given that most modern writing about English Reformation history had been produced either from an overtly or discernibly Protestant confessional standpoint (as in the case of Dickens), or at any rate from within a culturally Protestant and post-Enlightenment mindset liable to influence historical judgement about the character and worth of medieval Christianity just as surely, if less obviously, as any denominational affiliation. The myth of neutral history is just that, a myth; if it actually existed, no one would want to read it. Every historian brings to their subject-matter a raft of experience, opinions, attitudes and assumptions that inform their perceptions, and influence both the issues they find interesting,  and the questions they bring to their material. History is an attempt to discern the patterns that underlie the surviving traces of the past, not a bloodless chronicle of patternless events, and the interpretation of the records of the past demands personal gifts like imagination and empathy. Empathy is of course a double-edged tool: it may sensitize its possessor to issues and aspects of the past that others have missed or seen imperfectly; equally, of course, it is liable to create blind spots for less congenial matter. But protection against skewed judgement in history, as in any other discipline within the humanities, comes not from some imagined Olympian neutrality, but from openness to other points of view, receptive engagement in debate, honesty and self-awareness about one’s direction of approach, and scrupulous care in handling evidence. So, while sharing Patrick Collinson’s admiration for Diarmaid MacCulloch’s splendid survey of the European Reformation, Europe’s House Divided, I found and find myself in profound disagreement with Collinson’s contention that MacCulloch, a former believer who did “not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma”, was thereby “in the optimum position for a historian of religion”. In itself, it seems to me, possession of religious belief is neither a greater nor lesser bar to informed and dependable judgement than the lack of such belief.

Despite such reservations, the critical response to the book was, with few exceptions, overwhelmingly positive, even Sir Geoffrey Elton acknowledging that “old notions of a decline in faith and a massive withdrawal from the official Church” had been decisively demolished.16 With the appearance a year later of Christopher Haigh’s long awaited magnum opus on the religious upheavals of the Tudor century, English Reformations, it became clear that a demolition of older notions was indeed in progress. The appearance close together of two such accounts of the Tudor onslaught on traditional religion, though in fact very different in their assessments of its outcomes, seemed to signal the emergence of a new historical orthodoxy, but by the same token heightened suspicion that Reformation history had fallen into the grip of a cohort of “Catholic revisionists”, suspicions comically misplaced in the case of Haigh, who had indeed a fair claim to have invented “revisionism”, but who described himself as a lapsed Anglican agnostic, a revelation which prompted the bewildered question from Geoff Dickens, “Then why does he say such things?”

About the Author:

Eamon Duffy is a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the author of The Voices of Morebath, Fires of Faith, Marking the Hours, Saints and Sinners, and Ten Popes Who Shook the World.

About the book:

The Stripping of the Altars
Traditional Religion in England, 1400-158
Eamon Duffy

This prize-winning account of the pre-Reformation church recreates lay people’s experience of religion, showing that late-medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but a strong and vigorous tradition. For this edition, Duffy has written a new introduction reflecting on recent developments in our understanding of the period.

Find out more

Also by Eamon Duffy:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

  1. A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, London, 1964,  2nd edn, London, 1989. ↩︎
  2. Cited  in Christopher Haigh,  “A.  G. Dickens  and  the English Reformation”,  Historical Research 77, 2004, p. 33. ↩︎
  3. The case for the nuances  is made in Andrew  Pettegree, “A. G. Dickens and His Critics: A New  Narrative of  the  English  Reformation”,  Historical  Research  77,  February   2004, pp. 39–58. ↩︎
  4. J. J. Scarisbrick,  The Reformation and the English People, Oxford, 1984. ↩︎
  5. Christopher Haigh  (editor  and  contributor), The  English  Reformation Revised, Cambridge, 1987. ↩︎
  6. Patrick Collinson,  The Birthpangs  of Protestant  England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth  Centuries, London, 1988. ↩︎
  7. David Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor:  Politics, Government and Religion in England 1553–1558, London, 1991. ↩︎
  8. John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570–1850, London, 1975.  For Dickens’s view of the history  of Yorkshire  recusancy,  and  its influence on Bossy, Claire Cross,  “A. G. Dickens as a Yorkshire  Historian”, Historical Research 77, February  2004,  pp. 112–13. ↩︎
  9. I subsequently published  a version of this lecture as “The Burial of the Dead: From Medi- eval to Modern Perceptions”, Proceedings  of the Catholic  Theological  Association of Great Britain 1, 1986,  pp. 1–13. ↩︎
  10. Richard  Fardon, Mary Douglas, an Intellectual  Biography,  London, 1999,  p. 103. ↩︎
  11. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, London, 1996 edn, pp. 51 ff. My quotation is from the 1973 Penguin edition, but the passage was slightly modified in successive editions; see Fardon, op. cit., pp. 110–18. ↩︎
  12. Though  David Cressy’s Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan  and Stuart England, London, 1989, had directed historical attention to the importance of ritual for the formation of Protestant national identity, and in the mid-1990s Ronald Hutton, whose pioneering work on the implementation of Reformation changes in the Tudor localities  had  been one of the highlights of The English Reformation Revised, would publish his invaluable studies of British calendar customs, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700, Oxford, 1994, and Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford, 1996. ↩︎
  13. Clive Burgess,  “Strategies  for  Eternity:  Perpetual  Chantry Foundation in Late  Medi- eval  Bristol”,  in  Christopher Harper-Bill   (ed.),  Religious  Belief  and  Ecclesiastical  Careers in Late Medieval England,  London, 1991;  “The  Benefaction of Mortality: The Lay Response in the Later Medieval London  Parish”,  in David Smith (ed.), Studies in Clergy and Ministry  in Late Medieval  England,  Borthwick  Studies in History,  York,  1991;  “A Service for the Dead: The  Form  and  Function  of the  Anniversary  in Late  Medieval  Bristol  1987”,  Transactions of  the  Bristol  and  Gloucestershire Archaeological  Society,  1987;  and  many  other  studies, most recently The Right  Ordering  of Souls: The Parish of All Saints Bristol on the Eve of the Reformation, Aldershot,  2018. ↩︎
  14. Beat A. Kümin, The Shaping of a Community: The Rise and Reformation of the English Parish c. 1400–1560, St Andrews  Studies in Reformation History,  Aldershot  and Brookfield, VT, 1996. ↩︎
  15. See the discussion  in Paul Binski, “The  English Parish  Church  and  its Art in the Later Middle   Ages:  A  Review  of  the  Problem”,  Studies  in  Iconography  20,  1999,   pp.  1–25; G.  Finaldi,  The  Image  of  Christ,  New  Haven,  CT,  2000  (exhibition catalogue  of  “Seeing Salvation”);  Neil MacGregor and Erika Langmuir,  Seeing Salvation,  London, 2000;  Richard Marks,  Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547, London, 2003. ↩︎
  16. Elton’s review appeared in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History 44, 1993, pp. 719–21. ↩︎

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