The Protestantisation of the social

What is revealed during moments of great historical disruption, redefining the social ground with new images, myths, and values? How, when such changes are successful, does an "emergent form" become a "dominant form", recasting the whole meaning of social relations and transforming "structures of experience" (Williams, R., 1977)? During the Protestant Reformation, common-sense structures of experience were transformed and with it, the reinscription of the personal in relation to the public, the godly and the community. New standards of comportment, discourse, and conduct were established within the context of emergent "emotional" and "imagined communities"; of course, active opponents and countervailing emotional communities articulated different norms. In the hierarchical society that was Tudor and Stuart England, there were all sorts of "degrees or person", whose very classification created implications for conduct, interaction, and expectation (Wrightson, 1982). In this structure of dominance, new and denigrated subject positions emerged, forces such as "masterless men", the poor (although Protestant attitudes towards the poor and marginalised are ambiguous), scolds (disorderly women who abused their neighbours), dishonourable men, and the witch (mostly, if not entirely, women). Whilst one set of figures established themselves on the legitimate stage—"the Godly", "true believers", "puritans"[1], etc.—others flourished in the dark, threatening the very existence of the social (Catholics, recusants, forces of the anti-Christ, etc.). Although some of the anxieties about such groups were based on reactivated, sedimented ancient fears, new significations and symbolisations arose. Varied, illegitimate figures were powerful targets of concern and persecution by those whose job it was to maintain social order.

The Reformation in England took a different course to that on the continent, change initiated by Henry VIII's break with Rome (creating a form of Catholicism without the Pope?) and stabilised in some aspects by the Elizabeth settlement. The Church of England forged a middle-way between Catholicism and radical versions of Protestantism. Still, there were shifts and reversals, with a swing to Protestantism under Edward and the return to Rome under Mary. Post-Reformation life created new pressures and turmoil, leading ultimately to the polarisations of the Stuart and Civil War periods, settling, eventually, in new forms with the Restoration (for a comparison with the continental Reformation and Counter-reformation, sees Mandrou, 1979).

It is useful to delineate some of the constituents of this lengthy process:

• Henry VIII, for his own reasons, created a reform of religion that was neither Lutheran nor Roman. He secularised church property on a large scale, to benefit the Crown and proceeded to break the tie with the Rome. The Anglican Church emerged with the episcopate recognising Henry as supreme head of the Church of England.

• Traditional sources of authority and allegiance and medieval concepts of orthodoxy were weakening. There were many earlier "nonconformists" (although that very expression comes from a later period), such as Wycliffe, condemned after his death, who were recast as heroes of reform; Foxe dubbed Wycliffe the "morning star of the reformation" (Kenny, 1985).

• In a range of ways, belief moved away from the medieval hegemony of the Image, intercession of saints, ceremony, pilgrimages, and so on and recentred on interpretation of the Word. Changes in literacy, and the rise of vernacular languages, were of immense long-term significance to the Reformation; Anderson (1981) refers to "print capitalism". The democratisation of the Bible and Luther's idea of the "priesthood of all believers" stressed the individual conscience and displaced blind allegiance to traditional authority. In different ways, Luther and Calvin relocated the centre of authority from ecclesiastical institutions to the elect soul; "... anyone could understand God's word if he studies carefully enough and if the grace of God was with him" (Hill, 1972. p. 93). Hill (1997 and Thomas (1971) analyse many aspects of this complex process, including the spread of urban values and growing numbers of "masterless men", that, together with a privatisation of conscience and decline in magic, created new possibilities of subjectivity and anxiety.

• Printing and availability of texts cannot be emphasised enough in importance. Collinson (2003) refers to broad shifts from a culture of orality to one of print, but also the formation of new modes of discourse, address, and "plain speech", a scripture designed to "speak the language of the spinning woman or wayfaring man" (p. 37). Books such as Foxe's Book of Matryrs (its popular title—its actual title being Acts and Monuments) circulated in numbers surpassed only by the Bible and helped to cement a new Protestant identity and mythology, written, as it was, in response to the persecutions of Mary I. Indeed, Foxe believed that printing was the product of divine intervention. Hence, Protestants and printers helped create a new culture, demonstrating that more people could be taught to read. In the words of a seventeenth-century commentator (quoted in Hill, 1972), the books that had once been the preserve of monasteries "were redeemed from bondage, obtained their enlargement, and freely walked around in the light" (p. 7).

A central consideration, then, is the transformation of a country of "good Catholics" into a Protestant nation, with innumerable, long-term implications for the conduct of social life and belief; a new "culture of discipline" emerged. Norman Jones (2002) puts it succinctly: "over the course of three generations the way the English worshipped, did business, governed themselves, and related to their place in the universe underwent a sea change" (p. 2). What is particularly valuable about Jones' research is that he draws upon the records of specific individuals and families during this period, providing an impression of personal meaning of such changes.

  • [1] Although the Elizabethan Acts of Supremacy and Conformity contained a fervent repudiation of Roman doctrine, they preserved the church hierarchy and enshrined a largely Calvinist theology. Many were dissatisfied with the Elizabethan compromise and sought further reform. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, malcontents and critics of a "but halfy-reformed" church, or "incomplete revolution" were called "precisians" (due to their emphasis on precision) or "puritans" (frequently a word of abuse; Durston & Eales, 1996). Puritans saw themselves as "the godly" and "God"s people", who placed preaching and reading of scripture, rather than the repetition of ritual, above all else. It was their duty on earth to fight God"s battles, enabling Christ's Kingdom, in the words of Milton, Christ as the "shortly expected king".
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