In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture will be releasing a volume specifically dedicated to the subject in December 2017. The interview below is the first of several that will feature authors of articles for this special issue. For this first interview, we were fortunate to be able to speak to Alexandra Walsham, Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Cambridge. Professor Walsham has had an illustrious career devoted to the study of early modern Britain with a focus on the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in their European context. Her forthcoming article in Church History is titled, “Recycling the Sacred: Material Culture and Cultural Memory after the English Reformation.”
How did you come across the topic of your article?
I am currently working on a collaborative project called “Remembering the Reformation” (https://rememberingthereformation.org.uk/). My part in this project is to consider how memory is crystallized in material culture: places, objects, the landscape, and buildings. I have worked extensively before on the new kinds of material culture that Protestantism created as well as on Catholic relics. But I have become increasingly conscious of the many objects that survived the Reformation despite iconoclasm and the purges of churches that took place. These surviving objects managed to navigate the storm of the Reformation and persist more-or-less intact or in a modified form. This was the phenomenon that I set out to explore in this essay, together with the place of material culture in memory and religious change.
Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
Many sources were consulted in research and writing this article, but it has two principal bodies of source material. One is the official inventories that the government instructed parishes to make of the church furniture that was left over from the Catholic liturgical world. This was church furniture that had been rendered redundant by the religious reforms of the period. What is fascinating about these inventories is how detailed the descriptions of these pieces of furniture are: they describe what they are made of, how much they cost, what they look like in ways that are quite unexpected. The second body of source material is the comparatively few actual objects that survive from the Reformation. Many objects that were recycled during this period have been discarded in subsequent centuries. Those that survive are rarities and therefore particularly intriguing. What is also striking about them is their ambiguous quality – they both look back to the past and look forward, as it were, to a Protestant future.
Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
My research took me not only to libraries and archives but also to explore the holdings of museums. The main national museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum were invaluable, as well as occasional artefacts that survive in situ in parish churches. However, most of what I am interested in is portable material, which was vulnerable to being stripped out and thrown out in successive phases of redecoration.
Is there anything else relating to this article and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that you would like to share?
What we need to remember is that the Reformation set itself up as something that sought to sweep away objects that were thought to provoke idolatry. It is often seen as a movement dominated by destruction and obsessed with annihilation, but what this article shows is the extent to which it also engendered very creative forms of adaptation and transformation. Scrutinising these processes complicates the Reformation and enriches our picture of how it took place and what it meant to people living through it.
Abstract for “Recycling the Sacred: Material Culture and Cultural Memory after the English Reformation.”
This article examines medieval liturgical artifacts that survived the English Reformation by being converted to alternative religious and secular purposes. Exploiting both textual and material evidence, it explores how sacred objects were adapted and altered for a range of domestic and ecclesiastical uses, together with the underlying theological assumptions about adiaphora or “things indifferent” that legitimized such acts of “recycling.” These are situated on a continuum with iconoclasm and approached as dynamic and cyclic processes that offer insight into how Protestantism reconfigured traditions of commemoration and patterns of remembrance. Simultaneously, it recognizes their role in resisting religious change and in preserving tangible traces of the Catholic past, showing how converted objects served to perpetuate and complicate social and cultural memory. The final section investigates the ambiguous longer-term legacies of this reform strategy by probing the significance of growing concerns about the sin of ‘sacrilege’ committed by those who had profaned holy things.