Book covers of Duffy's Stripping of the Altars and Voices of Morebath

R is for Revisionist

Talk about “Reformation” often reflects the speaker’s view. A 1617 cartoon shows Luther as powerful hero, using his pen to upset the powers-that-be. It supports a Lutheran viewpoint.

For a long time, most history supported the status quo. Historians thought the medieval church had been corrupt. Ordinary people had little opportunity to get involved. Change was necessary.

Revisionists like Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy changed that.

For example, in 1992 Eamon Duffy published The Stripping of the Altars. The book describes the richness of medieval worship and the turmoil of change. In another book, The Voices of Morebath, Duffy used a priest’s accounts to study change in a small Devonshire village. The accounts span the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. Duffy was able to show how the response to change varied. Villagers seemed reluctant to conform.

This kind of study changed mainstream history writing.

Those who write history are aware of weaknesses in older scholarship. It is no longer acceptable to act as if the medieval church was rotten. We don’t pretend that reformation was universally popular, or that what happened was all about what the authorities wanted. Scholars today tell complex stories about different reformations, drawing on local studies and (mostly) trying not to take sides.

It is an exciting time to be a Reformations scholar!

The examples above concern the English Reformation. There have been related changes in writing about Reformation elsewhere.


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Some paths of revisionism and post-revisionism are traced in more detail in Peter Marshall’s 2009 essay “(Re)Defining the English Reformation“, originally published in the Journal of British Studies.

Bruce Robinson wrote aboutThe Legacy of the Reformationincluding a fuller background to the revisionists for the BBC in 2011.

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