The Stripping of the Altars

The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 is a work of history written by Eamon Duffy and published in 1992 by Yale University Press.

The Stripping of the Altars
AuthorEamon Duffy
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectEnglish Reformation
Roman Catholicism in Great Britain
PublisherYale University Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN0-300-06076-9 (paperback)

Summary of the book's argumentEdit

While its title suggests a focus on iconoclasm, with an allusion to the ceremony of stripping the Altar of its ornaments in preparation for Good Friday, its concerns are broader, dealing with the shift in religious sensibilities in English society between 1400 and 1580. In particular, the book is concerned with establishing, in intricate detail, the religious beliefs and practices of English society in the century or so preceding the reign of Henry VIII.

The main thesis of Duffy's book is that the Roman Catholic faith was in rude and lively health prior to the English Reformation. Duffy's argument was written as a counterpoint to the prevailing historical belief that the Roman Catholic faith in England was a decaying force, theologically spent and unable to provide sufficient spiritual sustenance for the population at large.

Taking a broad range of evidence (accounts, wills, primers, memoirs, rood screens, stained glass, joke-books, graffiti, etc.), Duffy argues that every aspect of religious life prior to the Reformation was undertaken with well-meaning piety. Feast days were celebrated, fasts solemnly observed, churches decorated, images venerated, candles lit and prayers for the dead recited with regularity. Pre-Reformation Catholicism was, he argues, a deeply popular religion, practised by all sections of society, whether noble or peasant. Earlier historians’ claims that English religious practice was becoming more individualised (with different strata of society having radically different religious lives) is contested by Duffy insisting on the continuing ‘corporate’ nature of the late medieval Catholic Church, i.e. where all members were consciously and willingly part of a single institution.

The second part of Duffy's book concentrates on the accelerated implementation of Protestantism in the mid sixteenth century. It charts how society reacted to Henrician, Edwardian and Elizabethan reform and the changes in religious practice this entailed. Duffy uncovers a succession of records, notes and images that individually reveal an assortment of changes to liturgy and custom but taken together build up to demonstrate a colossal change in English religious practice.

So we see how candlesticks and church plate had to be melted down and sold off, altar tables removed, rood screens defaced or torn down and chasubles unstitched. How walls were whitewashed, relics discarded and paintings of saints hidden in parishioners’ houses. And we also read how the other aspects of the Catholic community, such as the guild groups or particular local feast days, quickly collapsed without the economic or religious practices on which they depended. It was a painful process for Catholics, and Duffy vividly illustrates the confusion and disappointment of Catholics stripped of their familiar spiritual nourishment. (One of Duffy's later studies, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, focuses on how one particular Devon village reacted to these changes.)

Duffy also uses to the second section to highlight the brief flame of optimism felt by Catholics ignited by the reign of the Catholic Mary from 1553 to 1558, a flame quickly extinguished by Mary's death. But ultimately, the Marian reign is a secondary issue. Duffy's narrative demonstrates how centuries of religious practice evaporated in the face of fierce centralist control.

Critical receptionEdit

Upon its publication, the book was hailed by many as original and persuasive account of English Catholicism in the Late Middle Ages. Writing in the New York Review of Books, British historian Maurice Keen stated,

Perhaps it takes an Irishman to offer Englishmen (and others) a convincing picture of the religion of the ordinary lay people of England in the age before the Reformation. ...The evocation of [medieval Roman Catholicism,] that older, pre-Reformation tradition and of what its observances meant to the laity of its time is the theme of the first part of Dr. Duffy's deeply imaginative, movingly written, and splendidly illustrated study.[1]

Others expressed a more ambivalent attitude. Writing in the London Review of Books, Susan Brigden praised the first part of the book as a "splendid achievement" despite occasional instances of "special pleading" in favor of late medieval Catholocism.[2] Regarding the second half of the book covering the Reformation, however, Brigden was more critical: "with the advance of reform Duffy is hardly concerned. The power and, for many, the truth of the central doctrines of Protestantism are never admitted; nor are the spiritual doubts that assailed many Catholics."[3]

In a review of a new edition published in 2005, The Atlantic the magazine's literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, called it

[A] vigorous and eloquent book, a work of daring revision and a masterpiece of the historical imagination.... At once meticulous and lush, The Stripping of the Altars patiently and systematically recovers the lost world of medieval English Catholicism. ...[W]hile the first two-thirds of this book is a deeply textured work of historical anthropology, the last third is a gripping narrative history, as Duffy traces the way the English Reformation (a process supported by a tiny minority, and deeply if ineffectively opposed by a population cowed by the new and crushing force of the monarchy) eradicated a thousand years of tradition and ritual. ... Duffy's most significant contribution by far is to elucidate the fragility of even deeply rooted ways of life: he convincingly demonstrates that for better or worse, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past"—a past that over merely three generations became a distant world, impossible for them to look back on as their own.[4]

Unlike Schwarz, however, many historians found Duffy's narrative of the Reformation unconvincing. Ronald Hutton criticised Duffy's neglect of unpublished sources and his 'selective blindness in his treatment of colleagues and sources'.[5]

Similarly, W. Brown Patterson asked

'If late medieval religion was as vigorous as Duffy maintains, why did the English Reformation occur? The answer he gives is that Henry VIII's breach with Rome was politically inspired and was aimed at resolving his matrimonial difficulties. But, if this was so, how and why did England become Protestant and, eventually Anglican?[6]


  1. ^ New York Review of Books, Sept. 23, 1993
  2. ^ London Review of Books, 27 May 1993
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ The Atlantic, Oct. 2005
  5. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1993). "Review of The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400—1580". The Journal of Theological Studies. 44 (2): 762–764. ISSN 0022-5185.
  6. ^

Further readingEdit