Historians who study the Protestant Reformation tend to focus on what factors led to the creation of the Protestant Church. However, a slightly different question is often overlooked: What factors caused devoted Catholics to abandon their faith and become reformers?
Peter Marshall, D.Phil., professor of history at the University of Warwick, presented the English Reformation from this alternative standpoint at the latest installment of the St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture Series, held March 28 at Fordham.
Taking a “forward” look at the Reformation, Marshall told the audience to keep in mind that the first generations of reformers were not “early Protestants,” as scholars retrospectively call them, but, rather, late medieval Catholic Christians.
“There were no ‘Protestants’ in early Tudor England,” said Marshall, author of The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation (Oxford University Press, 1994). “The word was not used at all to refer to English people before the 1550s, and it was not widely adopted by adherents of the Reformation themselves until well into the reign of Elizabeth.”
According to Marshall, the subtle difference between these angles is important when considering the origins of the Reformation.
“It recognizes that in neither cultural nor institutional terms was the Reformation an attack on the late medieval [Catholic] Church from the outside, but rather a powerful critique generated from within the intellectual resources of the early 16th century Church of Catholic Christendom,” he said.
As a critique from within the church, this new angle offers insight into how an “apparently popular and well-run religious system” managed to lose “some of its most gifted sons and daughters.”
For reformers, it was not a far leap from Catholicism to these new religious theories. In fact, many of these theories grew out of their Catholic faith, to which they were formerly devoted. As a result, later converts were amenable to the reformers’ views, because these views “corresponded with the convert’s preexisting ideas or feelings about truth or meaning.”
“The people we think of as the first Protestants… were fundamentally formed in late medieval Catholic culture and they had access to the same conceptual, cultural, and imaginative resources that were available to all of their contemporaries,” Marshall said.
However, this new angle does not provide a full version of the English Reformation, Marshall said. The situation instead becomes more complex once historians consider important emotional and cultural factors—for instance, that reformers were devoted Catholics making very “painful and divisive” choices about their faith.
Even though this subtly different version does not answer all the questions about the English Reformation, it can help historians better understand the dynamics of this time period, Marshall said.
“If we’re ready to accept that talking about the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is at best a loose retrospective… shorthand, rather than a historical given, then we ought to be in a better position to evaluate and interrogate the dynamics of historical change,” Marshall said.
The St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture Series is devoted to exploring the history and theology of the Christian Church in the early modern period. The series targets the scholarship of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in Europe and the Americas from 1500 to 1750.