|Sixteenth-century English Protestants pulling down the high altar and the altar rail in a Catholic church. (I witnessed the same thing happening in America in the 1970's.)|
If you looked inside an English parish church on the eve of the Reformation, you would have seen a space filled with the lives and loves of the community. The saints would be draped in the parishioners’ best clothes, jewellery, and beads, often given as bequests in wills. The nave would have numerous side altars, most funded by local guilds to provide daily masses for favoured saints and the deceased of the parish. If the church had the relics of a saint, the reliquary or tomb would be festooned with gold, silver, and wax models of everything from healed limbs to ships saved from calamities at sea — it would be a mini-history of the gratitude of the people. Flowers and candles would be everywhere, as would parishioners, who regularly attended weekday prayers and masses at the many guild and chantry altars. In an age of increasing literacy, significant numbers of the upper and artisanal classes read along in their own devotional books. Religious printing had become big business. It has been estimated that, on the eve of the Reformation, over 57,000 Books of Hours were in circulation in England.Share
All in all, parish churches were at the heart of a vibrant English parish life, where the living celebrated their good fortune and remembered the dead.
The first thing to go under the reformers’ axe was the cult of saints. The ancient robed and flower-garlanded effigies were smashed up and carted off. Stone and alabaster were ground up. Wood was burned. In addition to the dramatic loss of these cherished protector figures, the parishes were also deprived of around 40 to 50 saints’ “holy days” (holidays) a year, when no servile work was allowed from noon the previous day. This was a dramatic change to the rhythms of life the country had known for centuries. The reformers were keenly aware this would boost economic activity, and welcomed the increase in output it would bring.
The next biggest change was the abolition of purgatory. The reformers ridiculed the cult of the dead (“purgatorye ys pissed owte” one memorably wrote). But these age-old rites of death and the afterlife provided a unique framework that late medieval English people embraced to cope with death. When the reformers ripped out grave stones and brasses inviting prayers for the departed, when they burned the local bede-rolls remembering the dead of the parish, and when they sledge-hammered the chantry altars where relatives were daily prayed for, they did something even more profound than the vandalism. They stole the dead from the daily lives of their communities, rendering the deceased suddenly invisible to those long used to honouring and remembering their departed relatives and friends. Whether or not intentional, this was an attack on people’s memories. (Read more.)