Fragments of the Reformation

David Gaimster explains how the English Reformation is emerging as a key area of interest in British archaeology, and how the discipline sheds a unique light on the cultural changes of the period.

Traditionally, historians of early modern Europe have viewed the political, social and economic turmoil surrounding the ‘splintering of the Cross’ as largely responsible for the rupture of the medieval order and the foundation of modern society, in giving rise to capitalism, imperialism, individualism and democracy. Yet the extent of the Reformation in England and its impact on the lifestyles, attitudes and beliefs of ordinary people has continued to stimulate heated debate and generate a constant flow of ‘groundbreaking’ revisions. Recently, the emphasis has shifted towards measuring the reception of and resistance to changes in religious practice through detailed analysis of local records, the publishing industry and literacy levels. But what of the 60-70 per cent of English men and women who could not read the Word of God? How do we quantify the extent and pace of change beyond the catechism class?


Increasingly, archaeological excavation and research are beginning to add texture to our picture of the religious and socio-political landscape of sixteenth-century England. The study of contemporary material culture – surviving architecture, monuments, burials and everyday objects – can allow us to evaluate the spread of evangelism and resistance to the new order beyond the strict confines of the liturgy.


In the past few years archaeologists have set out to demonstrate how the discipline can contribute to the wider Reformation narrative. Their aim has been to measure continuity and change in the landscape, in towns, in churches, in graveyards and in the home, and in a cross-section of society, rich and poor, literate and illiterate.


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