FIVE. Reforming subjectivity: personal, familial, and group implications of English reformation

Take any event, process, or fact and place it in history. Once done everything changes, since that event, process, or fact, gains the context of time, location, and movement. In other words, place something in history and it becomes possible to see it as history; history opens the door to contingency. All historical writing involves an interpretive dimension, since we can never be sure that we have comprehended the horizontal context in which the object of study occurred. The past is always there, but the activity of the present, including that of the historian, works upon it. Man is a symbolising creature. We cannot transcend the symbolic realm, and history is a discipline undertaken by those with particular foci and projects; further, the objects of historical study are past symbolic activities. History is the history of previous, meaningful being, and historians are themselves products of history (Burrow, 2007).

The Reformation, the subject of this chapter, is an interesting case in point, as it is a colligatory concept that joins up countless lesser changes into the retrospective, envisaged "movement", by which people redefined their worlds (Haigh, 1995). Is it though, part of a "continuum of history", or, "an extraordinary historical moment"? (Collinson, 2003); because the redefining was so extensive, the Reformation came to signify a vast watershed, with new confessional communities feeling invisibly united by images of their greater communion or brotherhood. If meaningful being is always underway, never settled, then an element of scepticism is inherent to the historian's craft. E. H. Carr, in What is History? (1987), gives the example of "the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people ... interests nobody at all" (pp. 11-12). Carr thus concludes that the old dogma that "the facts speak for themselves" is untrue.

Norbert Elias proposed the discipline of "historical psychology" whereby "minds" and mentalities can be understood only if placed within the processes that shaped and defined them. In his view, human beings are interdependent rather than autonomous, existing within what Elias called figurations. Krieken (1998) explains that Elias stressed that the identity of human beings, "as unique individuals", existed only "within ... networks or figurations" (p. 55). An early friend of group analysis, Elias noted similarities between the two disciplines, with the need to wander between the group level and the individual level, back and forth, "both having roots in the focus of one's attention" (Elias, 1997). Others (e.g., Mennell, 1997) have noted the family resemblance between the "figuration" of Elias and the "matrix" of Foulkes.[1]

Elias's (1978, 1982) two-volume major work explored the "civilising process" as it operated in medieval, absolutist, and bourgeois societies and the sociogenesis of the state. Volume one concentrates on the role of courtoisie, or court society, in transforming warrior society and producing far-reaching changes in levels of civility, mutual recognition, and pacification. Rules of conduct and practices such as manners, restraint, foresight, privacy, and shame were amongst the objects of his analysis. Like the Annales school of French historians, he acknowledges the slow, but cumulative nature of such changes in conduct and milieu, history in longue durée? These are changes involving more than one generation and that, in the technical language of group analysis, involve recompositions of the "foundational matrix". Foundational or figurational change represents changes in the pattern of individual/group, figure/ ground relations.

Elias tended to focus on elites (warriors, members of court society) rather than ordinary folk (Rosenwein, 2006). Neither did he pay much attention to the role of Christianity and church practice, preferring to concentrate on secular domains, particularly the court. This, however, was not the only, or even the most influential, realm in terms of the evolving subjectivities and rules of personal conduct (Hirst & Woolley, 1981). Smith (1991, p. 53) observes that "The age of the knight was also the age of the monk". Monasteries were, for example, equally complex institutions as courts, within which new relations of conscience, conformity, respect, and mutual surveillance operated. There was also the religion of everyday life; it is with these, albeit later, processes of Christianisation that this chapter is concerned and how religious practice powerfully influenced the "formation and maintenance" of human attributes (Hirst & Woolley, 1981). In Tudor England, Church and State were one and the Bible not simply a "religious text" but one integral to most spheres of cultural and intellectual life; Febvre (1973) argues that "early modern minds"—an unfortunately objectifying term perhaps— could not think beyond terms other than religious, with the Puritan revolution a radical reinterpretation which sought to inscribe the spirit of the Scriptures in men's hearts and minds. The story of the Reformation and early-modern religious struggles remains an inescapable, even if distant, component of the story of who we now are, in this region of the world.

Following a summary of the backdrop to these changes, I offer four intimate "case reflections" upon the back of historians, Puterbaugh (2000), Jones (2002), Underdown (1992), and Todd (1992), and others. The social theory used is the same as that outlined in the preceding chapter, and, in addition, I use Anderson's (1981) concept of "imagined communities". Protestant communities of various kinds, can be understood as imagined communities that assume the existence of a "deep, horizontal comradeship" (Anderson, 1981, p. 7), with inevitable differentiations from other, adjacent or competing communities. Rosenwein's (2006) concept of "emotional communities" is equally apposite, signifying as it does, in her study focused on communities in the early middle ages (guilds, monasteries, etc.), "groups in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value—or devalue—the same or related emotions" (p. 2). In other words, throughout history and cultures, there are not only great variations in emotional vocabularies available, but also in the expressive repertoire of groups. The emotions involved are not simply turned "on" or "off", constrained or expressed, but are formed within contingent acts of performance— discursive, institutional, and so on (Rosenwein, 2009). Hopefully, it is in the everydayness, the "playne meninge", of the examples cited, that much can be gleaned about the changing and relational nature of historical subjectivities, emotions, and communities.

  • [1] Foulkes (1971) spoke of a "pre-existing and relatively static" area within a given culture, referred to as the "foundation matrix", whose rhythm of change is different to that of the "dynamic matrix", created when particular groups or current associations of individuals come together (Nixon, 1998).
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