Peter Marshall. Religious Identities in Henry VIII's England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. viii + 291 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-5390-5.
Reviewed by Michael Springer (Department of History and Geography, University of Central Oklahoma)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2007)
Articulating Identity in Early Modern England
One key question facing scholars of the sixteenth century concerns the Reformation's appeal. What new religious identities emerged during this period and what attracted people to them? In other words, what made people abandon long-held traditions and beliefs in favor of new religious ideas? This question is explored in Peter Marshall's new book examining religious identities and their development in England during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47). There is perhaps no better period in which to study English religious identity; the changes introduced through the continental Reformation and from Henry's own reforms in the 1530s paved the way for new identities in the kingdom. Marshall's book provides ten essays that tackle many challenging questions related to how people understood and articulated their religious identity, which leads to a richer understanding of the movement's appeal.
The study of religious identity is made difficult by our own propensity for clear-cut labels based on the application of key characteristics that we assign to each confessional group. These boundaries, which seem so clear to us, may not have been so clear to reformers themselves. Justus Menius (1499-1558), a preacher and superintendent in Saxony, joined the adiaphora controversy in the 1540s and 1550s. Although he is correctly viewed as a Lutheran, he advocated making concessions to the emperor on "matters indifferent" and supported adoption of the controversial Augsburg Interim (as many of his coreligionists had done). This led the Jena professor Matthias Illyricus Flacius to accuse Menius of being more "papist" than Lutheran. Other reformers cannot be placed squarely into rigid confessional categories. A recent essay by Herman Selderhuis comes to mind, in which the author explores the Reformed influences on the Lutheran preacher Erasmus Sarcerius (1501-59). Selderhuis argues that while Sarcerius experienced more success in other liturgical matters, the Reformed elements he incorporated into his prescriptions for ecclesiastical discipline limited his influence among Lutherans in this particular area. Similarly, the Polish reformer Johannes a Lasco (1499-1560) is counted among Calvinists, but his ecclesiastical ordinance for the London Strangers' Church, the Forma ac ratio, also reflects the influence of Melanchthon and Zwingli.
Peter Marshall wrestles with the complex, and often murky, nature of religious identity in this new book. In particular, he explores the ways identity was constructed, understood, and expressed. The author suggests that identity was, and is, not always clearly defined. He offers to the reader, instead, a more flexible framework for viewing it, arguing that religious identity is perhaps not best understood as "the arithmetical sum of a set of consciously held and coherent ideas" or "a finely calibrated theological spectrum," but rather should be used "as a set of lenses through which to examine similar themes and problems" (p. iv). Instead of measuring his subjects by a rigidly defined set of confessional characteristics, Marshall examines the way identity was shaped by peoples' own experience and how they articulated it. This looser approach to religious identity shapes the structure and content of the book. There is no centralized narrative that runs through the entire work; rather it is a collection of essays loosely divided into three sections: "Evangelical Directions," "Henrician Reforms," and "Catholic Positions." Many of the essays overlap, comparing and contrasting these confessional bodies. As the author notes, this approach to identity allows him to explore the subtle variations and commonalities that existed between the groups. It is these similarities and differences that are explored here.
Through the essays in this book, Marshall compares how the various confessional entities used ideas and concepts to shape their communal identity. In the essay on "Fear, Purgatory and Polemic," for example, he argues that both Catholics and evangelicals used fear for various polemical, political, and theological reasons. As the author shows, there were clear similarities in the way both sides spoke of the importance of fearing God. Yet there were important differences too. Marshall notes that "in seeking to persuade the English people that preparation for the prospect of purgatory was fundamentally misdirected and misconceived, evangelical writers thus exploited the ambiguities of fear as a cultural construct, and co-opted the contemporary ambivalence towards 'fearfulness' into a set of polemical strategies that may have been the more effective because they were unsettlingly inconsistent" (p. 59). This discussion seems particularly significant because it challenges the long-held notion that the penitential system in the medieval church was based on fear and anxiety, and that the Reformation represented a clean break from this by providing an alternative. It also sheds light on how the concept of fear was used by both groups to shape communal identity.
This comparative approach, in which the author compares and contrasts the different confessional groups around a common theme, is found in many of the essays in this book. Similar to the essay on "Fear, Purgatory and Polemic," for example, is Marshall's chapter on "Evangelical Conversion," in which he explores the various meanings people assigned to "conversion" and how they used the conversion experience to conceive and articulate their own position. Identity, however, is not solely shaped by the sender; it can also be defined from people on the outside. Marshall tackles this issue of defining the "self" and the "other" in his essay "The Other Black Legend." Here he explores the arrest of two Spanish priests, Juan Abbad and Pedro Ladron, in Salisbury in 1541. The "Black Legend" in the essay's title refers to the stories of Spain's cruelty that circulated in Elizabethan England. Marshall turns the tables by exploring the lesser-known stories in Spain about Henrician England. Although the arrest of Abbad and Ladron did not change the course of English history, Marshall points out that the Spanish and English accounts of this event reveal much about how the two countries viewed each other. The Spanish polemicists used Abbad and Ladron to demonstrate England's heretical nature. Marshall argues that this message had important implications for the Spanish monarchy: "it can be suggested that the growing identification of England with a heretical/Lutheran 'other' played a noticeable role in firming up that commitment to absolute ideological purity characteristic of Habsburg Spain" (p. 122). Stories like this could be used to reinforce orthodoxy and to define the "other."
In addition to these essays, Marshall includes a number of studies that explore the language used by the various religious groups, examining the ways that words and their meanings shaped and expressed confessional identity. One striking example is the essay entitled "Is the Pope a Catholic", which explores how the various confessional groups understood and used the term. The word "catholic" was not the exclusive property of Rome, where it was used as a synonym for the Roman Church. Protestants also used the term when referring to the universal church. Even Henrician reformers had their own use of the word: Simon Matthewe, a Henrician preacher, defined the term as "unity of faith" rather than a synonym for the Roman Church. Even with these differences, Marshall argues, the term "catholic" was not a prize to be fought over by the various confessions to determine who could use it. From a modern vantage point, however, it provides insight into these groups. Marshall skillfully demonstrates that all three employed "catholic" with a similar goal in mind: to demonstrate unbroken continuity with the Apostolic Church. This is an example of a similarity between Protestants, Henrician reformers, and Catholics that may have been lost with a more rigid, confessional approach to identity. The nuances of language were particularly important for the Henrician reformers, whose understanding of the term allowed them to support royal supremacy while remaining good "Catholics" (p. 181). With this essay, Marshall demonstrates how language and meaning can shed light on these communities and how they understood and articulated their identities.
I suspect that among the greatest challenges in writing this book was its organization. As the author demonstrates with the essays, confessional identity was conceived and molded through mutable concepts and language, and was shaped by perceptions from the inside as well as by people on the outside. Marshall paints a picture of "identity" that is defined not by a rigid set of characteristics, but rather by nuance and is prone to subtle variations and distinctions. In this respect, it defies breaking down into the categories of evangelical, Catholic, and Henrician reform. Allowing for much overlap between these divisions, as Marshall has done in this book, enhances our understanding of the similarities and differences that existed between these groups. So how do these essays relate to the appeal of these new religious ideas? This book does not answer conclusively why people accepted change, but it does shed important light on how the participants rationalized, understood, described, and gave order to their religious experience. By exploring how they viewed their own experience, we come that much closer to understanding the way communal identity was formed and what attracted people to those identities.
. Matthias Illyricus Flacius, Apologia M. Fl. Illyrici/ auff zwo vnchristliche Schrifften Justi Menij/ Darinnen von den grewlichen Verfelschungen der Adiaphoristerey und Maioristerey allerley nutzlichs angezeigt wird (Erfurt: Merten von Dolgen, 1558).
. Herman Selderhuis, "Kirche in aufbau: das 'Pastorale oder Hirtenbuch' des Erasmus Sarcerius," in Reformatoren im Mansfelder Land: Erasmus Sarcerius und Cyriakus Spangenberg, ed. Stefan Rhein and Günther Wartenberg (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlaganstalt, 2006), 101-113.
. Michael S. Springer, Restoring Christ's Church: John a Lasco and the Forma ac ratio (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), passim.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Michael Springer. Review of Marshall, Peter, Religious Identities in Henry VIII's England.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.