10 December 2020, The Tablet

Catholic historian Eamon Duffy at the top of his game


Catholic historian Eamon Duffy at the top of his game

Thomas More
Detail from a portrait by Hans Holbein the younger, Frick collection, New York

 

A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation
EAMON DUFFY
(BLOOMSBURY CONTINUUM, 272 pp, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • tel 020 7799 4064

Erudite, readable and acerbic, the essays in this volume (mostly versions of lectures delivered over the past decade) confirm the talents of an historian who, almost 40 years after publishing his first book, is still at the very top of his game.

Eamon Duffy is unashamedly a Catholic historian, as opposed to that diffident self-designation of some academic colleagues, a historian who happens to be a Catholic. His approach to the Reformation is emotionally engaged. It also instinctively grasps how the diagnosis (like the devil) is often in the detail. A chapter on cathedral shrines addresses whether pilgrimage was flourishing or declining in the century before the Reformation, but it also asks who made and sold souvenir pilgrim badges, and what happened to the wax of votive candles. Duffy’s essay on the 1569 Northern Rising follows recent academic opinion in seeing a genuine popular rebellion rather than an exercise of fading feudal power; but he also tracks with unprecedented precision the compromised actions of parish curates and Durham petty canons, caught between hopes of transformation and the cold reality of the regime’s victory.

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