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on 12 March 2001
This is a book by a young scholar engaging with old (if still lively) debates. How to balance continuity as against change in the long history of the Reformation? What's the evidential value of oral/visual as against literate culture, or of collective public manifestations of belief as against private writings? This is a book that eschews, and defies, pigeonholing by alternatives. Instead, it offers the inclusive view - and does so by exposing the centrality of its theme, providentialism. Belief in the multifarious interventions of God in the world, far from being an outmoded or marginal feature of Early Modern religious culture, was "part of the mainstream". Thanks to its ubiquity, providentialism supplied "a set of ideological spectacles" which could be put on by rich and poor, literate and illiterate, metropolitan and provincial. Early Modern England was a cultural world of fundamentally shared meanings, however varied and fluid their specific forms. The banality of providentialism was part and parcel of its inclusiveness. Walsham pursues and expands this theme in chapters packed with densely detailed information yet with never a dull page. Popular culture, that "slippery historical construct", is seen here in terms of "processes of interaction and negotiation" between producers and consumers (by eye and ear) of "cheap print and godly preaching" Though print was new, the expounding of contemporary experience through sacred texts was rooted deep in medieval practice. Wonders and portents were the staple of newsy ballads and pamphlets on the one hand, prophetic sermons on the other. These coexisting and cross-referencing media give us multiple entrées to a world whose inhabitants, like their medieval forebears, saw divine intervention in the bizarre and unexpected, the disastrous and the traumatic. God's ways to Man could always be justified, but first had to be scrutinised and understood. The apparently random assaults of fire and flood were explained as theodicy, manifesting God's justice upon sinners. Sceptics and scoffers got their come-uppance, just as they did in medieval miracle-stories. All this can be read as enforcing shared readings of events, hence unity in adversity, and at the same time communal subjection to authorised interpreters, the "holy professors". So far, so convincing an account of why and how, in England, the Reformation "took". Yet this book's characteristic merit is to reveal another side to providentialism. Signs and wonders also provoked anxiety and division. Sometimes these were blatant deceptions, like the codfish gutted in Cambridge market in 1626 which turned out to harbour in its belly three tiny Protestant tracts. Sometimes these were personal tragedies, like the births of malformed babies. Signs were never ideologically inert. In England as in Continental Europe (and Waltham, wise historian of England, frequently looks across the Channel), the divisions and fears evoked by the Reformation were reflected and exploited by official or self-appointed sign-readers. This book's climax is the story of the "fatall vesper" of 1623, when a congregation of Catholics assembled in a garret in Blackfriars were plunged to their deaths when the floor collapsed. The local inhabitants, "beeing growne ... sauvage and barbarous", attacked the survivors and vandalised the dead. Well-heeled Protestants disowned the excesses of the mob, yet the sign-reading this time was all too easy for elite and poor alike. Providentialism and anti-popery had become entwined. England itself could be designated a new Israel, chastised for its sins, but also the apple of God's eye. It was a remixing of a thoroughly medieval cocktail, but in a post-Reformation Europe of warring states, the effects were lethal. Protestantism, far from demystifying the universe, left it "saturated with supernatural forces and moral significance". This brand of providentialism, Waltham suggests, was "fraught with internal contradictions", which presaged the strife of the Civil War. Only after the Restoration did the time come for "rational religion". In depicting providentialism's Indian summer, and postponing its demise to the later seventeenth century, Waltham has written a religious and cultural history of Early Modern England that is inclusive and alternative at the same time.
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