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People of the Book: The Success of the Reformation

Kari Konkola and Diarmaid MacCulloch use the evidence of book publishing to contribute to the debate about how widely the English Reformation affected ordinary men and women.

Was the English Reformation a success? Over the last four decades, discussion of this crucial event in English history has changed drastically. In 1964, A.G. Dickens published his now-classic The English Reformation , describing how sixteenth-century England eagerly and rapidly embraced Protestantism, and how it pushed medieval Catholicism into oblivion with equal alacrity. This view was substantially challenged in 1984 by J.J. Scarisbrick, who argued that sixteenth-century English people were mostly devout and enthusiastic practitioners of the traditional Catholic faith, mourned its destruction, and lost much by its passing. Doubts about the effect of the Reformation gained support from local studies, showing both vigour in the old religion and hesitancy in accepting the new. In 1992 Eamon Duffy introduced a new dimension, with his panorama of traditional liturgy on the eve of the Reformation: he also showed that many aspects of traditional Catholicism continued to thrive in Protestant England. By 1993 the ‘revisionist’ view of Catholic practices continuing with few modifications well into the Reformation had become so widely accepted that Christopher Haigh could close his study of sixteenth-century religious changes with a disparaging two-word sentence: ‘Some Reformations’.

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