Saturday, December 09, 2017

Eamon Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars

This is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the impact of the English Reformation on the people of England in particular how they practised their religion and how they understood their world. Eamon Duffy is a master at mining church records for the minutiae of everyday life, as his wonderful book The Voices of Morebath showed. In The Stripping of the Altars he takes this to a new level, giving an over-view of a couple of centuries of change.

A key point that Duffy makes is that there is no "substantial gulf" between the religion of the clergy and the elite and the mass of the population. While the more well off may have had better religious books, nicer churches and so on, the actuality of how they worshipped and what they believed was near identical. Nor was this a period where the mass of the population was kept in ignorance while the ruling class had all the knowledge - one of the main arguments here is that there was wide knowledge of church doctrine. For instance, on the "eve of the Reformation" there were some 50,000 Books of Hours in circulation, many of them produced in cheap editions in continental "factories" aimed at a mass audience.

Duffy uses the phrase "traditional religion" to describe religious beliefs and practises before the Reformation. His detailed reconstruction of what this entails is fascinating. For instance, he shows how the life of rural villages was dominated by a "liturgical calendar". This had major implications for economic (agricultural) life, as there were "almost seventy days in the year when adults were obliged to fast" and numerous feast days when work was not permitted and the laity were expected to attend services. For the whole population the religious dynamic, its calendar, its sequence of religious services, the way that the church prepared its followers for life, and death, was central to how people lived. As Duffy notes, "for townsmen and countrymen alike, the rhythms of the liturgy on the eve of the Reformation remained the rhythms of life itself."

Duffy distances his analysis from those who saw within the traditional church a tendency to hold onto older, "pagan" practises. He shows how many beliefs, such as superstitions or astrology, where incorporated into religious practice. He also shows how the Protestant suppression of many aspects of traditional worship (Duffy uses a fascinating example of religious plays) helped to undermine wider knowledge of religious doctrine. Take the example of The Kalender of Shepherdes,  a book translated from French in the early 1500s. It was a "beautiful and an unmistakably lay book... an extraordinary mixture of calendrical, astrological and medical lore, together with orthodox religious instruction imaginatively presented". As Duffy points out, many clergy would have found the mix uncomfortable, but the popularity of the Kalender was in its ability to create an
assimilation into popular culture, by commercial publishers for a mass audience, of the official educational programme of the Church.... the Kalender certainly found a readership which would have considered unpalatable many more over didactic treatises, for it was common place of the time... that the people were often resistant to catechesis.
The pre-Reformation traditional religion that Duffy describes was an all encompassing explanation for the world as it was and how it would be. It's focus on death was not a morbid obsession with human mortality, but a response to a religious view that placed the afterlife as a key question for the living, and indeed often saw the dead as remaining connected to the living community. This is the importance of the question of indulgences that were exchanged for prayers etc. Some of the most fascinating aspects of Duffy's book are the chapters were he examines what death meant for people of the late Middle Ages and how it affected their everyday lives.

The second half of the book is a look at how the English Reformation played out. Here I felt the work wasn't as strong as the first half. This is not because Duffy's use of the historic material is weaker, in fact his detailed examination of what the Reformation meant in practice, in terms of changes to religious practices, the removal of feast and Saints days, changes to books and bibles and the physical alterations to religious spaces is fascinating and detailed. The weakness arises more out of Duffy's failure to see the Reformation as being linked to the changes taking place in the English economy. He does note in places the class content to the Reformation, and the way that how the Reformation proceeds is closely linked to the class interests of individuals. In places he does come close to this, so I would be wrong to completely dismiss Duffy's analysis here. For instance he writes
There can have been few if any communities in which Protestants formed anything like an actual numerical majority. The influence of the reform usually stemmed from the not always very secure social and economic prestige of its more prosperous or articulate adherents.
But this is to ignore the fact that the real influence of Protestants was making itself felt at a different level in society - some of the key figures in the English state. This is why the Reformation could proceed even though Henry VIII was a traditionalist at heart and why it could be reversed briefly under Mary's reign. When revolt did break out against the changes, such as the Prayerbook Rebellion or the Pilgrimage of Grace, what mattered for the ruling class was the mobilisation of armed bodies of men. Thus we have to see the Reformation in terms of the different class interests it represented and sadly I felt that Duffy is a little weak on this.

The Reformation took a long time. The changes that were driven through did not simply abolish the beliefs in peoples heads. The resurgence of Catholicism under Mary saw many worshippers gladly return to traditional practises. In many examples digging up the statues they'd hidden, rescuing the church cloths and candlesticks and re-writing their wills in ways that reflected their traditional beliefs. But the Reformation did eventually transform England's Church because it was closely linked to the development of a new economic system. Duffy sees the Protestant Church's success as being mostly due to the way that ordinary people responded, "By the end of the 1570s, whaever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believe d the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world."

This is true to a large extent. But England kept the Protestant faith as its official religion because its proponents where the new ruling class. For that to be cemented for good eventually required a revolution and the shattering of monarchical power for good.

Despite the weaknesses I think that Eamon Duffy's book has, I have no hesitation in recommending it anyone who wants to understand more about the Reformation and what it meant for ordinary people. It brings alive the lives and struggles of those who lived in villages across England whose world was shattered by the changes.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Voices of Morebath
MacCulloch - Reformation
Wilson - The People and the Book
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Monday, December 04, 2017

Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution

I chose to re-read Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution over November 2017, exactly one hundred years since the all to brief triumph of the Revolution it discusses. Doing so allowed me to reflect on what that Revolution meant, but also how it has been portrayed, interpreted and understood since.

You don't have to read much of Trotsky's book to see how inadequate the coverage of 1917 has been for the centenary. Trotsky's work is a masterpiece of literature, powerful writing combined with a Marxist clarity that gives an unrivalled historical perspective on the events of the Revolutionary year. As a result The History of the Russian Revolution reads like a novel, in fact its very structure feels at times like a fictional account as the author builds tension towards the climatic seizure of power. The book teams with passages that are quotable, but take this section describing the situation as power decisively shifts away from the "compromisers" and towards the Bolsheviks:
Kerensky... was confidently calculating that in case of danger the Central Executive Committee, in spite of all family misunderstandings, would come to his aid in time. It was so in July and in August. Why should it not continue so? But now it is no longer July and no longer August. It is October. Cold and raw Baltic winds from the direction of Kronstadt are blowing through the squares and along the quays of Petrograd.
Junkers in long coats to their heels are patrolling the streets, drowning their anxiety in songs of triumph. The mounted police are riding up and down, prancing, their revolvers in brand-new holsters. No. The power still looks imposing enough! Or is this perhaps an optical illusion? At a corner of the Nevsky, John Reed, an American with naïve and intelligent eyes in his head, buys a brochure of Lenin’s entitled 'Will the Bolsheviks Be Able To Hold the State Power?' paying for it with one of those postage stamps which are now circulating in place of money.
These two paragraphs demonstrate a couple of things about Trotsky's book. First is the way he manages to get across a real sense of the balance of class forces and how they shift and change throughout 1917. Secondly is the way that Trotsky builds tension and drama - the raw winds blowing from the base of the revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt towards Petrograd aren't just about the weather, and secondly Trotsky's ability to build narrative tension as the crisis deepens in Russia.

But it is Trotsky's historical account that is most important. Despite portraying himself in the third person (a writer's master stroke in my opinion) Trotsky eschews any attempt at an independent historical narrative - this is polemic. But it is polemic for two reasons - the first, and most obvious is that it is designed to arm and give confidence to socialists who are trying to build revolutionary organisation and look to the Russian Revolution for inspiration.

Closely linked to this is Trotsky's battle with Stalin. The History of the Russian Revolution was written towards the end of the 1920s and finished in 1930 and comes immediately after Trotsky's defeat by Stalin and his exile. Thus the book has to be understood as reassertion of Trotsky's principle political arguments against Stalin, in particular Trotsky's argument that "socialism in one country" was impossible. Thus some of the most important sections of the book do not actually deal with 1917 but with the historical context of Russia's economic development to the revolutionary years.

Trotsky explicitly sets this out in several appendices which he hopes that a tenth or hundredth of his readers will read in addition to the main account. Trotsky was setting out on his new task of finding handfuls of supporters who could rebuild the international socialist movement. His focus on the role of the Bolsheviks' here and how they related to the mass movements on the streets is a key part of the story and his polemic.

But the majority of readers will, as Trotsky acknowledged, read this book for its unrivalled historical account of 1917. It is a long and detailed book, which seems to have penetrating insights on every page. But it's length shouldn't intimidate - Trotsky's writing is clear, passionate and at times very funny. Take his hilarious thumb nail portraits of the Russian generals who would go on to form the basis of the counter-revolutionary White Terror:
An army is always a copy of the society it serves – with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme. It is no accident that the war did not create one single distinguished military name in Russia. The high command was sufficiently characterised by one of its own members: “Much adventurism, much ignorance, much egotism, intrigue, careerism, greed, mediocrity and lack of foresight” – writes General Zalessky – “and very little knowledge, talent or desire to risk life, or even comfort and health.” Nikolai Nikolaievich, the first commander-in-chief, was distinguished only by his high stature and august rudeness. General Alexeiev, a grey mediocrity, the oldest military clerk of the army, won out through mere perseverance. Kornilov was a bold young commander whom even his admirers regarded as a bit simple; Kerensky’s War Minister, Verkhovsky, later described him as the lion heart with the brain of a sheep. Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, but in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books. And after these came the Yudeniches, the Dragomirovs the Lukomskies, speaking French or not speaking it, drinking moderately or drinking hard, but amounting to absolutely nothing. First time readers might be surprised that some of the most fascinating chapters are those that deal not with the revolution but with the ruling class that was overthrown - Trotsky showing why their regime was ripe for collapse.
But ultimately this is a description of a year of revolutionary upheaval that involved millions of people in action. Trotsky never loses sight of that key fact - that the revolution was made by ordinary men and women, and he celebrates this fact at every stage. In fact by focusing on the ideas, slogans and demands of the factories and streets Trotsky is able to get to the heart of why the Bolsheviks were able to lead the working class to victory. This is a celebration of mass democracy, participation and revolutionary dynamism.

No other author does it as well as Trotsky's history and no one trying to understand 1917 can avoid reading this book. I first read this as a young socialist some 25 years ago. Re-reading it again a quarter of a century later I was struck by how fresh it felt, but also, how much of it I had retained and learnt from. Perhaps that's Trotsky's true legacy.

In the course of 2017 I've read or re-read a number of books related to the Revolutionary Year of 1917. Those reviews can be found here.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - On Britain
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Trotsky - 1905
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October