Monday, September 04, 2017

Robert Whiting

For every few novels I read, I like to return to my roots and make my way through a book focused on the early modern period in Europe. And having just finished The Blind Devotion of the People, Robert Whiting's insightful analysis of the Reformation in Devon and Cornwall, I can safely say: there's nothing quite like a good work of history. 

Whiting argues that the state of Catholic practice in England was strong on the eve of reform: there were exceptions, of course, but the large part of England's population adhered to Catholic dogma, including to its perceived powers of spiritual intersession. 

All of this changed, however, with the advent of the Henrician church. Whereas the large majority of the English in 1530 directed money in their wills toward prayers and masses, for instance, twenty years later, this practice had almost entirely ceased. Whiting writes often of the near total decline of financial "expenditure" funneled toward the "apparatus [of] traditional rites."   

This was about more, therefore, than the dissolution of the monasteries and the attack on Catholic objects: what Whiting has uncovered in the Southwest is a collapse of the financial rhythms of early modern Englishmen. Monies once directed toward to the clergy and local parishes were now be conveyed elsewhere: to the poor, to the crown, to enterprise. This, Whiting argues, marked a profound moment: it was a time when knowledge emerged as a counterpoint to devotion.

But knowledge did not a Protestant make, and Whiting is clear that the decline of Catholicism did not yield the birth of Protestantism, nor the birth of a Protestant nation. In practice, he writes, "the Reformation was less a transition from one form of religious commitment to another than a descent from a relatively high level of devotion into conformism, inactivity, and even disinterest." 

Whiting is careful not to overstate the case: because while some Englishmen may have been attracted by Protestant belief, the large majority were motivated by what Whiting labels "non-spiritual motivations." These included coercion by the state, xenophobia, financial opportunity, and increasingly "secular compulsions." 

The Blind Devotion of the People is an exceptional work of history: concise, clearly written, and packed with evidence. It's the work of a historian at the height of his powers, cognizant of just how complex this period was. In the end, Whiting shows how easy it is to destroy, but how challenging it can be to build: by 1570, only 10% of the English population remained actively Catholic, but an equally small percentage could be considered meaningfully Protestant. The rest were stuck in the middle: passive and indifferent, he asserts. 

To which I might add another condition: confused. Blind devotion -- one of the primary bequests of the medieval period -- proved a difficult phenomenon to overcome, even with the support of the early modern state.


  1. To the extent that the Reformation did away with the notion of Purgatory, it is not surprising that the bequests for prayers and Masses (did the early Church of England generally use that term?) should have fallen off: even the testator believed in them, it might have put his executor at risk to apply the moneys according to the will.

    I know a monk, aged now I suppose about 80, who is according to Rome the abbot of Tewksbury. Things being as they are, the title brings neither responsibilities nor revenues.

  2. Thanks for the note, George. Regarding the abbot Tewksbury: as Whiting would have it, 1530 was the beginning of the end...