Stripping of the Altars 2ND Edition
by Eamon Duffy
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
The winners define the past. For 400 years the British popular and scholarly minds,
possessed by Protestant and Whiggish triumphalism, believed that superstition,
a disengaged laity, a corrupt priesthood, and pagan accretions had enervated the
late-medieval English Church -- and thus ripened it for reformation, a process
embraced by the people. This vigorous and eloquent book, a work of daring revision
and a masterpiece of the historical imagination, utterly transformed that thinking
in 1992, when it was first published (this just-released second edition incorporates
some scholarly qualifications, but Duffy's interpretation in its essential aspects
stands). At once meticulous and lush, The Stripping of the Altars patiently
and systematically recovers the lost world of medieval English Catholicism. Brilliantly
examining the abundant art-historical evidence along with an array of documents
from liturgical books to wills, Duffy, a historian at Cambridge, constructs an
elaborate portrait of ordinary people's rich and vital religious life, characterized
by the web of festivals, rituals, and images that bound their society together.
He focuses not on doctrine and institutions but instead on the externals of religion
(sacraments and ceremonies, altars, processions, lights, and images), conveying
how liturgy -- "that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual
observance and symbolic gesture" -- shaped believers' "perception of
the world and their place in it." By taking this alien world seriously, on
its own terms, he reveals to modern readers the power and pull of its distinctive
religious culture. But while the first two thirds of this book is a deeply textured
work of historical anthropology, the last third is a gripping narrative history,
as Duffy traces the way the English Reformation (a process supported by a tiny
minority, and deeply if ineffectively opposed by a population cowed by the new
and crushing force of the monarchy) eradicated a thousand years of tradition and
ritual. (He rightly emphasizes the psychological and spiritual impact of Henry
VIII's and Elizabeth I's lavish devastation of the physical culture of the late-medieval
Church -- a point Margaret Aston made memorably in her England's Iconoclasts,
but which Duffy vividly brings home with his discerning and disturbing photographs
of whitewashed frescoes and smashed and defaced statues, stained glass, shrines,
and altars.) Duffy's most significant contribution by far is to elucidate the
fragility of even deeply rooted ways of life: he convincingly demonstrates that
for better or worse, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which
had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past"
-- a past that over merely three generations became a distant world, impossible
for them to look back on as their own. A wholly compelling book (it was a best
seller in the UK), this will appeal to any reader who wants to enter and understand
another world (and isn't that why we read in the first place?). After you finish
it, Shakespeare's haunting line from Sonnet 73, about the destruction of the monasteries
-- "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" (which, astonishingly,
Duffy resists quoting) -- will resonate as never before.
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