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Reviewed by:
  • The Senses and the English Reformation by Matthew Milner
  • Peter Moore
Milner, Matthew , The Senses and the English Reformation (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History), Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. xiv, 407; R.R.P. £70.00; ISBN 9780754666424.

It has been standard fare to portray the English reformers as severe characters. Supposedly, they stripped away the riches of medieval Christianity and enforced sensory deprivation on the Church. In place of complexity, worshippers in the Protestant churches were impoverished, aurally sensing the Word but little else. Matthew Milner's contribution to the prestigious St Andrew's Studies in Reformation History series is designed to challenge such notions. The result is a rich picture - and a satisfying one - of important continuities in the engagement of senses in Tudor religion.

The study comprises two balanced halves. One explores the pre-Reformation era (c. 1400-c. 1530) and the second, the Reformation century itself (c. 1520-c. 1600). Within each of these halves, Milner plots a similar course. Thus Chapter 1 represents a lucid account of medieval sensory theories, while Chapter 2 sketches how these theories were expressed in religious life. Chapters 3 and 4 then illustrate this material by expounding the sensual complexity of the 'provision' of liturgy in the midst of pre-Reformation English life, followed by a study of the sensory aspects of the actual liturgies offered.

In Chapters 5 to 8, equivalent ground is traversed for the Reformation period. Chapters 5 and 6 consider sixteenth-century sensory theory, followed [End Page 287] by its expression in religious life. Chapters 7 and 8 then trace this through first the Henrician and Edwardian reforms, and then the 'tumultuous' developments of the Elizabethan church.

Milner argues for continuity rather than discontinuity. Philosophically, Aristotelian sensory theory remained dominant on both sides of the Reformation crisis. There were stress lines in sixteenth-century sensing, but these were not new. They were developments from an earlier trajectory.

At the heart of the Reformation was a controversy over authority and of course this generated issues in sensing. Both conservatives and reformers saw their opponents as having yielded themselves to false authority. Both sides claimed that their opponents had fallen under the spell of sensory delusion.

More specifically, Milner shows that the Reformation did not produce a radically intellectualized and a-sensual religion, any more than previously religion had been without sensual caution. In fact, Milner's extraordinary wealth of material shows that leaders on both side of the Reformation divide were committed to engaging senses carefully.

Of course, principles such as sola scriptura and sola fide did bring profound change to English religion. Justification by faith released senses from the centre of knowing. Milner shows how knowing became internalized and this removal from the external was reinforced to some extent by the sensory inaccessibilities of the doctrine of predestination. These new interiorities in English Christianity gave reassurance in the face of anxieties over the senses. But then they also led to careful consideration in 'making sure there were godly thynges to sense' (p. 242).

There is a tendency for scholars to consider that their own topic is a vital one for the future of their discipline. In this case, Milner suggests that the senses are critical for understanding the setting and issues in Tudor history. Thus, 'The senses were ... not only a topic of discussion in reform, they were a defining mode of early-modern English socio-political and cultural contention' (p. 221).

Milner generally, however, makes good on what is promised. First, the study of the senses in Tudor religion does provide a rich account of the period. By examining the five major senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) regularly through the work, Milner creates a vivid account, and takes us into the stench and grit of the period. Second, in each cycle of the work, Milner offers an enormous breadth of material, made remarkably accessible through the sensory framework. The greatest strength of this study is Milner's accomplishment in offering this astonishing range of data. The present reviewer was encouraged to find that in his own area of expertise (Calvin and sixteenth-century Calvinism) Milner offered very credible readings. [End...


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pp. 287-289
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