Beyond Iconoclasm

This is my final trawling of Eamon Duffy’s book The Stripping of the Altars, so is a sort of summary of it.

The English Reformation was not a single incident. Henry VIII did not abolish the Roman church in England with a single act, it was more a slow, drawn out struggle between radical reformers with the ear of the monarch at the time, against the will of most of the ordinary people to remain catholic.

Henry actually initiated very little change, the most important being the banning of pilgrimages, justified by his advisors as a waste of time, impoverishing the country. It was Cranmer, acting on behalf of Henry’s son Edward, who started the real destruction of religious imagery, with the removal of the rood screens, and covering up of images in windows, claiming they were being the object of prayers, a claim not even the zealots of Switzerland ever claimed. People obeyed as much as they were forced to, so was heavily dependent on how close they were to radical centres, the support of the local gentry, and other local factors. Many sacred objects were sold off to locals, or were spirited away. This is clear from how fast the churches returned to a Catholic appearance with the ascension of Queen Mary. Images had been walled into their niches, or hidden beneath the floorboards of churches, or hidden by parishioners. It is clear most ordinary people welcomed the return of Catholicism, to the rituals and binding together of communities that they provided. Sitting on hard benches being lectured to just doesn’t do this, and makes no pretensions to.

The real iconoclasm happened under Elizabeth. People again hid statues and paintings, but this time the search for them was thorough. Church accounts were investigated to find where items went, to ensure they had been destroyed. Houses were searched, and people were fined 1 shilling for praying with beads. Painting over wall art was not enough. The windows had to be destroyed, the utensils degraded: holy water basins were used to feed pigs, tombstones converted to seats, carvings incorporated into walls. This was iconoclasm, not reform. Not just banning the use of items, but insulting the nature of them. And in the minute searching for objects, the encouragement of snitching on neighbours we can also see the rumblings of the early police state.

These events have really upset me, not just the loss of the images which I knew about, and if you visit old churches in Britain you sometimes see the defacings. No, it was the malice that seemed to be behind the iconoclasm. Of government attacking the beliefs of ordinary people, of destroying images which these people had scrimped and saved for, and which they clearly valued.

Yes, you can call this superstition, you can say this makes no sense, but poor people living in a world with no social services, no health care, no justice worth talking about, found comfort in these rituals and they made their world more bearable.

Whilst reading the book I was also dipping into the story of the de Medici family, and it is clear that England was a world away from Europe at the time. Churches here were largely funded by ordinary people because the country was still largely rural. People mostly lived in small, isolated communities, the sort of places where petty squabbles could get out of hand, and where participation in shared rituals such as the annual Rogation celebrations gave people a chance to celebrate, but also to renew friendships, and settle differences. They knew who they were. They knew where they belonged, and they were prepared to work to make their little worlds more livable. For those of us who live in cities, who barely know our neighbours, there is something really appealing about their world, though not one I would want to live in, but the destruction of these social networks did immeasurable damage to this country, and I think helps to explain how European colonialism was so blind to cultures they encountered.

As Goethe said, we see what we know. Europeans, especially the English, had lost a lot of their social bonding, the songs, the rituals that bound communities together, so they didn’t see it when they reached new lands.

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