Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.4 (2004) 629-630
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Popular Politics and the English Reformation. By Ethan H. Shagan (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003) 341pp. $70.00 cloth $25.00 paper
Shagan takes an unorthodox approach to the thorny question of how ordinary English men and women responded to the Reformation. Assuming that the Tudors were unable to impose policies by force, he wonders why a largely conservative nation accepted the religious innovations that took place during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. His answer challenges the prevailing view that most people resisted the changes whenever possible and warmly welcomed Mary's efforts to revive the old religion.
In the first three chapters, Shagan demonstrates that Catholic resistance was weakened by disagreements over the breach with Rome. Those who viewed the breach as heresy led the conservative opposition that disseminated Elizabeth Barton's prophecies of the king's death and rebelled during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Their subsequent elimination as traitors left a community whose acceptance of the royal supremacy [End Page 629] imposed an obligation to comply with all lawful government commands. However, as the remaining five chapters illustrate in detail, this compliance was by no means reluctant; individuals often found their interests coinciding with aspects of the government's program. For example, they pursued unpopular clergy in royal courts, enriched themselves from ecclesiastical property, and used the new religious ideas to obtain leverage in local disputes. Shagan argues convincingly that such collaboration influenced the way in which the Reformation was received and inclined non-Protestants to accept even the overtly evangelical policies of Edward's reign. In addition, by implanting the theological implications of government policies in people's minds, it precluded a substantial restoration of the traditional church. Thus, the Reformation succeeded because "it was not done to the people, it was done with them" (25).
This cultural interpretation of the impact of the Reformation is the product of painstaking research in unconventional sources. Most previous accounts have relied on such documents as churchwardens' accounts and wills, in which the views of the common man are seldom recorded. In contrast, drawing mainly on testimony presented to law courts and official inquiries, Shagan provides illuminating information about popular political attitudes. He has noted in previous articles that the commons had well-developed ideas about their own rights and the proper functioning of society. In this book, he shows that those assumptions ensured easy acceptance of Henry's attacks on the church and of Edwardian propaganda linking social justice with Protestantism.
His interpretation of the evidence is profitably informed by recent literature on repressive regimes in twentieth-century Europe. Thus, he gauges the effect of the Reformation not by the customary method of counting converts but by examining the incremental effect that diverse forms of collaboration had on religious attitudes. The resultant picture ofa declining traditional religion in a generally cooperative, non- Protestant populace confirms the conclusion of the only comparable work, Robert Whiting, Local Responses to the English Reformation (New York, 1998).
Shagan's argument would have been stronger had he, like Whiting, paid more attention both to regional variations in religious belief and to the relative durability of different elements of Catholicism. In addition, his assessment of the extent to which people's views had changed by 1553 would have benefited from a more concerted treatment of their responses to Mary's policies. Nevertheless, this is a well-written, innovative work that makes an important and provocative contribution to the debate about why Catholicism lost its hold on the English people.