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The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome [Paperback]

G.w. Bernard
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 July 2013
The later medieval English church is invariably viewed through the lens of the Reformation that transformed it. But in this bold and provocative book historian G. W. Bernard examines it on its own terms, revealing a church with vibrant faith and great energy. Bernard looks at the structure of the church, the nature of royal control over it, the clergy and bishops, the intense devotion and deep-rooted practices of the laity, anti-clerical sentiment, and the prevalence of heresy. He argues that the Reformation was not inevitable, nor made unavoidable by the defectiveness, corruption, superstition or outdatedness of a church ripe for a fall: the late medieval church had both vitality and vulnerabilities, the one often linked to the other. The result is a thought-provoking study of a church and society in transformation.

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The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome + The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England,1400-1580
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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (2 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300197128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300197129
  • Product Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 445,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Superbly researched and coherently argued."-Peter Marshall, Literary Review -- Peter Marshall Literary Review "Bernard has again achieved what he does best: making us go back to an old problem and start thinking afresh."-Lucy Wooding, Times Higher Education -- Lucy Wooding Times Higher Education "England experienced one of the most muddled Reformations in Western Europe and that's what makes studying it so fascinating and so infuriating. Even the most basic questions remain open: why, when and how quickly did England become a Protestant nation? Bernard has done as much as any historian to bring us closer to nuanced answers and in his latest book he is on particularly fine form."-Jonathan Wright, Catholic Herald -- Jonathan Wright Catholic Herald

About the Author

George Bernard is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton and vice-president of the Royal Historical Society.

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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Towards a Full Account 19 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Bernard makes clear that he substantially accepts the 'revisionist' picture of the late medieval church but nonetheless this work is driven by the belief that Duffy's account 'did not tell the full story' and indeed that as it stood 'it left the subsequent reformation inexplicable'. Hence Bernard sets out to balance the vitality of the church with its vulnerability.

A major source of weakness was that this was always a monarchical church. The church was able to act as it did because the Crown either supported or at least tolerated it and when the two came into conflict the Crown had its way. The reality was always one of 'crown power and clerical dependence'.

Within that framework the church is cleared of generalised immorality. The parish clergy emerge as decent men who did their rather limited best, but the cathedral clergy on the other hand who could have provided leadership were 'too ready to accept a comfortable life in the close. The bishops are seen as highly competent but largely non-resident administrators rather than preachers or pastors. The monasteries also cleared of gross immorality but more prevalent was 'sloth and quarrelling' and often 'cosy, comfortable and inward looking' making little wider contribution.

Bernard points to a high level of lay participation and argues that visual imagery could do much to educate. He then tactfully, mainly through a series of rhetorical question, suggests to the reader the ease with which a religion which revolved around objects, places or movements ofton believed to possess inherent spiritual power could slide into magic and superstition vulnerable to the scripturally based tequniques to which it was subjected in the early C16th.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vitality & Vulnerability 28 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having read a review of this in 'New Directions', I ordered it, and it arrived in no time at all. He doesn't write, perhaps, with the passion, aplomb, and stylishness of Eamonn Duffy, to whose stance, this is, no doubt, intended to be a 'corrective'. It is somewhat tiresome to have to keep turning to the back for 'footnotes', but that's a grievance that could be laid at the door of many, if not most, books now. Like the Author, I was nurtured academically, on the Dickens/Whig view of The Reformation as (Sellers & Yeatman!) 'a good thing', 'though spiritually nurtured in the Anglo-Catholic far South West, where The Reformation was certainly not regarded as wholly benign or inevitable.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Objective Analysis 12 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover
For the layperson who picks up an historical work the expectation is that it will treat of a personage or period in a generally narrative form. Unless the reader has a reason to doubt the author on any particular, the author is accepted to know exactly what happened and why. And usually the text is written as though writer was endowed with omniscience.

Professor Bernard does not present us with a story; he provides information and then proceeds in respect of each portion thereof to analyse it. This should not be off-putting to the serious layperson since, although the book is no doubt now lodged in many an academic bookcase, it is written in good, plain English.

The subject matter is dealt with in chapters entitled The Monarchical Church; Bishops; Clergy; Lay Knowledge; Lay Activity; Criticism; The Condition of the Monasteries; and Heresy.

As he presents each piece of evidence drawn from extant records Prof. Bernard evaluates it in a fashion which this reader saw as being akin to judicial. We are repeatedly reminded that sources are scarce and that they may be interpreted in more than one way. Bernard where appropriate, dissents from prior interpretations, with reasons given.

For those new to this type of history book, the manner in which the materials have been garnered, are presented and then interpreted provides a fascinating behind-the-curtain glimpse of objective historical scholarship.

The reason and objectivity is most refreshing when compared , for example, with the prose employed by art historians when presenting on TV.

Another refreshing aspect of the book is the lack therefrom of political correctness - no BCEs or CEs here.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vitality and Vulnerability and the Mystery of the English Reformation 29 Aug 2012
By Stephanie A. Mann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One blogger's review concluded: "The late medieval church had its vulnerabilities, but paradoxically these were often a sign of its great vitality. This is a book that needs to be read by anyone who is interested in the history of the English Church and the background to the English Reformation. The question it raises, like the work of Eamon Duffy before it, is why, if the pre-Reformation church was so vibrant, did the English Reformation take place?"--David Hamid, the Anglican bishop for the EU community

And Peter Marshall in the "Literary Review"'s July issue commented that, "'The Late Medieval English Church' does not quite bill itself as an extended commentary on Eamon Duffy's work, but that is the clear subtext. The book is notable for its focused attention to areas of late medieval religious life that Duffy chose not to consider in detail: the role played by bishops, the state of the religious orders, the significance of Lollardy. . . . But Bernard's superbly researched and coherently argued study is far from being either a hatchet job on Duffy or an atavistic reversion to Protestant instincts about pre-Reformation Catholicism. We could reasonably characterise (sic; "Literary Review" is published in Edinburgh!) its overall thesis as 'yes, but . . . '."

Sometimes that "yes, but . . ." thesis bothers me as Bernard goes back and forth with questions about how we in the 21st century should judge how well the laity, nuns, monks, priests and bishops lived up to the ideals and standards of the Catholic Church in the late medieval era. Bernard tells us what contemporary critics of the Church in England tell us now about how some abuses were regarded, and then points out how seldom the abuses occurred--a priest behaving badly stood out and created such alarm and outcry because relatively few priests behaved badly, considering the population of the time. Yes, some of the bishops were not present in their dioceses, but they were serving the King, they made arrangements for vicars to cover their duties, and when they did go home, they regretted their absences and repaired any damage as soon as possible. Yes, some of the monks and nuns left their cloister, but they were landlords too and needed to oversee their tenants, distribute charity, or in the case of an Abbot, attend Parliament in the House of Lords. These abuses don't answer Bishop Hamid's question at all--they don't automatically mean that the English people would reject the Catholic Church once Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and Cromwell and Cranmer started introducing reforms to the liturgy and closing the monasteries, convents, and friaries.

Bernard discusses the "monarchical" nature of the Catholic hierarchy, serving the Tudor monarch and basically obeying his demands on church matters--although the bishops sometimes balked. But as Peter Marshall notes in that "Literary Review" article, French and Spanish rulers had as much control and there was no state led Reformation in either country. Bernard is fair and effective in his analysis of the vitality and vulnerability of the Catholic Church in England before the Henry VIII's Break from Rome/the English Reformation, but he doesn't solve the mystery yet of how the English people accepted religious change at the hands of its monarch with compliance, even though that compliance was not easy, immediate, or complete. Although Bernard fills in gaps that Duffy might have left (he did not claim to be comprehensive in "The Stripping of the Altars"), we still have a historical mystery, it seems. I agree completely with Peter Marshall that this is very well researched and interesting study of the Catholic Church in England before the Break from Rome and the subsequent English Reformation. Must be read by anyone interested in following the developments of the revisionist school of English Reformation studies, especially in the development of Eamon Duffy's argument about the strengths of traditional Catholic liturgical life--now balanced by consideration of some weaknesses in the hierarchy and function of the Church in England.
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