“The Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but … a great cultural hiatus.”


“I was raised a Protestant. I have attained a deep appreciation of Roman Catholicism as well through experiences with Catholics from childhood; my wife and sons are Catholic.

“Having a knowledge of various Protestant denominations and having had relatives and ancestors belonging to different ones (and having studied history), I have often thought to myself, once the cat was let out of the bag and Protestantism emerged, there was no end to the splintering among different denominations — often over matters of church policy or governance and both large and small doctrinal issues.”

— from my post “re ‘Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within’ ”

re “Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within”



“… an account of the Reformation which was widely accepted in England, by scholars as well as the man in the pew, till fairly recently. Even entirely secular people took it as axiomatic that Protestantism was, if not necessarily true, then at least not obviously and ludicrously false, like Roman Catholicism. Believers and unbelievers were agreed that whatever the true claims of Christianity, the Reformation was a vital stage along the road to modernity, the cleansing of the English psyche from priestcraft, ignorance and superstition. …

The Stripping of the Altars, first published in 1992, was, among other things, an attempt to contribute a shovelful of history to the burial of [a] venerable historiographical consensus. .. The book was informed by a conviction that the Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but, for good or ill, a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past. Over the course of three generations a millennium of splendour—the worlds of Gregory and Bede and Anselm and Francis and Dominic and Bernard and Dante, all that had constituted and nourished the mind and heart of Christendom for a thousand years – became alien territory, the dark ages of “papery”. Sixteenth-century Protestantism was built on a series of noble affirma­tions – the sovereignty of the grace of God in salvation, the free availability of that grace to all who sought it, the self-revelation of God in his holy word. But it quickly clenched itself round a series of negations and rejections. As its proponents smashed the statues, whitewashed the churches and denounced the Pope and the Mass, Protestantism came to be constituted in large part by its NO to medieval religion.

The Stripping of the Altars, then, was at one level an elegy for a world we had lost, a world of great beauty and power which it seemed to me the reformers —and many historians ever since—had misunderstood, traduced and destroyed. It was only after the book had been published, and began to be debated, that I came to realize that the energy and engagement which had helped to produce it, and which gave it some of its rhetorical force, did not belong entirely in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Till my early teens I had been brought up in the Ireland of the 1950s, and the religion of my childhood had a good deal in common with the symbolic world of the late Middle Ages. My later teens had exactly coincided with the Second Vatican Council, of which I was an eager observer. That Council had triggered the dismantling of much of what had seemed immemorial and permanent in my own inner imagi­native landscape, as the externals of the ritual life of the Catholic Church were drastically altered and simplified. My account of the English Reformation presented it less as an institutional and doctrinal transformation than a ritual one, “the stripping of the altars”: in retrospect, I see that the intensity of focus I brought to my task as an historian was nourished by my own experience of another such ritual transformation.”

— Eamon Duffy, Preface to the Second Edition, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1589 (Yale University Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xiv


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2021


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