Alec Ryrie. The Origins of the Scottish Reformation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. xiv + 218 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-7105-8.
Reviewed by Arthur Williamson (California State University-Sacramento)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2008)
Reformation Scotland, Revolutionary Scotland
Alec Ryrie has sought to analyze the earlier phases of the Scottish Reformation without "nationalist special pleading" and also without reference to the long-standing, if tired ecclesiological and confessional controversies that have persisted into the present. Above all, he seeks to locate Scotland's Reformation within its larger British and European contexts--as its participants certainly did. Scottish history, he grandly begins, "is too important to be left exclusively to Scottish historians" (p. viii). By that he means historians based at Scottish universities who are presumably more parochial in outlook.
These objectives are considerably less original than Ryrie's opening remarks might suggest. The Scottish Reformation as a pan-British or even Franco-Britannic phenomenon has become a well-worn commonplace since at least the 1970s, and long ago found much impetus from John Pocock's well-known essays on the subject. At the same time, Ryrie further concedes that his archival research has not adduced new information such as to alter the familiar picture. His survey is inherently limited as a result. Nevertheless, Ryrie's study sharply indicates what other treatments of the period do no more than hint at: from an early date the Reformation in Scotland proved overwhelmingly and almost uniquely effective, irretrievably dashing the old faith. It made Scotland the only Calvinist kingdom in Europe and worked the Reformation's greatest success story. The French might have triumphed in Scotland; Catholicism could not. Secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, although Protestantism had made serious inroads into Scotland, becoming increasingly coherent, confident, and aggressive, there existed no underground church, no organized system of privy kirks, ready to seize power with the collapse of hierarchy and royal authority. Instead, the years 1559-60 witnessed a remarkable and thorough-going spiritual transformation that so totally reshaped the political and religious landscape that no one, neither the victors nor the vanquished, could fully appreciate what had happened. It is the burden of Ryrie's volume to explain how this extraordinary change took place, how by late 1560 there had emerged this astonishingly new and radical Scotland.
Part of the answer, Ryrie suggests, lies in the deepening anti-clerical culture of the aristocracy, clearly visible and highly articulated by the 1530s. More than bemused scoffing and skeptical detachment, the anti-clerical carried with it a spiritual edge that opened the way to reform as mere doubting could never do. Ryrie declines to consider its foundations and dimensions, and as a result the evangelical appeal to the aristocracy strikes him as "mysterious" (p. 34). One of the important, even towering figures in shaping a spiritual anti-clericalism during this decade is George Buchanan, whose hugely influential poetry electrified far more than simply intellectuals at the court of James V. Ryrie relies entirely on materials from later periods for his discussion of Buchanan and, inexplicably, has not read what the man wrote at the time. In much the same way Ryrie fails to consider at all the writings of John Bellenden, whose vernacular (and anti-clerical) rendering of Hector Boece's Scotorum Historiae (c. 1540) comprised a major cultural event, a rereading of the Scottish experience. Such sources are foundational and their omission verges on the scandalous. James's court was fraught with cultural and political tensions, going well beyond blood-thirsty clerical reactionaries like David Beaton rubbing shoulders with radical humanists like Buchanan. The very notions of authority, legitimacy, and spirituality were in contention, often within the same individual, and not least King James who, it seems, revered the Franciscans (or some of them) as agencies of reform and yet could also revile them as agencies of corruption.
Ryrie's heavy emphasis on the climactic years 1559-60 causes him to discount the significance of the efforts of England's Edward Seymour and the young Edward VI in the late 1540s to create an Anglo-Scottish union based on a shared British vision. Unlike many modern historians, Ryrie does recognize the clear idealism in Edwardian Britain, and that English attitudes were genuinely conflicted between dynastic chauvinism and regnal superiority and the more egalitarian British conception. But, however sincere, however compelling, the "Edwardian Moment"--a term also arising in the 1970s--strikes Ryrie as short-lived and "less important than it appears" (p. 88). In so saying he fails to realize that the language of 1548 would inform virtually all Scottish unionist literature from John Knox in 1558 to the tracts appearing with James VI's 1603 accession to the southern crown. At the time "Britain" not only meant union but carried with it a wide-ranging reforming agenda that appeared to promise a new era. Underwriting this agenda were apocalyptic expectations that separated the Edwardians and their Scottish allies decisively from earlier unionist thought and have linked more or less continuously thereafter with the British project."
Still more crucial to Ryrie's argument is the enthusiasm with which the Catholic hierarchy undertook reform after the English were turned back and Protestant prospects dramatically dimmed. Religious leaders like John Hamilton, the archbishop of St. Andrews, were clearly influenced by the new spirituality, incorporating into their instruments an emphasis on faith and minimizing traditional piety (as well as the papacy). In no sense crypto-Protestants, they adopted--one might almost say co-opted--powerful religious currents that belonged exclusively to no one and might well have revitalized Scottish Catholicism. Essential to their success was the extirpation of Protestant heresy, for quite unlike Trent, the new Catholicism was far from indelibly divided from its reforming rival. Precisely here they ran afoul of the policies of Mary of Guise. Not in the least tolerant, Mary nevertheless needed to accommodate Scottish Protestants in order to secure the crown for her daughter. Stability, not orthodoxy, was her preoccupation. Toleration in any form could only be temporary, but its effect of the Reform movement proved energizing, even validating. In this respect she did not differ from the leaders of House of Guise in France: however much Protestant blood was on their hands, the possibility of some broad-gauged accommodation did not evaporate until 1562. Accommodating Protestantism certainly offered distinct political advantages, even apparently playing some role in the Calais victory. But it left Scottish Catholicism dangerously exposed. The step from one brand of reform to another might prove a short one indeed.
Ryrie's argument at this juncture has an immediate historiographical spin-off of some moment. Roger Mason and Jane Dawson have argued that John Knox took a much tougher view of Mary Tudor's England than Guise's Scotland because England had been covenanted with God under Edward, while Scotland had never enjoyed such a relationship with the divine. Thus England, unlike Scotland, had broken covenant, an apostasy of the severest sort. Two lines of policy, two moral equations, ultimately two Knoxes necessarily ensued. In contrast, Ryrie's discussion suggests that any difference in Knox's outlook arose from purely tactical considerations, not theological ones--Knox rendered whole once more.
More immediately, the 1559-60 upheaval prompted significant numbers of Catholic clergy to opt for Protestantism, for reform that seemed real and now genuinely liberating. If some were surely trimmers, the sense of powerful religious renewal is far more impressive and compelling. Catholic reform in Scotland had seriously and in the end devastatingly backfired. It had muddied the theological waters without providing a highly demarcated alternative; it found itself vulnerable precisely because it was so resolutely reforming.
In a context where French arrogance trumped the English variety, where the auld alliance offered annihilation, while alliance with England now persuasively promised Scottish autonomy as well as security, where the Lords of the Congregation--a term at once passionately Protestant and yet also resoundingly classical and communal--conjoined salvation and citizenship, revolution in so many senses could only seem natural. In retrospect it is easy to see why for nearly a century Scots saw 1559-60 as, at once, the signal soteriological and civic benchmark.
Ryrie's study is regularly marred by such painfully anachronistic terms as "nationalism" (pp. 82, 89, 140, 147, 164, 174, 178 and passim), an idea neither the Scots, nor the English, nor the French could have understood. Dynasty, faith, mission inherently comprised international purposes, multinational objectives. Nationalist special pleading indeed. So too, "terror" and "violence" are current buzzwords, but exceedingly blunt categories of historical analysis. Iconoclastic destruction of things constitutes "terror" for Ryrie, while burning people alive--actions that were specifically intended to terrorize--somehow does not. We will better grasp violence when we consider how it was understood by its perpetrators. The religion of the word moved against statements, both verbal and nonverbal. The religion of the mass moved against the bodies of those who would harm Christ's in the sacrament. As free-floating terms, they irremediably enjoin anachronism once again. But surely nothing is more anachronistic than today's preoccupation with personal "identity." Does it truly matter in the least that Ryrie hails from "British Scots"--"the best kind!" (p. ix)? Recounting one's bloodlines guarantees neither insight nor detachment; it merely bespeaks self-absorption.
This self-regarding volume, for just that reason inevitably suffused with anachronism, nevertheless succeeds in offering some important observations. 1559-60 did comprise a remarkable moment, and Scots knew it full well. From 1567 to 1638 they sought replicate it and realize its promise. So too did radical Europeans everywhere.
. J. G. A. Pocock, "British History: A Plea for a New Subject," originally in The New Zealand Journal of History 8 (1974): 3-21; which has inspired an ever burgeoning literature, including R. A. Mason, ed., Scotland and England, 1286-1815 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1987); R. A. Mason, ed., John Knox and the British Reformations (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998); Clare Kellar, Scotland, England, and the Reformation, 1534-1561 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Jane Dawson, The Politics of Religion in the Age of Mary Queen of Scots (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Jane Dawson, Scotland Reformed, 1488-1587 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007). Cf. A. H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1979), vii-viii, and Ryrie, viii-ix.
. All the more unfortunate as Buchanan's poetry is now readily available in translation: P. J. McGinnis and A. H. Williamson, eds., George Buchanan: The Political Poetry (Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1995).
. Dawson, "The Two John Knoxes: England, Scotland, and the 1558 Tracts," in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42 (1991): 555-576; and Mason, ed., John Knox on Rebellion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), xv-xxii.
Arthur Williamson. Review of Ryrie, Alec, The Origins of the Scottish Reformation.
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