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date: 24 August 2019

When did ‘the Medieval’ End?: Retrospection, Foresight, and the End(s) of the English Middle Ages

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the end of the medieval period and offers retrospection of the English Middle Ages. It argues that if we are looking for a single date on which it might be said that the Middle Ages were brought to an end, then 1547 has probably a stronger claim to that distinction than any other single year in the long sixteenth century. It explains that it was during this year that a spiritual dispensation that had underwritten social and cultural life in England for generations was officially erased from the nation's cultural memory, and beliefs that had been central to official and popular culture for centuries were declared definitively to be false.

Keywords: medieval period, England, 1547, spiritual dispensation, social life, cultural life, cultural memory

Boundaries are always problematic. Difficult to agree upon and almost impossible to trace accurately over long distances without ambiguity or disputation; the closer you look at them, the vaguer they seem to become. At a local level, a national frontier disappears into a contested patch of desert, a mountain range or the flux of a body of water; looked at through a microscope, the atoms of our own skin seem hard to distinguish from those of the clothes we are wearing or the air that surrounds us. Chronological periods have boundaries of this sort: we think we know where they are, but as soon as we look at them more closely, certainty ebbs away in a miasma of qualifications, exceptions and inconsistencies. What, then, should we do with them? A decade or two ago it would have been tempting to use these observations as a way of deconstructing concepts such as the nation‐state, human identity or chronological periodicity per se. If their edges could not be defined, then clearly the things themselves had no stable essence, no existence outside the always already politicized language we use to describe them. Such claims seem rather less alluring today. It is, (p. 726) perhaps, an index of how far we have returned to historical ways of thinking that they seem merely reminders that we need to think carefully, and be sure of our evidence, before we attempt to address a question such as ‘When did the medieval period end?’: a question which, while it is as much political as it is chronological or metaphorical, nonetheless addresses a real and potentially very significant issue.

All period boundaries are political, of course, but some are more political than others. And the long, vulnerable and intensely contested border between ‘the medieval’ and ‘what came after’ is probably the most political of them all. The shifting terminology that has defined the competing positions since their inception is itself an index of the intensity and durability of the struggle. A change of name can often have profound effects on the nature of a struggle, of course, especially if it is one's enemy one is renaming. And medievalists have for some time made useful capital from the claim that they have always been at a special disadvantage in the periodization disputes, since they have usually been forced to muster under names not of their own making.1 Whether the term in question is ‘the Dark Ages’, ‘The Middle Ages’, or ‘The Medieval’, the implication, it is claimed, is always pejorative. Each is a name coined by scholars of the Renaissance and designed to do their cultural work for them. Without the dark ages to precede it, the star of the Renaissance would not shine so brightly; without ‘a Middle Ages’—a long period of unalloyed mediocrity—to separate them from the classical past, the products of the early Renaissance might not look so obviously like a golden reawakening of the glories of Athens and Rome. And, as for ‘the medieval period’ itself, what fledging epoch would not look bright and enticing when standing next to something so obviously associated with backwardness, superstition, ignorance and brutality: all those things of darkness that the light of the Renaissance was supposed to have swept away? Indeed, of all the terms used to describe this period, ‘the medieval’ is probably the least flattering. At least the other two offer that consoling plural, ‘Ages’, acknowledging a degree of diversity to the long period from the fifth to the sixteenth century, whereas ‘the medieval’ simply throws them all together into a single unregenerate lump. What hope, we might think, for a period born under so inauspicious a star?

A moment's reflection might, however, give us pause. If medievalists have laboured thanklessly under flags of inconvenience all these years, what of our more modern colleagues? They too are currently locked in something of a crisis of terminological confidence, torn between the attractions of the traditional rallying point ‘the Renaissance’ with its positivist agenda (not to mention its bold, exclusivist definite article) and the lure of the more understated, but seemingly more progressive ‘early‐modern’, borrowed initially from the historians, but increasingly favoured among literary scholars. The shift of emphasis has potentially profound implications for the way in which the post‐medieval is conceived. What had once seemed a period characterized by a great enabling act of retrospection, a looking back over the longue durée of the deep, dark ‘middle ages’ to the distant monuments of Classical civilization, is now being rethought as a period with its eyes set resolutely forward, towards a (p. 727) coming modernity of which it is only the earliest phase. That which was categorized by ‘re’—revisiting, revival, rebirth—is now to be thought of as ‘pre‐’; no longer mature and fully formed, but incomplete and still striving towards. What was a rehearsal of things already completed is now a rehearsal for things yet to come.2 In each case, however, the key term, like ‘the Middle Ages’, is defined by—and in terms of—something else: a thing beyond itself, and by implication a thing more interesting, towards which it can only gesture, Janus‐like, from the threshold. Whether that more interesting thing is the Classical past, which it seeks by some implausible gynaecological intervention to ‘re‐birth’, or the modern future, which it—equally problematically—ushers in, the post‐medieval period is also seemingly carrying the bags of another, more complete and confident period beyond it.

And, if the Renaissance clearly needs ‘the medieval’ against which to define itself, so too, it must not be forgotten, does the medieval need the idea of a Renaissance if its own foundational myths are to have any cultural capital. For the medieval story is itself founded on narratives of progress not unlike those which drive its post‐medieval counterpart, in which western civilization, after the collapse of the Roman empire, falls into decay and obscurity until a range of diverse political, spiritual, social, and economic phenomena contrive to revive it and point it onward. The paradigm argues, whether implicitly or explicitly, for a movement upwards and outwards from the singularity of the fall of Rome, through which light is gradually restored to the dark corners of the western world, across the fields of learning, government, religious belief and practice, art, craft, and economic prosperity.

Far from denying the need for a Renaissance on first principles, then, medievalists frequently try to claim its glories for themselves. Trumping the assertions of their later colleagues with the counterclaim that the early‐modernists are always already too late, the real Renaissance has already happened, centuries earlier, as they would have known if only they had the initiative (and the scholarly training) to look beyond the parameters of their own period‐bounded ghetto. The modern medievalist can thus appear rather like the predictable Anglo‐Indian patriarch in the BBC comedy show Goodness Gracious Me!, who, when shown any aspect of world culture from Superman to the British royal family, immediately claims its origins to be Indian. Ask a medievalist to identify the origins of multi‐cultural tolerance, and they will point confidently to the medieval period (did not Islamic Spain enjoy centuries of peaceful, productive coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews?). Ask who were the first protestants, and they will talk about the Hussites and Lollards. Humanism? Medieval. The discovery of the Individual? Medieval. The high point of women's economic and social independence before the twentieth century, or the finest triumphs of female spirituality, or of representative art? All medieval.

The historiography of the medieval period is thus littered with premature Renaissances (not to mention premature reformations, agrarian and industrial revolutions), all of which predate and redefine the traditional chronology. A brief survey of the (p. 728) scholarly literature of the last half‐century throws up a tenth‐century scholarly and religious Renaissance; an eleventh‐century scholarly Renaissance; a full‐blown twelfth‐century Renaissance in religion, art, and culture; a thirteenth‐century philosophical and spiritual Renaissance; and a fourteenth‐century musical Renaissance, each one being used by its advocates to pre‐empt aspects of the more familiar events of the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.3 All of which gives rise to the conclusion that, despite the anguished cries of many a recent writer to the contrary, if the Renaissance did not, infuriatingly, already exist, it would be necessary for medievalists to invent it. And they would have to conceive it, not as a sudden, unexpected irruption in late‐fourteenth‐century Italy, based on the rediscovery of a long‐dead ancient past, but as an ongoing process of renewal running through—and giving meaning to—an extended period of cultural renovation stretching from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. The Renaissance, it seems, has always been with us, and the medieval period, as a consequence, would barely seem to begin before it has to cede precedence to its successor.

This is not to argue, of course, that periodization is of no consequence, nor that modern descriptions of period boundaries bear no relation to past experience. Notwithstanding all those attempts to find evidence of ‘modernity’ (Renaissances, agrarian and industrial revolutions, discoveries of individual subjectivity) before the fifteenth century (and indeed to find evidence of ‘medieval’ attitudes and practices after the sixteenth), it would be perverse to deny that the medieval period did, at some point, give way to something (an epoch? A culture? A sensibility?) which was in crucial respects quite different. Indeed, in what follows I will follow those scholars who have argued that it is vital that we recognize that crucial aspects of the medieval world did end, abruptly and violently, at a particular moment in the mid‐sixteenth century, giving way to a new and quite distinct dispensation imposed by central government.4 This process marked a fundamental change in the nature of English culture and society, and its effects are as evident in English literature as they are in other aspects of elite and popular culture.

Is This the Promised End?

When the early Tudor poets Stephen Hawes and John Skelton looked back to the age of the great late‐medieval triumvirate of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, they did so with an affectionate, playful, familiarity. For Skelton, this trio were the master craftsmen of his own writerly trade, brother poets who had laboured to make the English language—his language—smooth, sweet and potent.5 In his Garland or Chaplet of Laurel (published in 1523), he imagines them approaching him, arm in arm, and inviting him to join their brotherhood. (p. 729)

  • I saw Gower, that first garnished our Englysshe rude,
  • And maister Chaucer, that nobly enterprysyd
  • How that our Englysshe myght fresshely be ennewed;
  • The monke of Bury then after them ensuyd,
  • Dane John Lydgate. Theis Englysshe poetis thre,
  • As I ymagenyd, repayrid unto me,
  • Togeder in armes, as bretherrn, enbrasid,
  • There apparel farre passynge beyonde that I can tell…6

Duly appreciative of their poetic achievements, clearly impressed by their modish clothing and seemingly unaware of any linguistic barrier to hamper their convivial conversation, the Tudor poet greets his medieval precursors with fraternal affection, quipping familiarly that ‘Thei wantid nothynge but the laurell’7—the laureate degree that Skelton himself possessed—to make their greatness complete.

When the next generation of English writers, John Leland and John Bale, and their successors, Philip Sidney, George Puttenham, John Stow, and William Camden, looked back to that same late medieval period, they did so as if to an age lost in the mists of time and barbarism—a foreign country in which they did things very, indeed indefensibly, differently.8 They saw not stylish poets inhabiting a courtly world much like their own, but something akin to noble savages, toiling instinctively against the superstitious ignorance of their age to produce a pale pre‐figuration of the truths which their Tudor critics held to be self‐evident. Even Chaucerian English, the tongue that seemed so sweet and smooth to Skelton, appeared to his Elizabethan editors to be rather rough and awkward—or so they said. In part, of course, this was Protestantism talking. Although the philological experiments of the later sixteenth century also played their part, Chaucer's alleged linguistic rudeness was seen primarily as a product of the doctrinal backwardness of his times. A good man in a catholic age,9 he could achieve only so much before running up against the limitations of his culture, and thus had to wait patiently, like the pious pagans in Limbo, for the light of a later age to redeem his understandable blindness. The Elizabethan commentators said the same about Skelton and Hawes' own language, then still only sixty years old.10 But that did not stop one of the most modish of them, Edmund Spenser, (p. 730) admiringly pastiching their aureate, alliterating diction to great acclaim in his Shepherd's Calendar and The Faerie Queene.

What divided Spenser, Sidney, Bale, and Camden from Skelton, Hawes, Chaucer, and Gower was, of course, the Reformation and the cultural revolution that it ushered in during the tumultuous middle third of the sixteenth century. As the recent work of James Simpson, Brian Cummings and others has suggested, the consequences of this ‘violent fissure’ in British cultural life provoked by Henry VIII's break with Rome can be detected as readily in the literary production of the period as in its religious practice or human geography.11 Unlike those other phenomena that have been used to date the end of the medieval period—the rise of humanist learning, ‘the discovery of the individual’ or the advent of a ‘new monarchy’ under Henry VII—the Reformation was no abstract concept but a series of all too real events, violent and terrifying in their impact, and almost universal in their consequences across the social, economic, and cultural fabric of the realms they affected, principally England and Wales from the mid‐1530s and Scotland from 1560—although, like all social and cultural changes, they were felt to different degrees and within a different timescale in different parts of the realm.

The Dismantling of Catholic Culture

The crucial markers of incipient ‘modernity’ which a previous generation of sixteenth‐century historians saw as the definitive ‘revolutionary’ achievements of the Tudors: a more impersonal, bureaucratic style of government, a clear division between the royal household and the public administration, a stronger and more independent House of Commons: each of these has been shown to have been either a short‐lived or largely illusory achievement.12 Both Henry VII and his son remained personal monarchs, gathering and exercising political power in their own persons, and their courts remained the crucial arena for both social and governmental activity. If by the end of the sixteenth century the central administration was larger, then this was because it was being given more business to do by the Crown, not because it was growing on its own initiative as a counterweight to the monarch in the running of the State. And most of that increased business was itself a consequence of the Reformation. The Middle Ages, it is now accepted, were not killed of by administrative reforms or the rise of modern, more representative institutions of government.

It was Henry VIII's monumental, unprecedented decision to break with Rome, to ‘nationalize’ control of the Church in England in his own hands, and enforce the imposition of changes of religious belief and practice upon each and every one of his (p. 731) subjects that was the decisive event of the sixteenth century, and the crucial factor which convinced Leland and Camden that they were living in a radically different world to that inhabited by their predecessors Chaucer and Skelton. Over the course of a decade, Henry redrew the cultural landscape of the realm by dissolving the English monasteries, priories, abbeys, and nunneries, removing their highly visible denizens—monks, friars, and nuns in their distinctive habits—from the social fabric of towns and countryside alike. Similarly, he overturned the belief systems that had sustained generations of English men and women when he dismantled the ‘idolatrous’ shrines, reliquaries, images, and icons that had been a fundamental focus of popular piety in both cathedrals and parish churches, banned pilgrimages, and hedged prayers to saints around with strict injunctions against particularism, literalism, and the kind of local cults that saw more efficacy in praying to a saint in one place than in another. And what was not reformed out of existence by Henry was removed by the administration of his son, the ‘godly imp’ Edward VI.

Henrician policy did not destroy these things at a single stroke; rather, it was careful to do so only by stages, criticizing abuses before moving on to attack the practice itself in a manner that has prompted at least one scholar to see the king as motivated by a consistently ‘Erasmian’ reforming spirit.13 But beneath the liberal rhetoric one might suspect a rather more determined and fundamentalist intention. Thus the Ten Articles, the set of religious protocols issued in 1536, while appearing simply to clarify the reasons why it remained laudable to pray to saints, actually cut away the foundations of the culture which prompted folk to do so, declaring,

it is very laudable to pray to saints in heaven everlasting living, whose charity is ever permanent, to be intercessors, and to pray for us and with us unto Almighty God…so be it done without any vain superstition, as to think that any saint is more merciful, or will hear us sooner than Christ, or that any saint doth serve for one thing more than another, or is patron of the same.14

Thus the kinds of local identification with—and affection for—particular saints or sites of miraculous events that were at the heart of saintly cults and provided the motivation for pilgrimages were quietly but firmly removed, even as the practices themselves were seemingly authorized and commended. And, later that same year, the Injunctions issued by Thomas Cromwell, Henry's vicegerent‐in‐spirituals, glossed the Articles in a still more positively reformist fashion, instructing bishops and preachers that,

to the intent that all superstition and hypocrisy, crept into divers men's hearts, may vanish away, they shall not set forth or extol any images, relics or miracles [of any saint] for any superstition or lucre, nor allure the people by any enticements to the pilgrimage of any saint, otherwise than is permitted in the articles…as though it were proper or peculiar to the saint to give this commodity or that, seeing all goodness, health and grace ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as the very author of the same, and of none other.15

(p. 732)

Thus criticism of the notion of patron saints and local cults quickly gave way to criticism of praying to saints more generally. Rather than promote their cults, all preachers should,

Exhort as well their parishioners as other pilgrims, that they do rather apply themselves to the keeping of God's commandments and fulfilling of His works and charity, persuading them that they shall please God more by the true exercising of their bodily labour, travail or occupation, and providing for their families, than if they went about to the said pilgrimages, and that it shall profit more their soul's health if they do bestow that on the poor and needy which they would have bestowed upon the said images or relics.16

A second set of Injunctions, issued in 1538, ratcheted up the critical rhetoric a further notch, instructing the clergy to,

Exhort your hearers to the works of charity, mercy and faith, specially persuaded and commanded in Scripture, and not to repose their trust or affiance in any other works devised by men's [f]antasies besides Scripture, as in wandering to pilgrimages, offering of money, candles or tapers to images or relics, or kissing or licking the same, saying over a number of beads, not understood or minded on, or in such‐like superstition; for the doing whereof ye not only have no promise of reward in Scripture, but contrariwise, great threats and maledictions of God, as things tending to idolatry and superstition.17

Such images that a priest or bishop knew ‘to be so abused with pilgrimages or offerings…ye shall, for the avoidance of that most detestable sin of idolatry, forthwith take down and destroy’.

These instructions were reiterated in a proclamation of 31 July 1547, one of the first issued on the authority of Edward VI, with the additional injunction that the clergy should now go further and,

Take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, covering of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trundles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments and feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in the walls, glasses, windows or elsewhere within the church or houses, and they shall exhort all their parishioners to do the like within their several houses. And that the churchwardens, at the common charge of the parishioners, in every church shall provide a comely and honest pulpit to be set in a convenient place within the same, for the wise preaching of God's word.18

Thus in little over a decade, an official religious culture in which saints might be prayed to with royal approval was replaced by one in which all material traces—all memories—of such practices were ordered to be destroyed. The nation was being asked collectively to forget things that had sustained belief and practice for centuries: effectively to dismantle both the physical and the mental architecture of medieval religious culture and to believe that its existence had been an aberration, built on superstition and ignorance.

Along with this assault upon the cult of the saints, came the erosion of royal endorsement of the idea of Purgatory, that ‘third place’ between Heaven and Hell to (p. 733) which the vast majority of fallen human beings, too sullied by sin to ascend directly to heaven, but saved by grace and the merits of their faith and works from condemnation to eternity in Hell, were believed to go to atone for their sins and await their eventual redemption. Again, the process of reform began with a qualification, but swiftly gave way to outright rejection.

The last and most far‐reaching of the Ten Articles of 1536 began with the declaration that, since there was good evidence for doing so in the Book of Maccabees, in the works of diverse ancient doctors, and in the long and continual practice of the Church,

it is a very good and charitable deed to pray for souls departed, and…also to cause other[s] to pray for them in masses and exequies, and to give alms to other[s] to pray for them, whereby they may be relieved and holpen of some part of their pains: but forasmuch as the place where they be, the name thereof, and kind of pains there, also be unto us uncertain by Scripture, therefore this with all other things we remit to Almighty God, unto whose mercy it is meet and convenient for us to commend them, trusting that God accepteth our prayers for them, referring the rest wholly to God, to whom is known their estate and condition.19

As a consequence of this, however, ‘it is necessary that such abuses be clearly put away, which under the name of Purgatory hath been advanced, as to make men believe that through the bishop of Rome's pardons souls might clearly be delivered out of Purgatory’, or that masses or prayers said in particular places had greater efficacy to aid the souls of the dead.

A similar process of softening up followed by expropriation brought about the dissolution of the chantries, those chapels founded to provide prayers and masses for individual donors or the members, living and dead, of collective bodies such as the trade and religious guilds and confraternities. In 1545, an Act of Parliament required that a survey be made of all chantries, reporting to the Court of Augmentations, the new body established by the Crown to deal with the property seized for the king from the dissolution of the monasteries, with a view to appropriating the assets of any of them discovered to be guilty of financial malpractice or in the process of being wound up independently by their founders.20 Henry died before the survey could be completed, but in the first year of his son's reign, a new act launched a more fundamental assault upon the entire institution. The Chantries Act of 1547 provided for the dissolution of all such institutions, citing in justification, the ‘great point of superstition and errors…brought into the minds and estimation of men…by devising and [f]antasising of vain opinions of Purgatory and masses satisfactory to be done for them which be departed, the which doctrine and vain opinion by nothing more is maintained and upholden than by the abuse of trentals, chantries and other provisions made for the continuance of the said blindness and ignorance’. Henceforth such revenues attached to the chantries should be appropriated by the Crown to be spent on ‘goodly and godly uses, as in erecting of grammar schools to the (p. 734) education of youth in virtue and godliness, the further augmenting of the universities and better provision for the poor and needy’.21

Alongside the chantries themselves, and the metaphysical communion with the generations of the dead in Purgatory which they represented and facilitated, went the social bodies which funded, serviced and benefited from those bodies, the ‘associational’ groupings seen by David Wallace as so fundamental a part of the cultural fabric of late medieval society.22 The same Act of 1547 empowered the King to ‘direct his…commissioners under the Great Seal of England to such persons as it shall please him…to survey all and singular lay corporations, guilds, fraternities, companies and fellowships of mysteries or crafts incorporate and every of them…and all the evidences, compositions, books of accompts and other writings of every of them, to the intent thereby to know what money and other things was paid or bestowed to the funding or maintaining of any priest or priests anniversary, or obits, or other like thing, lights or lamps’ And, from ‘the feast of Easter next coming, have and enjoy to him, his heirs, successors for ever, all fraternities, brotherhoods or guilds being within the realm of England and Wales, and other the King's dominions, and all manors, lands, tenements and other hereditaments pertaining to the said corporations.’ In total, as Wallace notes, some 2,374 fraternities, guilds and chantries were dissolved and their wealth transferred to the Crown as a consequence of this process.23

The stated aim was, as we have seen, to convert such ‘barren’ endowments to more productive uses: to fund schools and schoolmasters and other good works. Cultural resources that had been directed towards the past, to help the souls of the dead and so to provide for the future of the souls of the living when they themselves came to die, were now redirected to look exclusively forward, toward the young and their education: retrospection would seemingly give way to forward thinking. As Wallace notes, ‘the 1540s acts…were following a semi‐conscious economic logic in seeking to free up the capital invested, or buried, in the support of perpetual chantries’.24 And what the Act also sealed was an end to those spiritual continuities that had hitherto bound the generations of the living and the dead together in mutually supportive collaboration, and tied both to the mediation of the saints in heaven: the kind of fellowship indeed, celebrated in the opening lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with their evocation of the collective springtime urge to journey ‘from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury’ (ll. 15–16) to pray to St Thomas, who had helped them in their sickness—a mediator newly declared by a proclamation of 1538 to be no saint at all but a rebel and a traitor to his prince.25

What this legislation also engineered, as Wallace and Simpson have argued, was a centralization and simplification of the channels available for religious expression (p. 735) and practice, and an increased focus on the parish as the centre of local religious and social life. From this point onwards people who had previously provided for their spiritual welfare—and constituted their spiritual identities—through numerous collective associational forms which cut across the traditional boundaries of the parish and diocese, were reduced primarily to a single institutional body (the parish) which would form the focus of their spiritual identity, and a single diocesan disciplinary structure which would ensure their conformity.26 A popular religious culture hitherto characterized by a mild form of self‐regulatory anarchy was reduced to a new simplicity and order, just as within the churches themselves a colourful diversity of images and polyphony of sound was to give way to whitewashed walls and a focus on the biblical word. From one perspective, of course, this was progress, a necessary purging of spiritual functions for which (as the Articles and Injunctions asserted) there was no demonstrable biblical warrant, and their replacement by activities of manifest cultural utility: a tidying up of the doctrinal furniture. But the spiritual and cultural impact of the loss of the kind of numinous, mutually affective links between the living and the dead attested to not only in such grand literary works as Dante's Divine Comedy but on a more modest scale in texts such as Pearl, St Erkenwald, Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale or The Book of Margery Kempe remains almost impossible to calculate.27

Windows in Men's Souls

The doctrinal and practical changes of the mid‐sixteenth century were made all the more significant by the way in which they were carried out. For, unlike other reforming monarchs before him, Henry VIII insisted not only that his subjects acquiesced in his reforms, but that they actively subscribed to them, swearing oaths to uphold the new regime, support the Royal Supremacy in the Church and reject the usurped authority of the Pope—now downgraded in official rhetoric to merely ‘the bishop of Rome’.

This unprecedented intrusion into the thoughts and beliefs of his subjects claimed numerous direct victims among those men and women who were unwilling to subscribe to the legitimacy of his demands—whether because they thought those demands were too radical, as they were for catholic martyrs such as Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, or because they thought they were not radical enough, as they seemed to evangelical martyrs such as Robert Barnes and Anne Askew. One measure of Henry's tyranny can thus be found in the cartloads of victims (p. 736) taken to their deaths at Smithfield, Tyburn, or the Tower of London in the last fifteen years of his reign, or executed in the northern counties in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, the first large‐scale popular reaction against the Reformation. More subtle, but perhaps more far‐reaching, however, were the less visible changes brought about by those same demands in the habits of thought and expression among Henry's subjects. At a popular level one can detect a new anxiety to avoid the public expression of contentious opinions, a wariness of the kind of outspoken criticism of government policies, which brought unprecedented numbers to the attention of Thomas Cromwell in the later 1530s for speaking unwisely in the streets or alehouses.28 At a higher social level, among scholars and writers, there was a still more marked turn towards discretion, evident in the adoption of new forms and modes of writing more suitable for living under tyrannical scrutiny.29 The literary genres through which a previous generation of courtly writers had conventionally expressed their political aspirations and contributed to the intellectual culture of the court, genres based upon the concept of ‘counsel’—the giving of honest, critical advice to the monarch—began to die away in the course of the later 1530s, withering in the face of Henry's unwillingness to countenance anything that did not conform to his demands for absolute public and private obedience. In their place, poets and prose writers turned to genres forged in earlier periods of political oppression, chief among them the stoic poetry, prose and dramatic works of Horace, Plutarch, and Seneca, which advocated the withdrawal of the virtuous man from the political centre, and lauded the virtues of the life of the mind and of rural contemplation.30 These, and the savage satires of courtly life which grew from them, purporting to describe events in the distant past, but in reality commenting on experiences much nearer to home, were the forms that attracted courtier poets such as Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, and Sir Francis Bryan, and prose writers such as Sir Thomas Elyot in the last decade of Henry's reign: forms that allowed them to explore contemporary politics, freed from the need to address the sovereign as the idealized ‘first reader’ of any new work.

If, then, we are looking, for simplicity's sake, for a single date on which it might be said that the Middle Ages were brought to an end, 1547 has probably a stronger claim to that distinction than any other single year in the long sixteenth century. It was then that a spiritual dispensation that had underwritten social and cultural life in England for generations was officially erased from the nation's cultural memory, and beliefs that had been central to official and popular culture for centuries were declared definitively to be false, after a decade of official criticism and circumscription. Of course, epochs do not end so quickly or conveniently. And indeed, things would not have looked quite so clear‐cut even at the time. The process of reform took much longer to take hold in some places than in others, and many contemporary observers would probably have rejected the notion that the reforms imposed were either as (p. 737) pressing or as permanent as they were actually to prove. It might well have been possible as late as 1560, and certainly during the brief reign of the catholic Mary Tudor (1554–58), to hope—even to assume—that the Henrician and Edwardian reforms were merely a passing aberration, part of an ongoing renegotiation of jurisdiction and authority between the English Crown and Rome that would eventually be settled, returning things more or less to the status quo ante. But by the mid‐1560s it would probably have been clearer to most informed observers that a point of no return had already been passed, and such things as the chantries, the cults of the saints and the fraternities and guilds that sustained them would never return to the heart of English cultural life. In these respects at least, the medieval dispensation had passed, certainly in the south of England and in the major towns and cities of the realm, and with it had gone many of the beliefs and practices which are the subject of chapters in this book. What had taken their place is rather less clear. Was it the Renaissance, the Protestant world, early modernity, or a mixture of all three? Such questions will no doubt form the basis of further boundary disputes and definitional debates among scholars for many decades to come.


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(1) Patterson (1990); Aers (1992).

(2) Hattaway (2005: 6).

(3) Lapidge (2002); Bolgar (1958: 72–7); Swanson (1999); Thomson (1983); Burns (1985); Wathey (1993).

(4) See Simpson (2002); Wallace (1997); Walker (2005).

(5) Lerer (1993).

(6) Skelton (1983), ll. 387–94.

(7) Ibid., l. 397.

(8) Simpson (2002: 24–6). The precedent was set early in the Henrician reform process in the preface to William Thynne and Sir Brian Tuke's edn. of Chaucer's Works, printed in 1532, which noted that ‘it is much to be marvelled how in this time when doubtless all good letters were laid asleep throughout the world [that]…such an excellent poet in our tongue should, as it were nature repugning, spring and arise’. Chaucer (1532), fo. Aiii.

(9) See Sidney (1973: 133): ‘Chaucer undoubtedly did exceedingly in his Troilus and Criseyde; of whom, truly I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk so stumblingly after him. Yet he had great wants, fit to be forgiven in so reverent an antiquity.’

(10) See e.g. Whigham and Rebhorn (2007: 173): ‘Such were the rhymes of Skelton (usurping the name of a poet laureate), being indeed but a rude, railing rhymer, and all his doings ridiculous.’

(11) Cummings (1999: 851); Cummings (2002); Simpson (2002), (2007); Walker (2005).

(12) Elton (1953); Coleman and Starkey (1986); Starkey et al. (1987); Gunn (1995).

(13) Bernard (2005).

(14) Williams (1971: 803–4).

(15) Williams (1971: 806).

(17) ibid., p. 812.

(18) Hughes and Larkin (1964: 401).

(19) Williams (1979: 804–5).

(20) Scarisbrick (1984: 65–6, 113–19).

(21) Williams (1979: 775).

(22) Wallace (1997: pp. xiv–xv, 2, 83–9).

(23) Ibid. 103; Scarisbrick (1984: 85–8); Duffy (1994: 277–447).

(24) Wallace (1997: 92).

(25) Hughes and Larkin (1964: 276).

(26) Wallace (1997: 84); Simpson (2002: 1).

(27) See Andrew Galloway's chapter in this volume for the effects on dream‐vision writing of this severing of the links with the dead through the assault upon purgatory.

(28) Elton (1973), passim; Simpson (2002: 150).

(29) Lerer (1997); Walker (2005).

(30) Burrow (1999); Walker (2005), passim.