The Late Medieval English Church

Bernard Medieval

A review of G. W. Bernard’s, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome.

Many church history courses, books, and lectures only ever cover the late medieval church as a prelude to the Reformation which transformed it. The subject has therefore become a battleground for those who have very differing accounts of what that Reformation did, and whether it should be viewed as “a good thing.” The traditional view was one of ignorance, corruption, and growing anti-clericalism replaced by the re-discovered gospel, vernacular Bibles and liturgies, and increased lay devotion; this has been challenged in recent years by (amongst others) Eamon Duffy, whose Stripping of the Altars painted a picture of a vibrant and beloved church unjustly attacked and denuded by Henry VIII and his Protestant successors. With this debate in the background, in steps Professor Bernard, vice-president of the Royal Historical Society with a searching examination of the late medieval church on its own terms.

Bernard begins by claiming that much of the recent writing on this period, particularly of the Duffy “school”, does not tell the full story, and indeed leaves the subsequent Reformation “inexplicable.” Yes, there was vitality in the church of the middle ages, but within that there were serious and substantial vulnerabilities which have been ignored or played down. That is not to make the break with Rome and the eventual triumph of what the Coronation Oath calls “the true profession of the gospel… the Protestant Reformed religion” an absolute inevitability. Yet Bernard places provocative question marks over the revisionist accounts of late, and allows us to ask again what the proper criteria for judging the late medieval church should really be.

Within this big picture are many details, which the author handles with care and, at times, an appropriate scepticism. He questions whether the ruckus surrounding the alleged murder of the supposed “heretic” Richard Hunne in 1514 really does reveal a dangerous level of anti-clericalism, or that there were large networks spreading anti-Roman heresy in London at the time. His unfolding of the intricacies of “the monarchical church” of the middle ages — how kings controlled episcopal appointments and were both defenders of the church and extenders of the Christian faith — is deft and persuasive, and shows how the acceptance of royal supremacy under Henry VIII was by no means an untidy break with the past.

He assesses the role of bishops and clergy in the period, finding the former, for example, to be adequate administrators (“they muddled through”, page 67), but too deeply enmeshed in worldly politics to be of much spiritual good. One of the greatest vulnerabilities for the church in this period was the population’s ignorance of the Christian message: yes, they had sculpture and stained glass, a liturgical calendar, and pilgrimages, but the form of faith this perhaps engendered (“an underlying pagan-cum-magical religious understanding upon which christianity [sic] had more or less been superimposed”, page 107) was wide open to humanist and Protestant critiques.

This is, therefore, a salutary response to an overly positive assessment of the period, although in terms of its style does it perhaps raise more questions than it answers?

This review was first published in Theology 116/5 (September 2013).

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