Sites of Change in Reformation England
'Sites of Change' was a one day conference at the University of Warwick, organised by
third-year PhD students Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis. It was held on 23 February
2008 and was generously funded by the Humanities Research Centre and the Economic
History Society, plus sponsorship from publishers including Ashgate, Boydell and OUP.
It was very well attended with around sixty delegates, including established scholars as
well as postgraduate students.
The conference explored the ways in which people adapted to religious change in
Reformation-era England, recognising at the outset the diversity of the overlapping
religious cultures that sheltered under the broad umbrella of English Popular Religion. It
considered how the same physical and intellectual environment could give rise to such a
disparate range of religious identities, and investigated some of the shared sites and
cultural practices that contributed to this process. Thus the conference was conceived as
a multi-disciplinary event, featuring papers from Literary Studies, Musicology, Art
History and History. The 'Sites' of the conference title thus referred to the senses,
physical spaces and intellectual concepts which contributed to the full range of early
modern individual religious experiences, and to the academic disciplines through which
we explore them today.
Professor Alexandra Walsham opened the conference with a keynote paper on the impact
of the Reformation on the wider landscape of the British Isles, examining how the
development of Protestantism affected perceptions and practices associated with the
world of trees, woods, springs, caves and mountain peaks. An underlying assumption
was that the landscape acts as a site of social memory, undergoing reinterpretation and
appropriation over the course of time. Professor Walsham argued that although reform
undermined the memories of the Catholic past for which the landscape was a repository,
it also helped to create new legends and myths about it. The reform of the landscape was
not a straightforward process, but involved destruction and preservation, pragmatic
accommodation and cultural modification. Using evidence gathered from antiquarian
writings and later folklore, she was able to demonstrate that stories about the landscape
were not simply evidence of survivalism – vestiges of popery or even paganism – but that
that a new set of topographical traditions emerged in post-Reformation Britain.
Musicologist Dr. Roger Bowers began the first panel session with a paper on the parish
church chancel, describing how reform resulted in the abolition of the means offered by
the historic Latin liturgy for men and boy parishioners to participate in the actual
presentation of the liturgical service. He suggested that the introduction of the Books of
Common Prayer in 1552 and 1559 had a devastating effect on the tradition of lay
participation in the musical life of the church. Dr. Anne Dillon followed this with a
discussion of two block-books produced by Richard Verstagan in the early 1580s.
Providing an insight into the persecuted Catholic minority, Dr. Dillon was able to
demonstrate the complex iconography that was employed to construct post-Reformation
martyrdom, and communicate a sense of the English landscape and community
transformed by the Reformation. In these images the Catholic laity suffer an assault upon
family and home and are branded as traitors, an experience which is related to wider
religious themes of suffering and redemption through the use of subtle visual cues
scattered throughout the images.
The second panel session saw Professor Brian Cummings deliver a lively paper on the
tormented issue of Shakespeare’s religion through an examination of place in several of
his plays. Using the themes of fairies and the pastoral Professor Cummings posed
questions about the elusive nature of Shakespeare’s sense of place, the insistent but
transient interest in landscape, the sense of the past that this evoked and its relationship
with the religious nostalgia of the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth. Dr. Tara Hamling
then gave a paper on the place of image and object in the Protestant domestic interior,
investigating the widespread fashion for religious imagery in the decoration of walls,
ceilings and chimneypieces in larger town and country houses throughout England. She
demonstrated that the choice of iconography and material represented a degree of
continuity with the pre-Reformation past, but that the imagery was also used to support
specifically Protestant practices of household religious observance. There was an explicit
connection between Protestant devotional and conduct literature and domestic imagery,
so the later placed spiritual concerns at the heart of domestic life, regulating behaviour
and habits of thought and prompting pious meditation.
Professor Patrick Collinson introduced the closing round table. He reflected on the
current state of Reformation historiography and identified two recent trends, ‘the return
of confessionalism’ and ‘the transcendence of confessionalism’. With regard to the first
theme Professor Collinson lauded the recent interest in all aspects of religious cultures
within England, particularly the reassessment of pre-Reformation culture and the postReformation Catholic community. He combined this with a gentle reminder not to pursue
these new avenues of research at the expense of continuing research into mainstream
Protestant religion, in all its forms. The latter theme Professor Collinson felt was a
promising and potentially very fruitful development, which had resulted in the lines
between Catholicism and Protestantism being blurred and finessed. Investigations of
subject matter as diverse as iconography, landscape, material culture, print, angels, and
music mean that this is ‘an extraordinarily exciting time’ in reformation studies, and
‘Sites of Change’ had captured this spirit.
The wide-ranging discussion prompted by Professor Collinson’s comments provided the
opportunity for debate on the post-revisionist moment, the relationship between religious
exiles and the English laity, English exceptionalism, confessionalisation, the question of
whether ‘appropriation’ is a symptom of continuity or change, the internal contradictions
that sometimes typify confessional identities, and the nature of the ‘Long’ Reformation.
The conference was ultimately successful in achieving its aims as it gave different
disciplinary practitioners the opportunity to co-operate with each other in an attempt to
further illuminate the mental universe of the early modern laity.