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on 3 September 2015
This is a monumental book and it certainly helps to have been exposed to Catholicism in order to wade through and appreciate all the detail. Using a vast wealth of documentary evidence (quoted in the original English), as well as photographs, the author argues against the perception that the English people’s devotion to Catholicism in the late Middle Ages was in a bad way by the time of the Reformation of the 1530s and 1540s. In the first two thirds of the book he winds his way in detail through a multitude of examples of religious practices before the dramatic changes initiated by Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, citing many examples from East Anglia in particular. He argues that Lollardy had already seen its apogee and decline long before. Traditional Catholic customs formed an important part in moderating everyday life and binding all levels in communities. The author stresses the importance of liturgical calendar and the hold it had on people’s lives on fasting, abstaining from work and attending services. Much activity was set on ensuring a smooth passage through Purgatory through donations and bequests in wills in return for prayers and making sure that one’s name was on the bede roll of dead benefactors (“Catholicism at the end of the late Middle Ages became in large part a cult of the living in the service of the dead”; people “bought post-mortem fire life insurance”). Proof of a thriving Catholic culture is that during the 150 years prior to the Reformation around two thirds of English parish churches were rebuilt.
Henry VIII sought separation from Rome and removal any references to the Pope, but he did not want to provoke revolution. Cromwell, and then Cranmer (who also led the changes through the reign of the juvenile Edward VI) went much further is dismantling and reshaping the liturgical practices and calendar. Latin was replaced by English. Symbolism was replaced by Bible reading. They attacked of the cult of saints, abolishing a multitude of national, local and saint’s days associated with occupational patrons. They did away with local gilds. They outlawed burning of candles before images and the use of rosaries. Prayers for the dead were abolished. Pilgrimages and processions were banned. Eventually even altars were removed. All the paraphernalia and riches of churches, much of it left by parishioners, was first inventoried and shortly afterwards confiscated.
The arrival of Catholic Queen Mary, who reigned for 5 years before Protestant Queen Elizabeth, showed that Protestantism had not had its way as much as has been assumed. There occurred a telling rapid resurgence of Catholic elements in wills as well as a flood of printed primers that reflected a reversion to more traditional catholic practices. Returns from diocesan visitations during Elizabeth’s reign, even in strongly Protestant Kent, showed how much was yet to be done to firmly establish Protestantism once and for all.
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I have owned this book for several years, and while I have used it quite a few times for referencing and finding information, this is the first time I have read it from cover to cover.

It is an interesting book, in that it attempts to explain how the `ordinary' people of the time (1400-1580) `lived' their religion - what they were required to learn, to do, how they were required to show their faith. It was of course a time of great change in England, with the Henrician Reformation, Edward VI, the attempt to return to Catholicism under Mary and the somewhat less fervent religion of Elizabeth I.

What must be borne in mind when reading this is that the author is a staunch Catholic, and this is quite evident throughout the book - sadly, it means that I felt some of the writing needed to be taken with some scepticism, or a healthy dose of temperance anyway.

But this does not detract from the book being both informative and interesting, though you may find yourself feeling that the author has overstated somewhat some of his conclusions, particularly about the vibrancy and reality of Catholic faith in the fifteenth century. I felt you needed to question `conformity' versus `conviction' while reading some of this book; what really motivated many (though certainly not all) English people in their faith. And I'm not sure that Margery Kempe can really be continually referred to as any kind of `normal' English Catholic of the time. I think she would have stood out in any period of history as being somewhat outside the average believer.

A good and worthwhile read. Just don't accept it as the only view on this time in English religious history
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on 24 February 2006
This book is not only meticulously researched and exhaustive on all the minutiae of common piety in late medieval/early modern England, it is far more readable and absorbing than such a weighty tome has any right to be. Duffy recreates a lost world in a way that is sensitive and sympathetic - the characters in the brief sketches he can offer from the sources become real people to us. Real quality.
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on 11 January 2000
During the last 30 years there has been a revolution in our thinking about the 16th century English church. This has been the result of a vast body of and also a great deal of cross-referring to other primary sources, including the church buildings themselves. One of the richest fruits of all this research is this extraordinary book, which manages to capture in less than a thousand pages the full panoply of pre-Reformation liturgy and life, and how it was effectively destroyed by the reformers. This study and others like it confront head-on the received tradition of a moribund and corrupt medieval English church 'rescued' by the Reformation. This tradition arose largely from the enthusiasm of the Oxford Movement, and the Anglican revival for which it was responsible. This harnessed popular anti-Catholic prejudice in the 19th century, to create the illusion of a modern Church of England which had evolved naturally from the church of St Augustine and the mind of the medieval liturgy, stripped of its corruption and excesses. The Reformation was presented by these people as a smooth, evolutionary process, whereby roods, wallpaintings, etc., were removed from churches in the 16th century because of 'new liturgical practices' that no longer required them. Any idea that the Reformation in England was a violent and unpopular fracture was quietly lost. The obvious destruction that had taken place in English parish churches was most often attributed to the ultra-protestant Puritans of a century later. Duffy, however, documents in some detail how the churches of England were comprehensively wrecked between 1538 and 1553, and then again after Elizabeth I's accession in 1558. He uses documentary evidence to show how this happened in specific churches, particularly in East Anglia. He visits these churches, to examine the damage that was caused. Ironically, the dull-headed attempt by Mary I to restore the Catholic church to England in the 1550s has left us with a great deal of evidence of the destruction that had occurred up to that point. Today, in many church guides this destruction is still attributed to William Dowsing and his fellow-Puritans of the 1640s. They are not men to be blamed for nothing; but Duffy unfolds in this book an amazing story, one all too rarely told, of an earlier holocaust on a massive scale. It enhances our understanding of how English parish churches have come to look the way they do. It also has tremendous consequences for our thinking about the modern Anglican church. It has to be said that there are those who are not entirely comfortable with this revisionist history. Some find it difficult because of the way it contradicts the Reformation history that English people of a certain age have grown up with. Some others will find it hard to accept that late-medieval English Catholicism was popular. For Anglo-Catholics, there is the further difficulty that Duffy (and others) is suggesting that the Church of England is not the inheritor of the medieval English church in they way they had understood. One Suffolk vicar with whom I discussed this (he will remain nameless; in any case, he is now in the Exeter diocese) said "Duffy is nothing but a bog-Irish upstart". Any book that causes a reaction like that HAS to be worth reading.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 5 August 2011
I have owned this book for several years, and while I have used it quite a few times for referencing and finding information, this is the first time I have read it from cover to cover.

It is an interesting book, in that it attempts to explain how the `ordinary' people of the time (1400-1580) `lived' their religion - what they were required to learn, to do, how they were required to show their faith. It was of course a time of great change in England, with the Henrician Reformation, Edward VI, the attempt to return to Catholicism under Mary and the somewhat less fervent religion of Elizabeth I.

What must be borne in mind when reading this is that the author is a staunch Catholic, and this is quite evident throughout the book - sadly, it means that I felt some of the writing needed to be taken with some scepticism, or a healthy dose of temperance anyway.

But this does not detract from the book being both informative and interesting, though you may find yourself feeling that the author has overstated somewhat some of his conclusions, particularly about the vibrancy and reality of Catholic faith in the fifteenth century. I felt you needed to question `conformity' versus `conviction' while reading some of this book; what really motivated many (though certainly not all) English people in their faith. And I'm not sure that Margery Kempe can really be continually referred to as any kind of `normal' English Catholic of the time. I think she would have stood out in any period of history as being somewhat outside the average believer.

A good and worthwhile read. Just don't accept it as the only view on this time in English religious history.
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on 3 December 1998
This is the most enjoyable book I've read in the last five years. I learned so much about what the church was like in England before the Reformation. There was so much of this I didn't know, and finding it out was like recovering a long-lost treasure. The details are marvellous.
Reading about the changes which came about in the reigns of HenryVIIIth, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth was extremely informative. Now I understand how the reformers and the monarchs who supported them managed to change the church of England from the Catholic church it was into a very different, and very protestant organisation.
Whether you have religious inclinations or not, this book is a great read. At the very least, you'll like reading about this period in history.
If you're an Anglican, you might be particularly fascinated to read about what your church was like before the Reformation. I was, and I think we lost a lot of the richness of traditional worship when Cramner et all came along and ripped away so many beautiful traditions from the church.
I am very grateful to Eamon Duffy for writing such a detailed account, and for making it all such a great read.
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on 9 October 2002
A thoroughly satisfying book. Duffy makes it quite clear why he considers it important to examine late medieval English piety in such comprehensive detail in the first part of this book. His minute and coherent analysis is well repaid by illuminating his crisp narrative analysis in the second half. I wished he had spent more time on the background and motivation to the royal visitations which followed in Edward VI's and Elizabeth I's reigns. In particualar the Commons' vote after Elizabeth's succession gets very little space for such a momentous decision. A little more on how the clergy was reorganised and replaced in Mary's reign and Pole's cardinalate would have been interesting for someone new to this subject like myself. Just occasionally there is a tendentious note. For a modern catholic there is something slightly unhealthy in the lack of communion and the pax bread communion surrogate and here one is inclined to side with the reformers and to doubt the vitality of this late medieval piety. But the argument is pushed home with compelling detail. These are parishes not just stripped of their altars but with the very warp of their communities chopped and unravelled with nothing but the hollow clang of Cranmer's solemn humility to echo in the empty spaces.
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on 29 June 2015
I love this book. I was introduced to it at university and found it invaluable when looking at medieval tradition and transformation. It is true the author is a Catholic, however, I feel Eamon Duffy interprets the history well and in his unique style - which is easy to access, even for new students to the subject. This book made such a good impression upon me that I recently bought this copy as a gift for one of my students who is off to university to study medieval history.
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on 30 June 1999
The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England by Eamon Duffy is an excellent study of the Protestant reformation in England by a top-notch historian. Mr. Duffy has delved deeply into the period's primary sources including hundreds of church logs, primers, manuals, wills, and diaries. An intellectual tour de force, it is accessible to the average reader.
The Stripping of the Altars is the story of traditional Catholics desperately trying to preserve their faith against tyrannical rulers who tear down their altars, change the language of their Mass, mock their devotions, destroy their statues, and decimate their liturgical year. It is a tale of courage amid great tragedy and it proves that the Faith in England was stolen, not lost. Most of all it presents the beauty and power of traditional Roman Catholicism.
The Stripping of the Altars is a wonderful examination of the faith of medieval Englishmen and it is an excellent complement to Cranmer's Godly Order by Michael Davies.
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on 12 October 2009
Although this is a history book, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the meanings and developments of Catholic doctrine. It explains how many Catholic rituals are medieval inventions, some of which started for political reasons. I think all Catholics should read this book, and discover the origins of their faith.
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