How the Reformation was Remembered, Forgotten, Contested, and Re-Invented

Lives and Afterlives

By Dr. Ceri Law
AHRC Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of Cambridge

We explore the historical and literary afterlives of individuals and groups caught up in the Reformation, as well as the manner in which religious change stimulated the emergence and effected the transformation of types of life-writing.

Subjects of investigation include figures omitted from official written histories of English Protestantism but who featured in the alternative narratives engendered by dissenting minorities, as well as the Reformation’s traditional heroes (e.g. the martyred bishops Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley) and anti-heroes (e.g. Stephen Gardiner and Edmund Bonner). We are also looking beyond England to investigate how the memory of pioneering European reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin evolved over the centuries which saw the theological centre of gravity of the Church shift significantly. These stories of Protestant celebrities are set beside the ways in which otherwise unknown and obscure people recorded, represented and edited their own and others’ personal experiences for posterity. By focusing closely on the creative strategies of remembering and forgetting deployed in biographical and autobiographical writing we are generating new insights about the evolution of these genres.

Marking Memory in John Favour’s ‘Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie’

I’m going to begin with a confession. I’m still trying to work out what memory is. Beginning with what I do know and what a wealth of theoretical literature has taught me: memory is constructed. To remember something is not just to bring forth a fact placed in storage; the memory itself is reshaped and remade in the very process of recall. In remembering something old we create something new.

This is a central assumption of my work for the ‘Remembering the Reformation’ project, which focuses on ‘Lives and Afterlives’. In recording both their own lives and the lives of others early modern people were engaged, whether consciously or unconsciously, in creative acts which helped, in turn, to shape and crystallise broader collective narratives of the past. Yet the process by which this happened is much less clear. The transmission of memory through time, the selectivity of remembering and forgetting, and above all that crucial relationship between individual and collective memory, are all things that we can barely glimpse, but which are central concepts in my work.

In this post I want very briefly to explore some of these ideas by attempting to identify just a few of the ways in which one single object functions as an act of memorialisation and as a repository of memory. The object in question is one copy of the 1619 work Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie held in York Minster Library (shelf mark XVII/2.F.37).

John Favour’s Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie (1619); Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York

The text is an extended discussion of the Christian past, aiming to prove the superiority of the Protestant Church compared to Roman Catholic practice by demonstrating that Protestants adhered more exactly to scriptural mandates. Thus, the work claims, Protestants could answer the Catholic barb ‘where was your religion before Luthers name’ with the retort ‘it was in the Scriptures, where yours never came’ (pp. 52–3/ sig. E2v–E3r). The work itself admits that by 1619, over a century after Luther first posted his Ninety-Five Theses, this question was already ‘overtroden and outworne’ (p. 52/ sig. E2v). Yet the work also reveals continuing tensions between processes of reformation and wider cultures of memory. It bemoaned the ‘old superstitious people of Christ-Church in Hampshire’ who drew a connection between the ending of mass and a decline in the abundance of the salmon in their river (p. 8/ sig. B4v). There were also other issues of perhaps broader appeal than this fishy misconception. There was one question that, to judge by the underlining, particularly engaged one reader of this book: if the Catholic Church has, as the author claimed, fallen so short of a true church, then ‘what became of our ancestors, who lived and died in those dayes of darknesse, are they all condemned?’. Here was a fear that religious divisions might fracture familial lines of descent, and that the rediscovery of reformation ‘truth’ would obscure and reshape the memory of the dead.

Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York

Yet this text is also about memory in more specific ways. It was written by the Church of England clergyman John Favour (c. 1557–1624). Favour, writing in his sixties and in the apparent belief that his life was drawing to a close, described this work as his own final mark upon the world. While he lived he would preach, but his writing ‘may haply pierce when I am dead’. Thus, ‘I would not passe like an arrow in the ayre, or a ship in the sea, and leave no monument behind me’ (sig. A2v). This is writing as an explicit act of self-memorialisation. Given this, the image of himself that Favour crafts is all the more interesting. The title-page describes him as ‘Doctor of the Lawes, sometimes Fellow of New Colledge in Oxford, now Vicar of Halifax’. He describes the many demands upon his time: poverty, he explained, had forced him into medical practice alongside his clerical duties. He compared himself to those who lived in cathedral churches, or who had lighter pastoral loads, and thus who had ‘more ease and leisure’ (sig. A5r). This account of a humble vicar rather underplayed Favour’s career. He was chaplain to the archbishop of York (a relationship acknowledged in the dedication of the book) and was appointed a canon of York in 1614.[1] His self-portrait was not necessarily inaccurate, but it was selective. He moulded his own life, and thus his memory, to wider reformation ideals of ministry.

Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York

Favour’s text also memorialised a relationship: the support given to Favour by Tobie Matthew (c.1544–1628), the archbishop whom he served as chaplain. The book is dedicated to Matthew, and records his encouragement of the work (sig. A2v). Again, Favour crafts an image of himself, this time as friend and associate of a great man. In praising Matthew Favour placed himself by his side. Noting his habit of annotating his reading with a ‘judicious pen’, Favour tells his reader that ‘mine owne eyes are witnesses’ (sig. A3v).

This mention of Matthew scribbling on his books brings me to another layer of memory, and moves me from considering this book as text to considering it as object. Although its provenance is not absolutely certain (and here particular thanks must go to Steven Newman of York Minister Library for all his assistance on this question!), it seems likely that this copy belonged to Matthew himself, and that it was one of the approximately three thousand volumes that he bequeathed to his wife, Frances, upon his death in 1628. She, in turn, gave the collection to York Minster.[2] If we think of libraries as depositories of memory, which in their own curation and selectivity shape what subsequent generations can know of the past — and Jennifer Summit’s Memory’s Library has taught us all that we should — then this, in turn, shapes how we see this book.

Yet, finally, there is also another way in which this book as object more directly invokes the memory of Matthew himself. We know that he wrote in his books; even if Favour hadn’t told us so, there is ample other evidence. This copy, as the images above show, is marked but not written in. This makes identification of the annotator impossible; as noted above, it is possible that this is not even Matthew’s book. It is therefore not memory but imagination that conjured up a particular image for me when I first opened this book: an image of Matthew carefully marking the place where Favour first mentioned his own support of the project, and himself remembering the occasion that his chaplain had preserved in print.

Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York


  1. Dates taken from William Sheils’s article on Favour in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. My own knowledge of the Matthew collection is drawn largely from the series of excellent essays by Rosamund Oates and Claire Cross prepared as part of the University of York and York Minister’s Neuton project:

Events and Temporalities

By Dr. Bronwyn Wallace
Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of York

This strand of the project, led by Dr Bronwyn Wallace, concerns time. Our research analyses key dates and episodes that became central to emerging accounts of the Reformation, and how these were commemorated, remembered, contested and reinvented in later decades and centuries.

Our principal objects of attention are the iconic national and international events around which memories of the Reformation crystallised, which include: Luther’s protest against indulgences; Henry VIII’s break with Rome; the dissolution of the monasteries; the burning of the Protestant martyrs under Mary I; the publication of the bible in the vernacular and the Book of Common Prayer; the accession of Elizabeth I; the iconoclastic purges of churches during the 1530s and 1640s. We are also considering the emergence of anniversaries and calendars of celebration, as well as the ecclesiastical histories, chronicles, journals, diaries and almanacs which adopted a temporal framework for recounting events. The phenomenon of mapping contemporary events onto biblical counterparts, the manner in which the relationship between past and present was conceptualized, and the degree to which the Reformation assisted in the emergence of a new linear conception of history itself will be key themes for investigation.

(Un)binding the Cantiones Sacrae: the York Minster part-books

Remembering the Reformation is, of course, by necessity an ongoing act of reconstitution. I take the central questions of my own brief, ‘Events and Temporalities’, to be these: what temporalities emerge in the process of that reconstitution, in our encounters with our objects of study? And what can the proliferation of religious understandings of time and history in early modernity teach us about our own methods for approaching those objects? What follows is a brief narrative of one encounter with one object that challenges any easy assumptions we might make about the fixity of two related sets of boundaries: temporal ones, and confessional ones.

In 1575, the composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, known recusants, gentlemen of the Queen’s Chapel Royal, and possessors of the sole privilege to print music in England, published a volume of polyphonic vocal music casually known as the Cantiones Sacrae. Its full Latin title is one of my favourite acts of Reformation rhetoric: Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur — ‘songs which, according to their subject, are called sacred’. The equivocation neatly sidesteps the question of which music is rightly called ‘sacred’, while at the same time pre-empting any potential accusation of popery. Published as six vocal parts in oblong octavo, each part has its own title page, bears a dedication to Elizabeth at the front, and incudes at the back a précis of Byrd and Tallis’s privilege, promising the visitation of the Queen’s ‘high displeasure’ upon any other man who should undertake to publish music. Literally enfolded in royal authority, these ambiguously sacred songs both strenuously proclaim their political legitimacy and decline to worry overmuch about their confessional identity.

If we consider the Cantiones in the abstract, and thus locate it in 1575, an artefact of its original moment, the story more or less ends there. But the copy in the York Minster Library tells a more complex story. The Minster’s five part-books, lacking the sixth, are bound in vellum, and on the front cover of each volume is inscribed in an early hand the composers’ names and the relevant vocal part, as well as the title translated into an English that evacuates the Latin’s delicious ambivalence: ‘Tallis and Birds sacred songs of 5.&6. partes’. But what interests me most about these volumes is what stands between their vellum bindings and the printed music:

The title page of the Cantiones Sacrae in one of the Minster’s part-books, and facing it, a torn partial leaf of a blackletter printed Bible sheet; the word ‘Apocrypha’ appears in large type in the running head. Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York.

Each of the part-books is bound with a fragment of a sheet from an English bible, four of them leaves from a KJV of 1611, 1613, or 1617 (STC 2216, 2224, or 2247) the fifth from a different 1613 folio edition (STC 2226). Three of the fragments come from the same sheet, the outside of quire 4O — the end of Tobit, and passages from Judith. They make a good joke: ‘Apocrypha’ announced in large type, opposite songs that hedge on the validity of their own sacredness. I wonder whether whoever stitched these sheets together anticipated by four hundred years my involuntary (and mildly embarrassing) bark of laughter in the reading room.

The fragments also give us some clues about their life before they were waste:

The final page of the Cantiones Sacrae in the same part-book as above, summarizing Byrd and Tallis’s printing privilege, and facing it, a torn partial sheet of a blackletter printed Bible. Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York.

The crease down the centre of the sheet, the stab hole in the crease: these sheets were stitched, if not bound. They were a Bible before they were waste paper. Two distinct sets of stitches let us know that the waste paper binding preceded the vellum one:

A close-up of two sets of stitches: those binding the waste paper to the Cantiones, and those attaching the outer vellum binding to the whole. Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York.

Questions proliferate. Which edition and impression of the KJV is this, and why was it dismantled? A book on the scale of these huge folios was too costly to destroy casually, so why would, say, a bookseller do it? A good book historian, keen-sighted, might be able to identify the exact impression on the basis of these small fragments; such work might reveal that these sheets come from an impression that had to be recalled due to error. When, where, and by whom was this work done? Certainly between 1611 and the time of the vellum bindings, which on the basis of the hand on their covers mustn’t have been more than a couple of decades later. Stitching inelegant but sufficient to withstand four hundred years, as well as apparent ready availability of printed waste paper suggest that a book professional (printer? seller?) cut and stitched the waste sheets, but again this question requires a book historian.

I am not one, but I know a folio sheet from a handsaw, so I reconstructed this one — first by hand and then digitally, using composite images from EEBO. My mechanical work in the reading room reversed the procedure performed by the person who bound these leaves: mentally unstitching the waste scraps, pasting them back into a sheet, imagining the sheet as the outer page of a quire bound in a complete Bible. Doing this little exercise brought me into a kind of intimate contact with the temporal phenomena these books generate.

Each of the five parts of the Minster’s copy of the Cantiones comes from at least three times. Its printed pages, its waste paper binding, and its vellum binding each represent one of three disparate moments, materially stitched together. It is, in other words, an anachronism. The temporal identity of these books is of cultural and religious consequence: the Cantiones mean something different after 1611 than they did in 1575. They pose little doctrinal controversy at the date of their publication — just enough to provoke the syntactic ironies of their title — but by the time of the publication of the KJV, Tallis had long since died and Byrd had begun to publish openly controversial music, most notably in his masterwork the Gradualia, a vast experiment with the Catholic liturgy, printed in 1605, then hastily withdrawn in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, and then cautiously republished in 1610.

Their temporal perversity, in other words, enhances our understanding of their confessional perversity. But it’s worth saying that there’s nothing especially scandalous about the kind of book this is, or the kind of anachronism it is. The enveloping of suspiciously Catholic music in fragments of a destroyed King James Bible is an outrage only if we take for granted a set of overdetermined confessional boundaries assigned to Elizabethan and Jacobean England by later study. Situating this book appropriately in confessional terms requires, ironically, loosening the boundaries between confessional positions. By a similar turn of irony, situating it appropriately in time requires developing a tolerance for anachronism.

Places, Objects, and Spaces

By Dr. Alexandra Walsham
Professor of Modern History
University of Cambridge

In the third strand of the project we focus on the way in which physical artefacts and locations became receptacles and theatres of memory. This strand is led by Professor Alexandra Walsham.

Engaging with longstanding assumptions about Protestantism’s hostility towards the material realm, we explore attitudes towards iconoclastically defaced, ruined and redundant ecclesiastical buildings, spaces, and objects (e.g. monasteries, altar stones, vestments, images, medieval manuscripts and books) and consider how far they constituted a category of reformed relic. We also consider the construction of fixed public memorials (e.g. to local martyrs and worthies) and the production of portable memorabilia and domestic decoration (e.g. tapestries, firebacks, cushion covers, embroidered bindings, metalwork, crockery). We examine both the symbolic content and significance of these places and things as well their roles in more or less secular rituals, in order to consider the role played by routine actions in processes of recollection and remembering.

The Smell of the Reformation

Members of the Remembering the Reformation project team are currently busy identifying material for the digital exhibition that will be launched to coincide with our big conference in Cambridge, 7–9 September 2017 (booking is now open!). We’ve been digging deep into the collections of our partners in this enterprise, Cambridge University Library, York Minster Library, and Lambeth Palace Library, and discovering some neglected and hidden treasures among their manuscripts, printed books, and artefacts. We are immensely grateful to the curators and librarians who have patiently fetched so many items for us, directed us to exciting finds, and shared our delight, laughter, and excitement. It is hoped that the exhibition will also feature a few selected items from other museums, including the V&A and the British Museum.

The subject of this latest project blog is one of the intriguing objects upon which I have stumbled searching for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformation memorabilia. Now in the British Museum, it is an object of Dutch origin: a tobacco box (12cm x 5 cm in dimension), which is tentatively dated by the BM to the seventeenth century, but seems more likely to have been manufactured in the first half of the eighteenth century. It is unclear whether the box was privately commissioned or mass produced for the market: it is made of brass, a less prestigious metal than silver, but the engraving on both sides suggests that this was not an inexpensive item. It bears on its lid and base images of two Protestant reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin. On the base is Luther, depicted as the heavy set, substantial figure familiar to us from many portraits, holding an open book. Above him in an oval cartouche is a swan, an allusion to the famous prophecy associated with his predecessor Jan Hus, the Bohemian heretic put to death in 1415, who is said to have predicted that though he was roasted as a goose, in a hundred years’ time a swan would sing. On the lid, a position of greater visibility probably reflecting the dominant tenor of the Reformation in the Netherlands, is Calvin. He sports a long beard and cap and also clasps and fingers the pages of a book. The accompanying inscription gives the dates of his birth (1509) and his death (1564, when he ‘expired in the Lord’), contrasting with the more elaborate verse beneath Luther, which is hard to decipher, but refers to him as a ‘light’ that exhibits the holy evangel to and for everyone.[1]


[LEFT]: Top of tobacco box, with engraving of Calvin / Trustees of the British Museum
[RIGHT]: Bottom of tobacco box, with engraving of Luther / Trustees of the British Museum

This is an unusual object, but it is not entirely unique. It bears comparison with another Dutch tobacco box in a private collection dating from 1736, which is wrought in silver. This pairs Luther with Hus: above the head of the latter is a small roundel showing him being burnt at the stake as a martyr.[2] Evoking the relationship between the Christ and his forerunner John the Baptist, the iconography of this item is a miniature pedigree that neatly encapsulates Protestantism’s response to the classic Catholic taunt, ‘Where was your church before Luther?’ The British Museum object likewise centres remembrance of the Reformation on the powerful personalities who were already synonymous with it — the images of these men that circulated as prints and depicted in paintings were instantly recognisable visual short-hands for the religious revolution they were credited with inaugurating. Exploiting the open book as an icon of religious truth, this tobacco box is a mnemonic to a crystallising legend of origin — a legend about the birth of a movement that unveiled the Gospel to a people who had been kept in darkness and ignorance by the papacy for much of the Middle Ages. But the memory of the Reformation that this box evokes is also a highly simplified one that eclipses significant frictions and divisions within Protestantism: it brings together two men who were less allies than antagonists, and who were bitterly divided on critical issues such as the meaning of the Eucharist. Denuding them of theological substance, it reduces them to heroic figureheads and to cardboard cut-outs. It effaces their individuality and ideological particularity in favour of deploying them as generic symbols. It forgets the fact that in reality they were fierce adversaries rather than bosom buddies.

Why would a tobacco box be adorned with this iconography? Smoking was a cultural habit imported from the New World that swept across northern Europe like wildfire, so much so that Simon Schama has declared that ‘the smell of the Dutch Republic [in the seventeenth century] was the smell of tobacco’.[3] Tobacco was an exotic and intoxicating substance that rapidly became the subject of addiction across the social spectrum. Some regarded it as a medicinal drug, prophylactic against the plague, and a panacea; others denounced it as loathsome weed that was pernicious to the health and an inducement to shameful lust. King James I of England in his Counterblaste of 1604, linked the ‘stinking’, ‘unsavoury’ and ‘savage custom’ of taking tobacco with barbarity, degeneracy, and moral decay;[4] a Dutch preacher lamented that thousands of people who called themselves Christians were ‘as besotted with this foul smoke as children are with sugar’.[5] Others employed the language of the devil and hell to describe it and invoked Psalm 102:3: ‘my days are consumed like smoke’. Various governments attempted to regulate smoking. In 1642 Pope Urban VIII published a bull excommunicating all those who took tobacco in church and lamenting that even during the celebration of the mass indulged in it ‘sacrilegiously and to the great scandal of the pious’. In the city of Berne, it was officially added to the Ten Commandments and folded in with the Mosaic ban on adultery.[6] Widely equated with sin, dissipation, and drunkenness, it was nevertheless a highly fashionable vice, which engendered a range of material accessories, from clay pipes and spittoons, to snuff and tobacco boxes. These were often decorated with devices and mottoes, some with abstract or floral patterns, others with scenes of merry drinkers and smokerslandscapesroyal portraits or military victories. A few double as calendars and almanacs. Nor were religious and biblical themes uncommon: two other Dutch boxes in the British Museum’s collection are adorned with the erection of the cross at Calvary and the marriage of Cana, when water was turned into wine, paired with Christ feeding the five thousand.

Roker en drinker, Jan de Later, after Adriaen van Ostade, 1680–1694 / From the collections of the Rijksmuseum

To decorate a tobacco box with these images or those of Calvin and Luther may seem somewhat anomalous. It sits uneasily with our presupposition that Protestantism, especially the Calvinist variety, was a religion of moral austerity and puritanical sobriety, whose adherents frowned upon and abstained from indulgence in intoxicants. But our instinctive assumption that tobacco smoking and fervent Protestant piety were incompatible may itself be an inherited myth, a misleading caricature of a movement that had a more complex and ambivalent relationship with pleasure, consumption and luxury than later, often hostile accounts of it have led us to believe. It may tell us more about how memory of the Reformation and its repercussions has been distorted and refracted in the centuries since than it does about the values it embodied and stood for in its own era. Recent work by Lyndal Roper, for instance, has unsettled our image of Lutheranism as an instrument of social discipline and presented us with a Luther who relished food, drink, scatalogical humour and sexual intercourse.

It remains impossible to know what compelled people to purchase or commission objects like this tobacco box, and what it might have meant to own and use them. We cannot easily discern their significance in a pluralistic society or neatly read off the mentalities of those who possessed such forms of merchandise. But we may take inspiration from the insight that things help societies to remember, and that this process involves sensory perception — from sight and hearing to touch and taste — as well as intellectual cognition. Andrew Jones’s comment that memory is frequently produced ‘in the current of quotidian activities’, in the course of routine, habit and action, is helpful here.[7] As people lit the tobacco in their pipes did they reflect on the holy light of the Gospel that Luther had ignited? Should we read the inscription on the British Museum box as a kind of smoker’s joke? In a similar way, might the whiff of smoke have served to remind them of the heroic sacrifice of Hus and later Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake for their faith? Did the smell of tobacco consequently serve to evoke the memory of the Reformation itself?


  1. My thanks to Liesbeth Corens and Sjoerd Levelt for their assistance with this.
  2. J. W. Frederiks, Dutch Silver: Wrought Plate of North and South Holland from the Renaissance (The Hague, 1958), p. 98 and plate 99.
  3. Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988), p. 189, and see pp. 189-220.
  4. James I, A counterblaste to tobacco (London, 1604).
  5. Godefridus Udemans, quoted in A. Th. Van Deursen, Plain Lives in a Golden Age: Popular Culture, Religion and Society in Seventeenth-Century Holland (Cambridge, 1991), p. 103.
  6. Cited in Deborah Gage and Madeleine Marsh, Tobacco Containers and Accessories: Their Place in Eighteenth-Century European Social History (London, 1988), p. 17.
  7. Andrew Jones, Memory and Material Culture (Cambridge, 2007), p. 31.

Ritual, Liturgy, and the Body

By Dr. Brian Cummings
Professor of English and Related Literature
University of York

This strand of the project is led by Professor Brian Cummings at York. In it we analyse the body and performance as sites of remembrance at both the personal and communal level.

Medieval Latin liturgy was suffused with bodily rituals, many of which were treated with suspicion by Protestants as signs of superstition or idolatry. Yet the reformed also appealed to gesture, emotion and the senses as proof of sincerity in the expression of ‘feeling faith’. In this strand of the project we investigate the reformation of ritual and ceremony in the early modern world, both in the public performance of religion in the guise of the liturgy (the Book of Common Prayer) and in private devotion and worship ranging from recusant to puritan. We consider the critical role of repetitive practices in the constitution of memory, and attend especially to the affective dimensions of these mnemonic processes — the role of song and sound, as well as gesture and text, in transmitting memory.

One Year of Remembering the Reformation: the Stainton Missal 1516–2016

What is that drives a person to commit iconoclasm? It is a question that has been much on my mind for the last year. As part of the project Remembering the Reformation, we have been preparing for the Digital Exhibition that we will launch later in 2017. It has been both exciting and moving to spend a lot of time in various libraries and archives. Alex, Ceri, Brownwyn and I have been greeted warmly by curators at our wonderful national collections — at Cambridge University Library, York Minster Library, and Lambeth Palace Library (our official partners); also at Trinity College, Cambridge; and at the National Archives, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. Everywhere we go, there are objects which jump out at us with their stories, of how they were made, and how they ended up in their modern homes. Not least of this has been the acts of violence which surrounded religious objects before and after the Reformation.

The object that hit me hardest, with a kind of brutal and still extant power, was a sixteenth-century printed missal (York Minster Library, Stainton 12 — A detail from the missal forms the banner for this website.) Even its bare history is a good metaphor for the complexity of the social memory of the Reformation, both in relation to the sixteenth century, and in the long reach of history since. In the exactly five hundred years of its life, to this day, it has never moved outside of a small triangle in north Yorkshire, between York itself and the edges of the Dales and the Moors. It was printed in Rouen in 1516 for sale and use in York. The Calendar contains three signs of ownership. The first is the obit of John Best, rector of ‘faysbe’, dated 14 August 1530. So for its first twenty years, so far as we know, the book was used for its traditional purpose to celebrate the mass; probably in Faceby, a small village in the North York Moors near Stokesley. Then there is a note, from the end of the century, this time dated 5 August 1600, thanking God for the preservation of King James VI of Scotland from the Gowrie conspiracy. And lastly, there are seventeenth-century ownership marks from two vicars of Stainton in North Yorkshire. The second was Richard Lumley, who was vicar after the Restoration; he bequeathed a large number of books in 1694, which formed the Stainton Parish Library. From there, like all of Stainton’s precious books, it was deposited in York Minster Library for safe-keeping in 1911.

However, the sensational aspect of the book is concealed by these details. The opening of the Te igiturat the beginning of the Canon, as in many missals, is illuminated by the figure of the crucifixion, in this case a woodcut which has been hand-coloured with contemporary paint. But this is not what a modern handler of the book sees. Instead, the eye is confronted, we might say assaulted, by a vigorous slash, diagonally across the image of the Cross. It splits the cross without (quite) touching the body of Christ. (For an image, see the banner.) Below, through the next dozen leaves, is another, deeper gouge, in the opposite direction to the slashed crucifix, we might even say forming a reverse cross or saltire. The book is thus an astonishingly vivid example of iconoclasm. In fact, with some painstaking analysis, it has been possible to establish that there are seven different cuts in all, defacing two dozen leaves. Some are indiscriminate, some very precise. In the woodcut facing the crucifixion, there is a God the Father enthroned. In this case, the cuts bisect his face twice, once splitting vertically through the nose from forehead to the tip of his beard, the other cutting directly between his eyes from left to right. God is represented with a papal tiara: did the iconoclast wrongly think it was the Pope?

Iconoclasm is a subject with a long and distinguished historiography. Following the work of the late and so much lamented Margaret Aston, this defacement may be conjectured to have been done in the late 1530s, but it is more likely that it happened under King Edward in the late 1540s, when the Roman rites were banned. Yet it is unusual in several respects. Unlike Edwardian iconoclasm, it is aimed not at images and icons, but a book. However, the book is uncanny in other ways. The sheer savagery of the mutilation is like an example of over-determination. It is disturbing, like a physical wound. It is clearly aimed at the most sacred moment of the mass — the Canon — but in the process it disfigures Christ and God the Father. Almost as mysterious is how the book survives. Despite its mutilated state, it was kept intact. New owners — not Catholics, but demonstrably reformed in one way or another — looked after it and wrote into it. There is a feeling even that the book’s wounds have made people care for it.

It is easy to dismiss iconoclasm as a species of vandalism. But the sacred mysteries of divine worship were among the aspects of the Reformation that were most argued about and aroused the deepest feelings. Rebels in 1549 demanded that the Latin mass be brought back, but others denounced the old liturgy as mumbo-jumbo or profanity. Such feelings have not gone away. This week the Church of England expressed “huge regret” that a service at the chapel of Westcott House in Cambridge had used the gay slang language Polari. Instead of the traditional “Glory be to the father, and to the son, and the Holy Spirit” the prayer offered was: “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy”. Myself I love the linguistic inventiveness of this, and cherish its use to commemorate LGBT history month; but it appears that some people were upset. Yet we should remember that many people were upset in the 1540s at the idea of using vernacular English to say prayers to God, and said that such prayers could never work. Equally, others said that using Latin turned the prayers into a kind of magic.

Iconoclasm, viewed from either side, is deeply troubling. It expresses conscious violence against how other people express their religion, a violence which includes censorship and suppression but also goes beyond that in actually destroying what is in front of it. But somehow it also expresses a distinctive and opposed view of the sacred. It is not violence for no reason. At the end of 2016, as part of the Workshop we held in York, I performed a kind of re-enactment of the seven cuts done to the Stainton Missal. (In case anyone is worried, it was not a sacred book, or an old one, but a university document associated with the Teaching Environment Framework.) Part of the point of it was to show how arbitrary and even banal an act of violence can be: at some moment, in probably under a minute, the Stainton Missal was changed for ever, and we will never know exactly when or why. Somehow still the book has come down to us 500 years later. 2016 was a horrible year, but it also reminded us of what is at stake in our lives, what we really care about, and the damage that human beings want to do to each other.

Originally published by Cambridge University under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.