An unnecessary rupture

16 March 2017 | by Alexandra Walsham


Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the bold protest against the trade in indulgences, when Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg. This possibly apocryphal historical event has become permanently etched in the Western imagination.

It is 25 years since the publication of Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, a book that transformed our understanding of the process by which a vibrant tradition of piety was violently dismantled by Henry VIII and his successors, and by which this country ­severed its links with the rest of Catholic Christendom. Decisively undermining the idea that the Late Medieval Church was a moribund institution, no single work has left a larger imprint on academic and popular thinking about the Reformation and the spiritual world that it sought to consign to oblivion.

Reformation Divided deepens and extends Duffy’s distinctive vision of the ­religious transitions of the sixteenth and ­seventeenth centuries. He charts what he calls the “strange death of Erasmian England”, fills out the picture of the precocious and dynamic “northern counter-reformation” he painted in his book Fires of Faith, and traces the pastoral initiatives of the godly Protestant clergy who strove to bring about the inner conversion of ordinary people.

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