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“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.

2 Comments

  1. Stephen Tyrrell of Bosvathick House Constantine Falmouth TR11 5RZ says:

    Dear Mrs Finney
    Over excited by your novella about the Young Carey I transferred it into ‘Indesign’ and set it out so that I could print a copy for my own use; It is set out as though it were a published book so I can add it to my collection of your first editions. If this e mail works I have attached a copy. If you want a copy printed and bound one, please let me know and I will get one done.
    We once met when you kindly came to see my mother in law at Bosvathick near Penryn. She is now within a month of 100 years old and at the time it was an attempt to raise her interest. I do’nt think the visit went well if only because we had not then realised how advanced was her dementia. So we owe you for an awkward and probably terrible afternoon which you handled beautifully
    I am also a historian although I can not write fiction but I have written about 15 books on history and architecture including the definitive work on the history of the Trevanions and Caerhays. This includes re-creations of what it looked like as a great house a the end of the 16th century. I even went to meet the surviving Trevanions, to bring the history up to date.
    I imagine you are but seldom in Cornwall but should you be planning for Elizabeth Trevanion to be visiting Caerhays I could provide lots of interesting detail for you to use or ignore.
    I admire your skill enormously and wish I had some of it.
    Hope this e mail reaches you in Romania? or somewhere The copy of the Young Carey has been reduced to go on an e mail It should print out allright but may not… let me know. Have tried to attach the Novella but do not know how.

    1. I want to pick your brains about the Trevanions of Caerhays!

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