Marooned on an Island Monographs: an English Reformation Summer Reading List

Jonathan Willis

Well, term has ended, and having been really struck by Mark’s idea of an early modern social history desert-island-style summer reading list, it got me to thinking: what are the five must-read books I would pick for my own specialism, the English Reformation?  This is also the time of year when I start to get emails from students who are taking my modules in the autumn and keen to make an early start preparing for the new academic year.  This post is therefore dedicated to them, and I might well direct a few of them this way!

1) Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (1992; 2nd edn. 2005)

9780300108286Before 1992, English reformation studies was defined by an impassioned scholarly debate, between the ‘traditional’ interpretation of A.G. Dickens, outlined in his 1964 classic The English Reformation, and the revisionist interpretation of scholars such as Chris Haigh and Jack Scarisbrick.  The Stripping of the Altars effectively won that argument in favour of the revisionists.  If non-early modernists know any work of reformation history, it’s liable to be this paradigm-breaking breeze-block of a book.  But this isn’t just a towering scholarly achievement: it’s a wonderful literary one too.  The vastness of its scope is matched only by the richness of its detail; a labour of genius and love.

2) John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (1985)

617sdP-cu3L._SY300_If The Stripping is a breeze-bloc, then this is a beautifully crafted gem of a book.  Perhaps never has such a short text both communicated and generated so much deep thought on a topic.  This is another brilliantly written book: short, accessible, engaging, and it wears its erudition lightly.  Still, this is a conceptual masterpiece, teasing out the broader (and often unexpected) significances of the religious conflicts that wracked Europe over the course of three centuries, and witnessed the disintegration of a united Latin Christendom into a series of fractured hostile Christianities.  The chapter on ‘Migrations of the Holy’ inspired my work on music, but there’s so much more here as well.

3) Peter Marshall, Reformation England, 1480-1642 (2003; 2nd edn. 2012)

9781849665292Quite simply the go-to textbook on the English Reformation, but so much more besides.  This is an immensely readable book – the prose is not only informative, it is also a delight.  Complex historiographies are expertly summarised, but this is an interpretive and analytical survey of the reformation, not merely a passive conduit for ‘information’.  With clarity, wit and expert judgement, Marshall guides the reader through a dense jungle of literature, and leads them out the other side into the sunlight, invigorated and wanting more.  I still regularly go back to this book, especially if I want to remind myself of a topic I haven’t taught a seminar on for a while, and it never disappoints.

4) Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (2011)

9780199243556Perhaps not quite yet as influential or frequently cited as Providence in Early Modern England, Charitable Hatred, or Church Papists, this substantial tome nevertheless represents Walsham at her absolute best.  The ambition and scope of this book – chronological, geographical, methodological, thematic – is simply breathtaking, and again it is a beautifully-written and lovingly-crafted exercise in exemplary scholarship.  From holy wells to healing spas, from iconoclasm to ruin-tourism, from sermon-gadding to outdoor conventicles, this is post-revisionism at its scintillating best: complex, and yet packed with insight.  There are pretty pictures too!

5) Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (2013)

8537_book_being_protestant_in_reformation_britain_alec_ryrieI’ll tell you a secret: I bought this last year when it came out, and I only started reading it earlier this month…  Needless to say, only a few chapters in and I’m already hooked!  Like all of my choices, readability is a huge factor, and again this is wonderful, witty, readable, engaging prose.  The premise is also a startlingly simple and yet utterly brilliant one.  How did people be Protestant, in post-reformation England?  How did their religious beliefs affect the way they ate, didn’t eat, drank, worked, played, rested, slept, thought, felt, and prayed?  I’ve been looking forward to this for several years now, having heard snippets delivered at various conferences, and so far it certainly does not disappoint.  P.S. Alec Ryrie is a fellow blogger, so why not check out his latest musings over at blogspot?

So there it is: my summer top 5.  I had a hard job whittling this down, so come on, what have I missed out which you couldn’t bear to, and which of my choices do you disagree with…?

14 thoughts on “Marooned on an Island Monographs: an English Reformation Summer Reading List

  1. I ‘did’ this period for A-level in the sixties, but can’t say I’ve got more than a hazy memory of concepts and details, so this is a welcome list — the Bossy or the Marshall look particularly tempting.

    Coincidentally I’ve just started rereading Keith Roberts’ Pavane which, you may know, is an ‘alternate history’ novel from the 60s presupposing Elizabeth I was assassinated, upsetting the European power balance and ensuring England remained Catholic. Sheer nonsense, of course, but some of the ramifications are beautifully imagined and worked through.

    • Thank you very much for this, and if I’ve tempted you to give either of them a try then that’s great – you certainly won’t regret it! I’ve not heard of Roberts’ Pavane – it sounds like a bit of harmless but fascinating counter-factual fun, and a perfect summer read, so I may have to track this one down myself…

    • Ah, me too, so this is an unashamedly English-Reformation-oriented list! On the wider picture though – well, MacCulloch’s ‘Reformation: Europe’s House Divided’ is of course a staggeringly wide-ranging account from another first-rank historian – especially useful for the weight it gives to events in Eastern Europe I think. Collinson’s short book on ‘The Reformation’ is great: classic Collinson really, full of witty and allusive references that belie the ‘textbook’ label. And Euan Cameron’s ‘The European Reformation’ is a classic that still makes it on to most of my reading lists. Who would you say is particularly good?

  2. All good suggestions, though I think the book I find myself reaching for most often is Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Does that count as ‘English Reformation’ history? Is it even ‘religious history’? At least it matches Duffy’s Stripping in weight!

    • Good point, I still use Thomas a lot, although (for reasons I can’t explain) I don’t quite think of it as ‘reformation history’. The sections I go back to most often are the ones on magic and witchcraft, but if you look at the chapter headings it’s clear that in that one book Thomas set the tone for a huge tranche of the post-revisionist work that followed, examining specific aspects of belief like providence, prayer, ghosts, astrology, etc.

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  4. 25 books would be difficult much less 5, but here are some musings from an interested layman. At the risk of being totally politically incorrect ( ladies and historians of sensitive disposition may avert their eyes and cover their ears now ) I question whether Duffy’s, Alters, really merits a place in a short reading list of reformation history. Duffy describes the late medieval church in detail but in my view he never comes to terms with the dynamics of the Reformation, frankly I doubt if he even tries to. If the argument is that the reformation needs to placed against a late medieval background, I agree, but the account must recognise and explore those fault lines which point way the way to the reformation process. I think Bernard’s recent work, The Late Medieval Church, actually fills that role more effectively, although it does not really examine the intellectual background. Ives short work, The Reformation Experience does much to add this to the mix and deserves honourable mention

    Second point (sorry). A reformation reading list without directly addressing the English bible, what it say how it was distributed and mediated is rather like a ‘Full English’ fry up for vegetarians. Something is missing. Daniel ‘ s The Bible in English and Aston’s England’s Iconoclasts, for me at least, stand out. MacCulloch ‘s Reformation is my preferred broad brush, international account. All of these works give some insight into those preconditions which pointed towards change.

    Obviously much more could be said, but I will leave there while I fortify myself with a cup of tea for what I expect will be, an inevitable onslaught.

    • Thank you for these comments Peter – my list was a very personal take, and so it’s great to hear somebody else’s. I agree with you that Duffy is somewhat lacking as a general history of the reformation – I picked it for two reasons really: firstly, it would be hard to think of many other books that have had such a profound effect on reformation historiography; and secondly, it really is a brilliantly-written book, and an enjoyable read. Of my other choices, where Duffy stresses change, Walsham emphasises continuity, and Marshall adopts a moderate position between the two, so hopefully there’s a sense of balance overall. I’m afraid to say that I’ve not gotten around to reading the recent Bernard book yet (that really is on my summer reading list!) – on late-medieval England though, I’d have to add ‘Church and Society’ and the many other books and articles by my Birmingham colleague Robert Swanson.

      On the English bible, I do agree with you about its centrality, but I’d also be keen to broaden Protestant culture out to include music, visual culture, material objects, and more besides. Ryrie’s ‘The Gospel and Henry VIII’; Watt’s ‘Cheap Print and Popular Piety’; Maltby’s ‘Prayerbook and People’; Marshall’s ‘Beliefs and the Dead’; Aston; Hamling’s ‘Decorating the Godly Household’; Spufford’s ‘Small Books’; Collinson’s ‘Religion of Protestants’; Green’s ‘Protestantism and Print’; all of these (and more) are vital to understanding early modern English Protestantism. And on the importance of the English bible, of course, you could still do worse than go back to AG Dickens. You’re quite right: 5 is too few, and 25 is still nowhere near enough! Luckily my course bibliographies don’t have to comply with these sorts of artificial constraints…

      • Much appreciate the very considered response. I fully concur with the need to broaden the field to include the development of Protestant culture and with it, presumably, the mediation of the reformers message. I have not read the works by Collinson and Spufford that you cite and cannot comment on them, but for the rest it would be difficult to fault.

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  6. Duffy is a book of two parts: the first scintillating, but polemical; the second, narrative in scope. My reaction would be that the most erudite and challenging way into the complexities still resides in the two major books by Shagan, difficult as they are, and, of course, narrow in temporal scope.

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