Reformation Divided. Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England

Author: Eamon Duffy
ISBN: 978 -1-4729-3436-9 (hardback); 978-1-4729-3437-6 (e-book)
Date: 2017
Price: £30.00 (hb), £26.99 (e-book)
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Publisher: Bloomsbury

This ought to be a much more diffuse collection than it is. It contains fourteen essays published over a period of forty years, the earliest in 1977 and 1978, the most recent in 2013 and 2016. It contains essays published in a variety of forms and with very different audiences - from the preface to a Folio Society edition of Erasmus's The Praise of Folly via essays in books aimed at undergraduate readership, to major public lectures and keynote addresses at academic conferences, to articles in recondite journals. This information is buried away in an acknowledgement section on pp.432-3 otherwise one would never guess it. Partly this is because Eamon Duffy has done such a remarkable job of recasting them. All historical writing is the product of a historical moment and also of an autobiographical moment and it is always dangerous to 'bring them up to date'. This book is the exception to that austere rule, Each and every one of these essays reads as though it was written yesterday. And each one now reads as though it was directed at the range of readers who subscribe to the Pastoral Review. As with all Duffy's writing, he enters peerlessly into the mental worlds of the past, both drawing on and deepening our awareness of the moral and spiritual worlds of men (and in this book it is essentially men) of a particular past. But he also manages to allude to the dilemmas of the past in ways which evoke the dilemmas of our present.


The collection is in three parts: three essays on St Thomas More as persecutor not persecuted; seven essays on those who shaped the Catholic mission in England from the mid-sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries; and four on Protestant evangelism and catechetics in the second to fourth generation after 'the Reformation', a term he finds 'tendentious' in that it assumes there is something that needed reforming. Every one of these essays is rich, subtle, startling and in two senses disturbing, breaking up settled opinion and in unsettling ways.

Catholic scholars treat More's polemical anti-Lutheran writings rather as the priest and the scribe treat the man lying by the side of the road to Jericho, and Duffy is very much the Good Samaritan, binding up his wounds and making him whole again. This is an exercise in empathy not polemic, an explanation of how the More who wrote The Dialogue concerning Heresies and The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer was the same More who was a friend of Erasmus and the author of Utopia with its apparently relaxed attitude to religious diversity. It only raises its voice to speak with exasperation of the ready acceptance by those who should know better of the 'brilliant' but false More of Hilary Mantel's fictions.

The central part of the book is the most impressive, seven essays that take us to the heart of the building of a Catholic fortress in Protestant England. Three contrasting figures get chapters to themselves. Reginald Pole, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary, is shown to have been more of a builder and teacher than is often allowed. William Allen is given the attention he has been denied hitherto, as the founder of seminaries and of Catholic separatism and also as plotter of the violent overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I whom he saw as a heretic bastard tyrant. And Gregory Martin, who was the man more than any other responsible for the Douai-Rheims English translation of the Bible and who is explored as the primary defender of the Roman Catholic Church. Three other chapters dwell on the tensions (to put it mildly) between the secular clergy and the Jesuits over mission strategies (and sometimes turf) and the most brilliant chapter of all looks at how Catholics prayed in the penal times.

The volume ends by looking at tensions within English Protestantism about the duties of the converted towards the unconverted. It shows that beyond the clericist tensions (to put it mildly) over pastoral strategies, especially towards the poor and illiterate, there was more effective acculturation of the whole population than, my refrain once more, has been commonly supposed. The word 'conversion' in the book's title turns out to have several meanings, all explored in glorious prose and with what Mercury Records used to call 'living presence'.

John Morrill, Selwyn College, Cambridge