“The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy

First he rebuilds for us the way the English Medieval churches worked, packed tight with altars, figures of saints, rich reliquaries (caskets) for alleged saints’ bones and teeth, elaborate roodscreens to hide the high altar, paintings and jewelled and embroidered banners. Churches must have looked like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts!

Each of the astonishing number of sacred things had its use and meaning, its symbolism and its story, now mostly forgotten. Many of them were “apotropaic” – a word I had to look up which means “supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.” [Oxford dictionary].

As literacy increased with the beginning of the 16th century, innumerable manuscript and later printed primers helped people to navigate the sacred, with their Paternosters (Our Father), Aves (Hail Mary), Credos (Creed) and Offices and their saints’ stories. The rubrics explained exactly how many days or years you, or the dead person you were praying for, would be let off from Purgatory if you prayed the Fifteen Oes or the Little Office of the Virgin. But you didn’t have to be able to read to understand it all because everything was actually designed to make the stories accessible to the illiterate.

There were multiple priests saying masses in the churches most days. Attached to each parish were many laypeople’s gilds that took responsibility for buying wax candles for the altars, to put around the saints’ statues, to light the dead. The gilds acted out mystery plays so that the illiterate ordinary folk would know the vital stories, collected money to buy handsome black velvet vestments for requiem masses and to send members on pilgrimage to holy places like Canterbury and Walsingham.

Every Medieval church was the centre of a busy social and economic world available to and involving the rich, middling and poor of every village, town and city. For example, most places had a Maidens Gild of young unmarried women who bought candles for the Lady altar. It was a world that gave everyone a defence against the Devil in holy water, sacred images and prayers.

Of course, 90% of it had no foundation at all in the Bible, and some of the saints had started as pagan gods and goddesses. Famously there were enough relics of Splinters of the True Cross in Medieval Europe to build a fleet of ships.

Then along came the English Reformation and, in less than thirty years, swept it all away: the saints, the altars, the banners, replacing them with… The Word. Unadorned English words, a communion table, a Bible.

Iconoclasm and greed destroyed the saints and paintings, the banners and vestments, the gold chalices and patens and pyxes, and disbanded the lay associations that had kept it all running. The reformers were seldom happy because their swingeing reforms never went far enough for them. They simply could not understand why people would hide statues of saints in their attics and baptismal fonts in their fields.

The ordinary people probably weren’t happy either, deprived of their exciting processions and calming rosaries, but nobody asked them. Now they had to stand and listen to endless words of English scripture and homilies, in churches stripped of everything that made them friendly and beautiful. Only a few candles were left on the communion table and all the music was obsolete.

Of course, rationally I can understand the reformers’ urge to get rid of the thousand years of superstitious accretion around the Bible, though I wonder if they realised just how radical and revolutionary the newly available New Testament was.

Speaking irrationally, like Eamon Duffy, I too can remember when the Catholic church also fell prey to reformers after the Second Vatican Council, who changed the Mass from Latin to ugly bad English and stripped out many saints and festivals while failing to reform the church’s attitude to women, for example. At least, unlike the 16th century reformers, they didn’t indulge in self-righteous destruction and wholesale theft

But to lose so many stories and the familiar Latin Mass was an emotional shock that I still remember. In fact, as I read the closing words of Duffy’s masterly account, I had tears in my eyes.

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