A Cautionary Tale
The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village
reviewed by Louis R. Tarsitano
There are, it seems to me, two arguably reasonable perspectives on the English Reformation. The one is that it was a bad thing that ought not to have happened; the other that it was a good thing that ought not to have been necessary. For the sake of full disclosure, Eamon Duffy, Reader in Church History at the University of Cambridge and President of Magdalene College, belongs to the former school of thought, and I to the latter.
But from either point of view, The Voices of Morebath is a marvelous book. The most eloquent passages are the work of Sir Christopher Trychay, vicar of the tiny Devonshire village of Morebath from 1520 until his death in 1574. During his long tenure, Sir Christopher (“sir” being an honorific for a non-graduate priest at the time) kept the parish accounts for the churchwardens, the “stores” or special funds, and the various pious guilds. These accounts, meant to be read in church after services at set times in the year, reflect both a pastor’s heart and the march of events beyond the control of either the vicar or people of Morebath.
Duffy’s achievement is to place the words of Sir Christopher into the historical context of local and national life before and during the Reformation, including the twists and turns of Tudor dynastic politics. While Duffy clearly sympathizes with Sir Christopher and his people in lamenting the passing of the old ways (and often the brutality with which they were extinguished), his interpretations of events are most often expressed in a modest, subjunctive way (“might,” “could,” “would”) that leaves room for honest disagreement. This modesty is all the more convincing, since it leaves the reader of any tendency unable to deny the distortions that Tudor policies, wars, and taxes brought to English life or the fact that they must be included as a significant factor in any honest history of the English Reformation.
The people and vicar of Morebath are a concrete reminder that the too-common “progressive” histories of the Reformation (“. . . and then the Middle Ages happily ended”) leave out too many crucial details. The meek and mild people of Morebath, for example, outfitted and sent five of their young men to fight in the doomed Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, a revolt against the Crown’s replacement of the medieval Latin services with an English Book of Common Prayer. Only two of these young men survived, the rest dying with at least 3,000 other young men from Devon and Cornwall.
One might recall that the sixteenth century knew little of religious tolerance and nothing of the separation of church and state (the English are still debating the establishment of the Church of England), but none of that makes the blood shed on either side of the Reformation struggles any less precious. Henry’s martyrs, Edward’s martyrs, Mary’s martyrs, and Elizabeth’s martyrs were still martyrs, if not all martyrs for the same cause. And it is touching to read of lesser sorrows, as when the vicar and people of Morebath did their not always successful best to protect their vestments, vessels, and holy books from confiscation by the Crown.
And yet, in the latter years of Sir Christopher’s service, a change did take place. He and his people did conform their ways to the reformed religion of the Church of England, and in a manner that speaks more of humility and obedience than of expediency. One might argue that the vicar and his people had simply been worn down over time. Another might insist that the acceptance of the English service as a means of grace and as a part of the life of Morebath was the real Reformation.
“Exhausted submission” and “gradual conversion” are the natural alternatives of the Reformation debate, at least as far as England is concerned, along with the competing estimates of what was lost and what was gained in the process. In The Voices of Morebath, Duffy demonstrates that this debate can be conducted honorably and with charity, and by giving voice again to Sir Christopher and his people, he admonishes the ideological enthusiasts who never count the costs of change to real people.
If anything, The Voices of Morebath is a cautionary tale for today. Every “progressive” theorist with a plan for re-inventing Christianity is as ready to stop his ears against our living “voices of Morebath” as any Tudor monarch ever was. If we consider only the present chaos of Christianity in the English-speaking world, at least two details must strike us almost at once.
First, if the English Reformation had never happened, but Vatican II had (as applied by the Roman hierarchies in the English-speaking nations), Sir Christopher and his people might have been spared, but their twentieth-century successors would have suffered the same dislocations and deprivations, minus the sixteenth-century bloodshed. I actually own a Latin Missal saved from destruction by a sacristan friend of mine and entrusted to my care.
Second, a significant number of the sons of the English Reformation have become addicted to change itself. Whatever the Scripture and the Church have been for, they are against, in an inversion of Vincent of Lerins’s definition of the catholic faith as that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
Neither species of progressivism deserves to be called “catholic” or “reformed.” It may well be that the true opposites are tradition and ideological “progress.” The Voices of Morebath supplies much food for thought as we sort out our own loyalties in today’s struggles for Christian truth.
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“A Cautionary Tale” first appeared in the October 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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