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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 6th, 2005


Stripping of the Altars 2ND Edition

by Eamon Duffy

Another World

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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