Definitions and Phases of Reform

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Adam Morton, Lecturer in the History of Britain at Newcastle University.  Adam’s doctoral thesis, which he is currently revising for publication, focusses on (amongst other things) the impact of Reformed theology upon visual and material cultures. Here he reflects upon the legacy of Collinson’s article for the field of reformation studies.

9780333439715I began my undergraduate career convinced that I wanted to be a historian, but entirely unsure which bit of the past I should dedicate my life to unlocking. Patrick Collinson’s Birthpangs of Protestant England (1988) – of which a revised version of his Stenton Lecture From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia (1986) formed a part – was one of four books (the others being John Bossy’s Christianity in the West (1985), Robert Scribner’s For the Sake of Simple Folk (1981) and Alexandra Walsham’s Providence in Early Modern England (1999)) which convinced me that the Reformation was the thing for me. In each case I became so absorbed in reading them that all sense of time lapsed. I emerged from their pages to discover that day had become night and in one instance a grumpy porter had to inform me rather briskly that the library was now closing. Such was their power that over a decade later I can still remember exactly where in the Morrell Library at the University of York I was sitting when I first encountered each author: remarkable experiences in an otherwise unremarkable building.

When I embarked on PhD study on the relationship between anti-Catholicism and visual culture several years later, I quickly discovered that for many historians working on popular culture ‘Collinson’ was a synonym for ‘wrong’. For Collinson, during the period of 1560-1640 the English became a people of the Bible and this was marked by a profound moral change. That change was typified by logo-centrism, a rejection not just of images but of traditional culture more broadly. An awful lot of work now disputes this account. We now know that lots of the imagery which Collinson suggested died off c.1580 actually survived long after that period (thanks to Tessa Watt, amongst others); that the senses and the emotions remained vital to how Protestantism was inculcated and experienced (Alec Ryrie, Matthew Milner, and Susan Karant-Nunn); that the relationship between ‘word’ and ‘image’ in Calvinism was complementary rather than antagonistic (Randall Zachman); and that the idea of there being one ‘Protestant’ position on the image is highly questionable. My own work asks us to re-think what we actually mean by ‘image’. Reformed Protestantism did not exist in a void – it was shaped by elements of the culture in which it existed. When we examine the Protestant relationship with images beyond the confines of Reformed theology, we begin to see that their attitudes to and uses of them were varied and fecund; when we consider images that were not explicitly ‘religious’ (i.e. used in liturgical or devotional settings) we find a post-Reformation Protestantism saturated with images. English Protestantism developed a rich anti-Catholic iconography between 1530 and 1700. That iconography was conditioned by attitudes drawn from theories of rhetoric and memory, from opportunities offered by an expanding material culture, and by early modern society’s rich practices of shame punishments. These anti-Catholic images were put to use in a host of political and devotional settings. They were also paradoxical: simultaneously rampantly iconoclastic and richly visual. They can be used to assert that far from hostile to imagery and traditional culture, post-Reformation Protestants forged a national memory which was built upon both.

It is easy, however, to point out where From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia has been superseded. What impresses three decades on is how relevant many of Collinson’s insights remain. Two seem particularly pertinent. Firstly, although Collinson may have overstated the extent to which Reformed Protestantism rejected traditional culture, pointing us to rejection as an ideal was important. The current generation of historians may be able to list ‘Protestant’ ballads, images and other forms of popular culture, but the sense in which the godly felt that engaging in such practices was to partake in a compromise with the world, to experience a false form of joy, remains under-heralded. The ideal may never have been reality, but it remains an important part of the Reformed psyche. Understanding precisely why this spirit of rejection was so strong and where it came from are themes in need of greater consideration – a performance of the life-long drive to sanctification, an attempt to realise God’s Law in its purest form, and covenantal theology are all viable options. Researching them may suggest that although Reformed Protestantism’s engagement with popular culture was entrenched and highly visible, it was never cosy.

The second point to take from Collinson’s article thirty years on is how refreshingly bold it is. Emphasizing the Reformation as an agent of dramatic – even violent – change is unfashionable now; even more so Collinson’s pointing to when and where that change happened in thirty pages! Post-revisionism’s demonstration that the Reformation remained a partially complete, always contested and inherently messy process has done much to nuance our picture of the effect of Reformed Protestantism on English society and culture, but there is a point where a nuanced picture becomes a confused one. If we were asked to chart how the mental world of someone in 1640 was distinct from those of 1530, I wonder how many current historians could do so confidently and without tripping over themselves with caveats.

isize-reduced.phpThis is not meant to deny post-revisionism’s most important finding: that the Reformation was a much longer and contradictory process than historians previously thought. It is rather to suggest that perhaps the current end-point for ‘the Reformation(s)’ – 1640 – is not quite long enough. Collison’s lecture established the Reformation as a process of cultural change rather than a series of legislative events. Extending our perspective forward into the Restoration and beyond to see how those cultural changes and contradictions continued to animate English culture may prove important in shifting our account further. Many of the issues unleashed by reformation remained unresolved after 1660: the relationship between calls for toleration and intolerant ideals; what Royal Supremacy actually meant and how it should fit into the constitution; and, to return to Collinson, the relationship between Protestantism and popular culture. At the Restoration Protestantism and popular culture seem to be readily reintegrated in the ‘out of doors’ politics which animated the Exclusion Crisis and Revolution of 1688/9. Here images, ballads, cheap print and the stage were vital avenues through which rival groups of Protestants asserted their visions of England’s past and future. For one group – the Tory/Anglicans – the ‘iconophobia’ of the nonconformist sects whom they opposed was not only unseemly, it was seditious and therefore ‘popish’. Few things encapsulate the paradoxical relationship between Protestantism and popular culture better than this.


5 thoughts on “Definitions and Phases of Reform

    • Hi Christian, thanks for this. Adam Morton’s post will be up on Friday – I meant to schedule and accidentally clicked post instead. It’s part of a whole series of posts on the same theme – the introductory one is live here: Your posts are fascinating – I hadn’t really come across visual verses before – and it would be great if you’d like to join the discussion, and maybe link to them.

      All best,


      • Thanks Jonathan,

        I’ve been trying to figure out the comparative rejection and distaste for early printed pattern poems in England where continental printing was more enthusiastic. Collinson’s work can explain much. But, cheap print like illustrated ballads seem neglected. Looking at resources like the English Broadside Ballad Archive is one way for us to easily see the visual richness of the period.


  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  2. Thanks for this Adam. Important to point out where Collinson was right as well as where he was off the mark, as well as how inspiring this bold approach to charting processes of reform has been for those of us brought up on the texts you mention. While we’ve picked out the problematic term ‘Iconophobia’ for our symposium, Collinson’s understanding that ‘iconoclasm’ may imply ‘the substitution of other, acceptable images, or the refashioning of some images for an altered purpose’ was way ahead of the curve.
    I agree that there seems to be a perplexing gulf between ideal and reality, rhetoric and practice – that much of the stated position of the godly on popular cultural forms (as an irrelevance if not distraction from spiritual ideals) is out of step with the extant material evidence for their enthusiastic participation in this culture. Paradoxical indeed.

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