Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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30 thoughts on “Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating, FictionFan! It sounds a lot more comprehensive than the usual discussions of the Reformation. And I like it that Marshall also looks at the way ‘the rest of us’ thought bout, and lived out, Catholicism and then Protestantism. I always feel I learn a lot about history when an author’s focus is as much ‘regular’ people as it is the ‘movers and shakers.’

    • I liked that he didn’t concentrate exclusively on the Royals and the powerful too – it’s often much more interesting to try to get a feel for how “ordinary” people reacted to these events, although much harder for historians to find out!

  2. This sounds fascinating. You’re right that so much of what’s written about the English Reformation is from a political perspective so this would be interesting to read more about the religious aspect of it all.

    • I liked that aspect very much – it made me more aware of it as an actual religious movement than simply as Henry trying to get divorced, etc. Since you undoubtedly know far more about religion than me, you might not find yourself bogged down as I occasionally did – I’d still love somebody to write a comprehensive but simple history of the religious aspects one day though. I always feel historians have a tendency to focus on events rather than the underlying thought…

      • I’m not sure I would say I know much about English reformation history – at least not beyond Henry getting divorced! Even within the Anglican Church I don’t recall learning much about it. Most of my knowledge comes from studying history in university and as you say the focus was on events more so than thought.

        • I’ve read bios of Luther and Knox but again they both concentrated more on the events in their lives than on the thought-processes that led them towards Reformation. I probably know a bit more about the Scottish Reformation than the English, but not much…

          • I know almost nothing about the Scottish Reformation, beyond the fact that John Knox was involved. When we visited Germany I was surprised by how present Luther and the reformation still was for Christians and the church there. I wonder if it’s similar in English/Scottish churches. Over here it really feels like ancient history rather than something we focus on in church today. As you say, a history that focuses on the thought and religious ideas behind the various reformations could be very interesting!

            • The Scottish one is much more aligned with the German one, I think, although our Church is always described as Calvinist rather than Lutheran – I wish I knew what the difference was! I’m ambivalent about the Scottish one. Knox’s Church got a real stranglehold on the country for centuries, and used their power for good and ill. They were heavily influential in keeping the social order in place, and so kept us socially backward in a lot of ways, and ensured the poor didn’t get ideas above their station. There was a lot of Repent, Ye Miserable Sinner stuff, and God was more to be feared than loved. On the other hand, they strongly promoted education for the poor, so that we were one of the most literate societies in the world, leading to great schools and universities and the Scottish Enlightenment. And oddly led also to a disproportionate pre-eminence in science which in the end may have contributed to the dramatic decline in faith. We were still obsessed by the whole thing till probably mid-20th century if our literature is anything to go by, but I think it’s faded into the background over recent years.

            • The whole “repent, sinner” thing is very Calvinist, from my understanding of it. There’s also a lot about predestination and free will that greater theologians than I debate endlessly but goes along with Calvin’s teachings. Unfortunately, the church using their power for good and ill is a recurrent theme across the world.

            • Oh, yes, classic Scottish literature is absolutely steeped in questions of predestination and free will – and Calvinism vs Catholicism in general. That’s partly why I’d like to understand the underlying theologies more deeply – sometimes the books are a bit obscure if you don’t have a reasonable grounding in it all.

    • Yes, it felt odd in the beginning that the Tudors weren’t the focus, but I really enjoyed that aspect of getting to know about it from a different perspective. Hope your husband enjoys it! 😀

  3. This is a bit of a daunting read to be sure, but I like how you left a few weeks to let is soak in. Question fo you: do you review every book you read on this blog? And do you ever opt-out to review a book if you’ve left too long of a time between reading it? If I haven’t gotten to writing a review within a few weeks of reading the book, I generally don’t review the book at all in fear I’ve ‘forgotten’ too much about it, but maybe I’m being hasty?

    • I review every book I finish and some that I abandon, but only if I’ve read enough to have anything worth saying. With factual books, I take extensive notes as I go, so can leave a gap before writing my review, but I need to review fiction quickly or it disappears from my memory. I do find reading other reviews on Goodreads is usually enough to remind me of the book though, if all else fails! I’ve got one at the moment, Heart of Darkness, that I left so long I couldn’t write a review and now I’m going to have to re-read it… 😫

    • Thank you! 😀 I was pleased that it didn’t focus completely on the Tudors – gave me a different impression of the whole thing as something real people were involved and interested in, rather than just the high and mighty playing games…

  4. An interesting review of what sounds like a book full of detail FF. This is a period of history I do know quite well but as you say unless you are studying in depth, I expect it is hard to digest all those names and keep the overall picture in sight – it sounds as though the overall experience was a good one though!

    • A little too much detail for my poor brain to handle! Yes, I think it’ll be really useful for students and academics, but something shorter might work better for casual readers. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I learned just as much from CJ Sansom’s Tombland and had a good deal more fun in the process… 😉

  5. Well, that’s a surprising topic for you to have chosen, talk about broadening your mind! If you ever get on a quiz show you’ll win your fortune. Interesting review, but I don’t think the book is for me.

  6. Maybe I’m remembering my history wrong, but I thought a big part of the reformation was the backlash against the Catholic church, which, at the time, was allowing people to give money to to the church to get rid of their sins. Thus, you get Martin Luther splitting of with Protestantism and the king going for it because he could divorce his wife. To be fair, I often conflate my history knowledge.

    • Yes, the backlash against the abuses of the Catholic church had a lot to do with it, but Henry didn’t really go all the way to Protestantism – he mostly just wanted to break with Rome. So there were decades of gradual moves back and forwards till England got to Protestantism. Henry was even apparently toying with going back to Rome just before he died. So this was interesting to see how the people who were actually more concerned about theology just battled on at levels below the monarchy, if that makes sense.

      • That does make sense! Thanks for giving me more information. I wish I had learned more about history in high school. Granted, I took all the history and I paid attention, but if all the focus is on dates I don’t really learn well. Part of that maybe that I’m quite dyslexic with numbers.

        • I never remember dates, or names, or other details, which made history exams quite tricky! But I’ve got a pretty good memory for the kinda underlying causes and effects of historical events.

  7. This book sounds fascinating, I’ll definitely be checking it out. I’m always looking for my next read and this sounds like it’s right up my alley. I haven’t read anything by Peter Marshall but your review of this book has convinced me to give this a look, as its written from a perspective I don’t often see.

    • This was the first book of his that I’d read too, and it was indeed an interesting perspective. Nice to hear about someone other than those pesky Tudors when it comes to the Reformation… 🙂

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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