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Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England.

Peter Marshall. Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii +344 pp. index. bibl. $74. ISBN: 0-19-820773-5.

The Reformation has been all things to all scholars. Some see its primary significance in the collapse of Roman Catholic hegemony, the displacement of papal power, and the shattering of the Church Universal. Others map alternative paths to salvation, regarding the Lutheran insistence on faith, the Calvinist concept of predestination, and the general Protestant downgrading of sacraments and works as the emergent soteriological emphases of the sixteenth century. Much recent writing has dwelt on the relations of church and state, and the conflicts of clergy and laity. A productive line of research has looked at changing liturgy, worship, and the calendars and cadence of popular devotion. Reformation studies are hot, as historians of all kinds have rediscovered the pervasive importance of religion to Renaissance-era men and women.

Peter Marshall's new book takes a broad cultural view of changing beliefs about death and the dead in Reformation England. He covers the period from the late fifteenth century, when the hopes and fears of English Catholics were similar to those of the rest of western Christendom, to the early seventeenth century, when English Protestants had staked out a more austere understanding of the boundaries between this life and the next. Marshall treats the Reformation as a century-long process of social and cultural transformation, during which fundamental beliefs about heaven, hell, Purgatory, the saints, ghosts, and prayer were interrogated, rejected, or changed. He uses attitudes towards the dead, and the performance of intercessionary, neighborly, and commemorative duties, as registers of social and cultural change.

A wide reading of Reformation theology and a deep reach into sixteenth-century sermons and tracts testifies to the scholarly depth of this project. Marshall is attuned to the most recent historical scholarship and is open to interdisciplinary influences from anthropology and literary studies. He offers a nuanced and focused addendum to the work of Duffy on traditional religion, Haigh on Reformation politics, and Greenblatt on Hamlet in Purgatory, with almost as many quotations from Shakespeare as from the New Testament.

The opening chapter explores the close relationship between the parallel worlds of the living and the dead. The twin autumn feasts of All Saints and All Souls drew the two worlds closer together. Parish bede rolls recalled the names of the departed and maintained their membership in the community of Christians. Graveyards kept bodies and bones in close proximity to worship and work. Above all, belief in Purgatory generated a complex array of obits and chantries, devotions and intercessions, designed to lessen or alleviate the posthumous sufferings of those who had gone before. The rest of the book traces the theological, cultural, liturgical, and financial consequences as belief in Purgatory was assaulted, disintegrated, and decayed.

Recent years have seen an upsurge of "death studies," and other historians have examined the mortuary culture of early modern England. None provides so thorough an account of sixteenth-century ideas and understandings as Peter Marshall. He shows in great detail how Purgatory came under attack, how conservatives like Thomas More defended the belief, and how its undermining brought down much of the devotional apparatus of traditional Catholicism. He explains, cautiously but convincingly, "how a palpably unlooked-for Reformation was successfully imposed and ultimately embraced" (101). A mixture of policy and policing, evangelism and iconoclasm, under Henry VIII and Edward VI effectively disrupted a long-established relationship between the living and the dead, although residual attachment to Purgatory lingered for another two or three generations. Hallowtide bell-ringing died out in the 1580s, the same decade that many historians regard as the time when English Protestantism became popularly established. Puritans in particular became watchful for signs of backsliding, and mainstream Protestants agreed that there was no merit or purpose in prayers for the dead. Dead Christians might be remembered, even commemorated, but no human action could affect the disposition of their souls. A few neo-Catholic theologians in the reign of Charles I began to speculate whether prayer for the dead might still be justified, but they were a marginal group and were silenced by the civil war.

The Reformation theology of death required a new mental map of heaven and a new understanding of the afterlife. Marshall reviews early modern discourse on the estate of the dead, expectation of posthumous reunion, and hopes of resurrection. Inevitably, clerical and theological voices predominate, since lay perceptions are notoriously hard to discern. Closer attention to manuscript court records, and attunement to popular ballads and drama (beyond Shakespeare) might produce a richer picture, and more research in this area is still possible. Meanwhile, Beliefs and the Dead represents the state of the art. This is intellectual history of the finest kind, grounded in evidence, conscious of chronology, and sensitive to social and cultural setting.


Huntington University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Cressy, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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