Reading Material On the English Reformation

The thread title is pretty self-explainatory.

I find the subject interesting; but frustratingly complex, so I was wondering if the good people at the CAF could suggest some reading material.

And with reading material, let’s have a discussion about the English Reformation…

What the heck went on :shrug:

Thank You

This may seem an odd suggestion but it’s an academic (but very readable, even fascinating - generally regarded as a ‘masterpiece’) book about, for want of a better term, the English ‘mind’ of the time and helped this particular Jew understand an awful lot more about what was going on (you think it’s confusing, think what it’s like for a complete outsider with no ‘side’ to support!).

It’s Keith Thomas’: “Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England”

The classic text (reflecting a thoughtful and nuanced version of the traditional “Whig Protestant” approach) is A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation. Several “revisionist” historians have challenged this traditional reading, arguing that the English Reformation was largely imposed by the government. The most famous book expressing this view is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars. If you only read two books on the English Reformation, I’d recommend Dickens and Duffy. You need to read at least one “revisionist” and one “non-revisionist” text to get a good idea of the issues (though since Dickens wrote before Duffy, Duffy is at a certain advantage in this comparison). Two other important revisionist historians are J. J. Scarisbrick (The Reformation and the English People) and Christopher Haig (English Reformations). Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History covers more than England, but MacCulloch is a historian of the English Reformation (I would also recommend his biography of Thomas Cranmer) and so talks about it quite a bit. Patrick Collinson’s work on the Puritans is also very illuminating on the Elizabethan period in general. These are a few good sources to get you started!

I would also second the recommendation of Thomas’s book–it’s an extremely important work of cultural history.


All good suggestions. I would also put in a plug for Scarisbrick’s bio HENRY VIII, for a great insight into the man, what was happening and the society it was happening in. There is no better book for a fast grasp of the issues of annulments, inmpediments and dispensations, as it all functioned in the 16th century, and as Henry ran head-long into it.


I really liked this biography of Thomas More. The author, Ackroyd, paints with significant detail. I felt I really understood 16th century England after reading this book.

English Catholic Historians and the English Reformation: 1585–1954 by John Vidmar OP looks interesting, although I haven’t read it myself.

Also Hilaire Belloc, English author and defender of the Catholic faith wrote books on the topic: Characters of the Reformation and How the Reformation Happened.

Belloc is excellent and very readable.

And volume III of his HISTORY OF ENGLAND covers the period. And his ELIZABETHAN COMMENTARY, ditto.

But Belloc is a very one-sided writer.

Writes well, though.


Yes, he certainly was. He hated Elizabeth and was quite scathing in his assessment of her and her reign. Of course, that counterbalances the near worship of the woman in many other treatments of her life–at least the kind I was brought up on in which “Glorianna” could do no wrong. You know what I mean?

Yep. Though I wasn’t brought that way, myself.

But his assessments are not necessarily thereby accurate.

Fun to read, though.


This is one of the most damaging misconceptions people have–that somehow one unbalanced approach to history (or anything else) is to be corrected by an equally unbalanced approach with an opposite bias. (This IMHO is how Fox News got started, but probably we shouldn’t go there!) The problem is that if you are doing this on purpose, you will actually wind up being much worse than the people you’re trying to “balance,” because chances are they are really meaning to be accurate but are “unbalanced” because all human beings are imperfect.

In other words, the only way to counterbalance falsehood is to try as hard as you can to tell the truth, and to try particularly hard to tell whatever aspect of the truth you find least congenial. If we all do that, we’ll balance each other out fine.


Belloc had a sort of self-deprecating attitude toward the subject. He said that when he saw the truth bent in one direction (as, say, in his opinion, with the Whig school of history) his inclination was not to straighten it, but to bend it in the opposite direction.


As Contarini recommended, above.


Well, at least he was honest about it. But that admission should disqualify him automatically from serious consideration as a historian. Historians don’t do this. Satirists do. Belloc was a great satirist, but a very bad historian.

Duffy has many of the same prejudices as Belloc, and his bias often distorts what he says. (For instance, I don’t think Duffy or the revisionists in general do justice to the Lollards and other medieval dissenters and their contributions, even if only indirect, to the Reformation.) But Duffy isn’t trying to be biased. He’s trying to tell the story accurately, and so he accomplishes what Belloc wanted to do (countering the “Whig” version of English history) far more effectively than Belloc could.


As you know, most historians do discount Hillary, for that, and a couple of other reasons. I find him a wonderful stylist, who can draw some very effective word pictures (of Cranmer, for example, of all people) and I can find points to ponder in him, and I’ve (as we all know) have collected him for 43 years. But you couldn’t learn history by reading him, alone, any more than by reading Froude. And Froude footnoted.


I’d like to thank all of you for your suggestions. I’ll take a look into those that I haven’t already read when I get the chance.

If I am going to read about how all of this took place, I will also need good suggestions as to the condition of the Church itself. Are there any books that deal with the Church at that period without referencing the Reformation?

What I’d like to know is if I were living under the reign of Henry the VIII/lived alongside Zwingli, Luther, Hus etc…what would I see and experience? What was the structure of the Mass, pre-Trent?

Thank you again. :thumbsup:

For GKC and Contrini, I agree about Belloc. When I read his comments about Elizabeth, especially describing her as a hunchback (as I recall), I realized how much he hated her and how that was affecting his telling of her story. He is entertaining, though, isn’t he? :wink:

For ALotLessThumb, if you want responses about the Mass pre-Trent (and not take this thread off topic) you should ask that in either the Traditional Catholicism forum or the Liturgy and Sacraments forum.

I’m glad we’ve been able to help direct you towards some books about the English Reformation. I hope you get some responses re the Church at the time of the Reformation, but I doubt you’ll find much that doesn’t mention the Reformation considering it was a rather big event at the time. :idea:

That’s a very good question. I wish there were more such books. Unfortunately scholarship on the early sixteenth century tends to focus on the Reformation. I was at one time thinking of writing my dissertation on early-sixteenth-century Catholic interpretations of Romans, and my advisor urged me to do this without primarily emphasizing how they interacted with or responded to Protestant arguments. He made the point that there were a number of theologians and exegetes who were simply doing the Catholic thing without interacting with Protestants much at all. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of scholarship on them.

John O’Malley’s book The First Jesuits makes the point that Ignatius Loyola didn’t really think that much about Protestantism initially–the Jesuit mission to fight Protestantism didn’t develop till a little later. The book is an excellent description of the Jesuits as a reform/renewal movement within Catholicism (as a Protestant, I’d always thought of them as the “anti-Protestant” order, so this was helpful).

Thomas Tentler’s Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation is a much-heralded study of penitential practices.

John Bossy’s *Christianity in the West 1400-1700 *is a great survey of the period (fairly controversial but very influential). He addresses the Reformation but not primarily from a confessional point of view. I would strongly recommend this book–it’s influenced my thinking immensely.

In the 19th century, Johannes Janssen’s History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages does in a sense for Germany what Duffy did much later for England. Like Duffy, Janssen has a polemical purpose (show that the Reformation destroyed a flourishing Christian culture), and obviously his work is seriously dated now. But his research was very detailed, and I believe that some of it may have been based on archival materials we no longer have, so it’s worth study even apart from its value to Catholic apologists (or in spite thereof!). I have only dipped into it, but would like to read it through some day (it’s a multivolume work).

Another multivolume 19th-century work of Catholic history is Ludwig Pastor’s *History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. *This, again, is still in high regard today. There are things in it that I would question (such as his overly sharp dichotomy between a “true,” or Christian Renaissance, and a “false,” pagan Renaissance), but it’s well worth looking at.

Johannes Huizinga’s *The Waning of the Middle Ages *(arguably better translated as “Autumn of the Middle Ages”) is another fairly old work, but very influential. I think it’s probably too generalizing and impressionistic, but it’s a classic work worth reading as a general description of late medieval culture.

Another Dutch scholar, Heiko Oberman, wrote a detailed study of the 15th-century theologian Gabriel Biel called *Harvest of Medieval Theology *(with deliberate reference to

Finally, Heiko Oberman’s *The Harvest of Medieval Theology *deliberately plays on Huizinga’s title. It’s a detailed study of the 15th-century theologian Gabriel Biel. I recommend it with reservations, since it has a strong Protestant bias and is very much written with the Reformation in mind (exactly what you don’t want). But it’s one of the most in-depth and thoughtful studies of late medieval theology, and it gives a lot of insights into that theology.

Getting closer to the Reformation, Oberman’s student (and my teacher) David Steinmetz wrote a study of Johann von Staupitz, Misericordia Dei (Staupitz was Luther’s confessor). Steinmetz also wrote a book called *Luther and Staupitz *which points out the important ways in which Staupitz’s late medieval Augustinianism differed from Luther’s theology. Perhaps Steinmetz’s most generally useful book (for non-specialists) is *Reformers in the Wings, *which describes twenty Reformation-era figures who aren’t quite as famous as Luther or Calvin. Five of these are Catholics, and Steinmetz’s accounts of two of them in particular (Geiler von Keysersburg and, of course, Staupitz) give good descriptions of aspects of pre-Reformation theology.

There are a number of other very important works on late medieval theology. I’ll just mention a few names of scholars you should look out for: Paul Vignaux, Gordon Leff, William Courtenay, Francis Oakley, Brian Tierney.

Looking at Della’s response, I’m reminded that I didn’t address the specifically liturgical aspect of your question. The classic work on the history of the Mass is Josef Jungmann’s *The Mass of the Roman Rite. *(Some traditionalists don’t like it because they think it’s too negative about aspects of the history of the Mass.) The recent Oxford History of Christian Worship also has a lot of good information, as does a volume called The Study of LIturgy.


Indeed. He and Ogden Nash are two of the greatest 20th-century masters of comic poetry. I have a love-hate relationship with Belloc. His letter to Chesterton congratulating him on his conversion to Catholicism almost moves me to tears. Some of his historical works move me to other sorts of emotion! But I certainly don’t presume to judge him, given (as you note) the immense structure of stupid Protestant/secular complacency he had set himself to demolish. Still, I think other people have done it more effectively since.

One name that hasn’t been mentioned so far is Herbert Butterfield. He didn’t address the Reformation itself that much, but his The Whig Theory of History and some of his other works did a lot to expose the ideological presumptions behind much of what had passed for “objective” history previously.


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