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Remembering the Reformation

Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of York

The Reformation was a pivotal event in the history and heritage of England, Europe and the world. Professor Brian Cummings, one of the leaders of a three-year ‘Remembering the Reformation’ project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, explains that ‘what we are remembering and how or why, is still a question that readily creates division or consternation.’

It may be felt that the Reformation is not in much need of recall. The map of Europe is still shaped by it, and its global consequences are never buried too far down in the daily news. Next year sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Church in 1517. Germany has been convulsed with plans to mark the occasion for several years, while some of us can still remember the complexity of the East German response to the anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983, just before the fall of Communist Europe; and Cardinal Ratzinger’s part in the various rapprochements between Catholic and Protestant theologians over ‘Justification by Faith’ in the same period. However, what we are remembering, and still more how or why, is still a question that readily creates division or consternation.

In the last generation, ‘memory’ has become one of the prime focuses of public concern with the past. The Holocaust Memorial Day of 27 January not only registers the need for reflection on the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and subsequent genocides around the world. It also marks the place of oral and written testimony in the making of history in the late twentieth century and today. Trauma leaves its mark on the very idea of the past, and its intersection with the present, as is readily visible also in the many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, such as in Chile in 1991, or in post-apartheid South Africa in 1996.

Over the last few decades, there has been a surge of important interdisciplinary work on how societies remember, often focused upon the two World Wars. There now exists a sophisticated theoretical literature on this subject, which has clarified the nexus between subjective experience and cultural practice, and investigated the roles of historical invention and selective amnesia in the forging of social identity.

Trauma relates readily to the post-Reformation period: from the German Peasants’ War of 1525, to the persecutions of Protestants under Mary I or Catholics under Elizabeth I; to the sack of Magdeburg in 1631; or the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649. However, the various Reformations are also marked by volatile processes of change. England, it may be said, experienced five Reformations between 1534 and 1558, each reversing the religious policy of the last.

What effect does this have on collective social memory? How do different generations respond to such a fluid experience of the past? Our project compares triumphant and failed Reformations, considering the processes of forgetting as well as remembering, denial or suppression or invention of memory, as well as commemoration. We will investigate memory over a long period and a wide geography. Our interest is in more than remembrance. We focus on objects as well as texts, places as well as people, on bodily memory as well as mental. Part of our interest is a theoretical reflection on the psychology of early modern memory.

The Remembering the Reformation project, jointly based in the University of Cambridge’s faculty of history and the department of English & related literature at the University of York, has a dual focus, First it uses Britain as a laboratory to explore the manner in which memory of the Reformation emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was an era in which a generation of eyewitnesses to, and participants in, the Reformation gave way to generations whose memory of them was not formed by personal experience but by texts, images, artefacts, rituals and oral traditions. The second objective is to set these developments within a wider European perspective. The mid-point of the project is timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses in 2017.

The project is divided into four strands, each led by one member of the Team: Lives and Afterlives (Dr Ceri Law, AHRC research associate, Cambridge); Events and Temporalities (Dr Bronwyn Wallace, AHRC research associate, York); Objects, Places and Spaces (Professor Alexandra Walsham, Cambridge); Ritual, Liturgy and the Body (Professor Brian Cummings, York). The Team is completed by our administrator, Dr Thomas Taylor (Cambridge).

Remembering the Reformation was officially launched at York’s Humanities Research Centre on 28 January 2016 with a public lecture by Professor Eamon Duffy (Cambridge) . This was followed the next day by a public masterclass, ‘Objects and memories’, showing artefacts from the Collections of York Minster. Forthcoming events will include a Workshop on Remembering the English Reformation at York in October 2016 and an international conference at Cambridge in 2017 on Remembering the European Reformations; Public Lectures by Professor James Simpson (Harvard), and Diarmaid MacCulloch (Oxford); a post-graduate colloquium; events in schools. At the centre of the project is a digital exhibition based at Cambridge University Library working together with our official partners, York Minster Library and Lambeth Palace Library.

It will contribute significantly to the lively critical and theoretical discussion of memory and its formation in past societies. Bringing together historians and literary scholars, it will deploy approaches and methods from a variety of disciplines to forge new insights about the formation and fragmentation of cultural memory. It will illuminate the process by which public and private memory was forged and assess its role in the creation of religious, political and social consensus, conflict and identity.

Brian Cummings is anniversary professor at the University of York’s Department of English. His books include The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace  and The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, Washington D.C.

Featured image: Missale ad vsum celeberrime ecclesie Eboracensis optimis caracteribus receter Impressum cura peruigili maximaqz lucuhratione mendis qz pluribus emendatum (1516).  [Paris], P. Holivier; sumptibus & expensis Johannes gachet, [York]

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