Reception without the Theory: On the Study of Religion in Early Modern England


Radical Religion in Cromwell's England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth. By Andrew Bradstock. I. B. Tauris. 2011. 224pp. £15.99. The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain. Edited by Polly Ha and Patrick Collinson . Oxford University Press for the British Academy. 2010. 280pp. £50.00. The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590–1640. By Arnold Hunt. Cambridge University Press. 2010. 424pp. £60.00. Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales. Edited by Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes . Oxford University Press. 2011. 320pp. £68.00.

Henry VIII's break with Rome and Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century inadvertently opened the floodgates of heterodoxy in England. Naturally efforts were made to bridle religious dissent, but the failure of the Ten Articles (1536) ‘to stablyshe christen quietnes and unitie amonge us’ was manifest in its 1539 replacement, ‘[a]n acte abolishing diversity in Opynions’. By this it was hoped that ‘the manifold perils, dangers, and inconveniences which have heretofore in many places and regions grown, sprung, and arisen of the diversities of minds and opinions, especially of matters of Christian Religion’ would be drawn to an end, only they were not. A decade later, in 1549, legislators were so concerned by the ‘divers forms of common prayer commonly called the service of the Church’ in use in England and Wales that they resolved to ‘stay innovations’. By means of its own Act of Uniformity, the Edwardian regime sought to ‘draw and make one convenient and meet order, rite, and fashion of common and open prayer and administration of the sacraments, to be had and used in his Majesty's realm’. And yet, in this age of shifting orthodoxies conformity proved elusive; so, just three years later, in 1552, a further Act of Uniformity bemoaned the ‘great number of people in divers parts of this realm, [who] following their own sensuality and living either without knowledge or due fear of God, do willfully and damnably before Almighty God abstain and refuse to come to their parish churches’. That Elizabeth's 1559 Act of Uniformity harped on many of the same things – indeed, that it was passed without a single churchman's consent – confirms that at each stage of the English Reformation the establishment hoped, indeed struggled, to control and contain the flow of ideas.

This is most manifest at the level of the individual and his or her experience of this shifting religious landscape. Early in the course of the Reformation, at its conception, Thomas More and other Henrician Catholic martyrs resisted the new religious settlement by refusing to accept Henry VIII's Royal Supremacy. Twenty years on, once the whirligig of time had brought in its revenges, the Henrician martyrs’ reformed counterparts, the Marian martyrs, opposed Mary's restitution of Catholicism. These men and women paid for their beliefs – for their repudiation of the new orthodoxy – with their lives, but comparatively few people aspired to such a fate. Consequently, most had to find other ways of negotiating the vacillations of royal religious and political policy. Thomas Harding, for example, renounced his reformed creed after Mary's accession, thanking God ‘who used the chaunge of the time, as an occasion and meane, whereby to chaunge [… me] unto the better’. Others, such as Miles Coverdale and John Ponet, chose exile over conformity. And some individuals were canny enough to steer a quiet course between the extremes of Tudor religious settlements. William Forrest's career is a case in point, for the poet willingly submitted to the whims of the reigning monarch, and in the process revealed that he was ruthlessly pragmatic about matters of faith. His translation of De regimine principum, The Pleasant Poesie of Princelie Practise, was dedicated to Edward VI (and the Duke of Somerset, a prominent reformer); his History of Grisild the Second, a metrical narrative on the life of Catherine of Aragon, was dedicated to Mary, under whom Forrest served as a chaplain; and on Elizabeth's accession he was able to continue as parson of Bledlow, despite a further change in religion.

Cases like Forrest's debunk the depressingly persistent assumption, in at least some Reformation scholarship, that just two incompatible confessional identities existed during the early sixteenth century, the Catholic and non-Catholic. Indeed, they remind us that the English Reformation was always more than just a succession of acts of state, since they draw attention to the gap that could exist between official and private ideas about, and conceptions of, faith. If we turn to consider Alexander Barclay's religious career, we see that this gap could appear more like a chasm. Although he was accused in 1528 of apostasy ‘on account of Lutheran heresy’, Barclay's reputation in the 1530s was instead for Catholic orthodoxy; in 1538, noted Charles Wriothesley, Barclay, the observant Franciscan friar, ‘was very loath to leave his ipochrytes coate till he was compelled for feare of punishment’. At both points the poet Barclay was out of step with official religious policy. But to the mantles of Lutheran heretic and grey friar we may also add black monk, for before joining the Franciscans Barclay was a Benedictine. And still the poet's roles multiplied, because after the dissolution of the monasteries he became a secular priest, which Nicholas Orme takes as confirmation that during the 1540s Barclay accepted the English Reformation ‘as an accomplished fact’. However, others disagree, since in the estimation of one contemporary Barclay retained his Catholic devotion throughout this period as ‘Quene Maryes Chaplayne’. It is difficult to know quite what to make of this, apart from to say that Barclay's religious identity is not adequately delineated by most of our existing taxonomies of reform. It also admits to the fact that individuals could receive the various conflicting messages of the Reformation in highly eccentric ways.

It is little wonder, then, that homilies, which were to warn against general ‘contention, strife and debate’ throughout the latter part of the sixteenth century, singled out for particular mention religious conflict: ‘among all kinds of contention, none is more hurtful than is contention in matters of religion’. The reality facing men and women in the sixteenth century was that, contrary to what Paul claimed in Ephesians 4:5, it did not seem that there was just ‘one faith’, either in England or in Europe. As an anonymous polemicist, possibly the reformer John Bale, wrote in 1547: ‘every christen man [may] hertely morne, when he seeth that so manye and divers faythes are founde, amonge them that boste them selves to be christen men’. From an early stage, England was said to be alive with various contrasting, and competing, beliefs, so that by the 1550s – at least in the opinion of Edmund Bonner – ‘sundrye sortes of sects of heretickes as arrians, Anabaptistes, libertines, zwinglians, and lutherans’ had proliferated in the realm. When we add to these erasmians, erastians, sacramentarians, epicureans and papists, it becomes clear that in the sixteenth century religious identities were contested, and contestable, even if monikers such as these were little more than whipping boys, inventions in the minds of the zealous.

The same holds well into the seventeenth century, during which time broadsides acknowledged a plethora of distinct religious identities, whether or not they all existed in reality. In one of these, dating to 1646, we encounter the ‘Jesuit’, the ‘Arminian’, the ‘Arian’, the ‘Adamite’, the ‘Libertin’, the ‘Antescripturian’, the ‘Soule Sleeper’, the ‘Anabaptist’, the ‘Familist’, the ‘Seeker’, and the ‘Divorcer’, and this is to say nothing of Puritans (the subject of Arnold Hunt's book), or Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and Muggletonians (the subjects of Andrew Bradstock's book). In fact, in the opinion of at least one seventeenth-century observer, religious identities were more diverse than even this. ‘Men say they are of the same Religion for Quietness’ sake’ only, John Selden opined, continuing: ‘if the Matter were well examined, you would scarce find Three any where of the same Religion in all Points’. Far from being shared, creeds might be radically personal, so it is unsurprising to learn that there existed seventeenth-century counterparts to Alexander Barclay and William Forrest, who continue to defy religious categorization. Lawrence Clarkson, for example, was by turns a Presbyterian, an Independent, a Baptist, a Seeker, a Ranter and a Muggletonian, and, despite the best efforts of others, William Walwyn tried to steer clear of denominational labels altogether. Such fluidity simply shows how various early modern religion could be, and also goes some way to explain why past religious identities are now so difficult to pinpoint; it is not for nothing that scholars today are still able to wrangle over the confessions of giants like William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney and John Milton.

Evidently, religious centres – the monarch, the episcopacy, even parliament and the Lord Protector – floundered in their various attempts to regulate the forms of faith in currency during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More precisely, they found it impossible to control absolutely the ways in which religious ideas were blocked, adapted, ignored and appropriated as they moved outwards from the cultural centre towards the peripheries (and back again). At no stage during England's ‘Long Reformation’ (1500–1800) could the establishment have fully anticipated the variety of ways in which religious ideas would be received, which is why scholars have for a long time been conscious of the need to study ‘religious history from the point of view of the consumer (alias the congregation)’. Significant steps in this direction have taken place over decades, Olwen Hufton observes in her essay, ‘What Is Religious History Now?’, but it is really since the 1980s that there has been a comprehensive shift in the emphasis of English historical studies ‘from priest to flock’. ‘[T]he writing of religious history’, Hufton observes, ‘[moved] away from the subject of the establishment, clerical, lay and male, downmarket’, as cultural, gender and social historians shifted the attention of scholars from ecclesiastical hierarchies to congregations and their experience of early modern religion.

All the books reviewed here participate in this historiographical movement, since underlying each of them is the assumption that reception is crucial to our understanding of early modern religion. This is to say that each study is largely concerned with how religious ideas were either transmitted or construed, chiefly in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Take Andrew Bradstock's study, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England, as an example of this. As well as being a readable – though unsatisfactorily referenced – introduction to the outré thought of some seventeenth-century religious mavericks and their followers, this short book is an examination of the ways in which Christianity was severally interpreted, exercised, and opposed in the wake of the Civil War, by Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and Muggletonians.

The world that allowed these religious groups to materialize was an unsettled world, a world ‘turn'd upside down’, one in which a monarch could be convicted by his people of treason, and executed, and also it was a world in which ‘ideas hitherto considered heretical and kept underground’ could ‘surface in print and in word’ (p. xiii). Though restrictions on religious belief certainly remained – to wit, a 1650 ‘Act against several Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions … destructive to humane Society’ – ideas that were once unpublishable (rather than unimaginable) were afforded freer expression in the wake of the abolition of the monarchy, bishops, the House of Lords and church courts. Of course, the majority of the movements discussed by Bradstock proved neither prevalent nor long-lived, the exceptions being the Baptists, the Quakers and, astonishingly, the Muggletonians. Nor, in fact, were they in all things distinct: the Diggers, for example, were called the ‘True Levellers’, which just goes to show how tenuous many of these religious designations actually are. Still, the simple fact that they emerged at all is further evidence for the existence in early modern England of a variety of religious experiences, and these Bradstock takes seriously. Unlike some before him, chiefly Christopher Hill, Bradstock sees that religious radicals were motivated primarily by their religion, not politics.

This is Bradstock's major contribution to the history of his subject. Although in the seventeenth century (as in the previous century, in fact) politics and religion formed part of the same debate, Bradstock does not assume that politics was anterior to religion. Instead, he shows that each of the religious movements he addresses claimed ‘direct inspiration from God and a warrant to disclose his mind and will’ (p. xvii). Rather than being a carrier of politics, then, Bradstock maintains that the Bible was its stimulus. (Incidentally, this pits him against one of the presiding schools in literary scholarship, the New Historicism, which tends to argue the reverse.) So, for example, the Diggers’ commitment to the abolition of ‘thine’ and ‘mine’, the system of private landownership in England, was formulated from scripture. This argument carries weight, though whether the same holds for Bradstock's wider claims is another matter, and I hope that here readers will forgive a brief digression. Bradstock is Professor in Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and he is committed to the idea that religion remains today an agent for social change. He therefore ends his study with a slightly hurried attempt to prove that the modern world still has something important to learn from the example of the seventeenth-century radicals he studies. However, some of the conclusions drawn are questionable. For instance, Bradstock alleges that the Book of Revelation still has something useful to offer contemporary political debate, with its depiction of a conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (p. 163). This is despite the fact that in the past this depiction inspired a language and politics of division – of irreconcilable difference – that set a ‘true Christen church’ against ‘the sinfull sinagoge of Sathan’. Whether the concerns of the present and future would ever be best served by such a discourse is doubtful, particularly in areas relating to tolerance and equality. My suspicion is that besides those who are already persuaded that religion still has a pivotal part to play in shaping society, few will be entirely cheered by the presentist turn Bradstock takes at the end of his book.

Whether the historian is justified in veering from his or her attempt to understand the past, to a search for past issues that are still live today, is a question too large to be addressed here, though I will say that at least Bradstock's effort appears to have been motivated by conviction rather than a concern to show that his research has ‘impact’. Still, to return to more germane considerations: Bradstock's book is an engaging examination of how variously the Bible was read, understood, and pressed into service after the Civil War, which is to say that his is a study in the reception and reverberations in England of radicalized religion. This does not mean that Bradstock develops his own epistemology of reception – he does not, and nor do any of the other books under review, at least not in such explicit terms – but still his work brings to light some of the myriad ways in which religion and religious ideas were made sense of in the seventeenth century. With a shift in focus, from the pamphlets of religious radicals to the hymns of religious nonconformists, Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes's edited volume, Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales, takes us beyond the Civil War in our consideration of the reception of non-standard creeds in England.

As is outlined in Rivers and Wykes's introduction to their text, modern religious dissent came into being after yet another attempt by an English monarchy to prescribe a particular brand of Christianity in England. Charles II's Act of Uniformity of 1662 demanded conformity to a re-established Church of England, and branded all refuseniks nonconformists, or dissenters, terms which, in their apparent specificity, actually disguised ‘a wide range of doctrinal and other differences’ (p. 3). In what has been described as ‘one of the greatest contributions ever made to Christian worship’, these groups went on to introduce to the religious scene in England hymns and hymn-singing, and together the nine essays in this collection amount to a history of the dissenting hymn from the mid-seventeenth century all the way through to the early twentieth century (p. 1). The story told is one of change over time: change in the language and style of hymns, in their private and public use, in their theology, in the ways they were edited, in their role in worship, and in the part they played in the formation of religious identities. What emerges from this is not the unruly, fragmented narrative one might have anticipated, given the collection's ambit, but a rewarding and largely cohesive account of ‘how hymns moved from being contentious and divisive in the seventeenth century to becoming a central part of religious and social culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ (p. 2). This is an account of the changing fortunes of hymns as they journeyed from the margins of dissenting worship to its centre, but because the pivotal figure in this entire narrative is the ubiquitous Isaac Watts, it is also in meaningful ways an extended essay on the reception, adaptation, and rejection of the ‘Father of English Hymnody’.

Having set himself the task in the early eighteenth century of liberating ‘Poesy, whose Original is Divine’ from its enslavement ‘to Vice and Profaneness’, Watts succeeded in so transforming the face of English hymnody that for the next century and a half (or so) it was almost inconceivable that another hymn collection could ever take the place of his (p. 35). Many subsequent texts were instead marketed ‘as a Supplement to Dr Watt's [sic] Hymns’, as ‘an Appendix to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns’ (p. 269). Indeed, the shadow he cast over dissenting hymnody in general, and on other writers or editors of hymns – effectively outlined in essays by J. R. Watson (on Watts), Françoise Deconinck-Brossard (on Philip Doddridge), Ken R. Manley (on John Rippon), David M. Thompson (on Josiah Conder) and Alan Ruston (on James Martineau) – was so substantial that whatever the flavour of his own separatist creed, it would appear that his hymns were cross-confessional. Baptist, Presbyterian and Independent congregations were all at some point singing hymns once penned by Watts. And even when Watts's Trinitarian phrases and imagery were too much for some congregations – for example, the Unitarians – his hymns still formed the core of their hymnbooks, albeit carefully selected and repackaged so that they ‘agree[d] with and expresse[d] their theological sentiments’ (p. 177). Certainly, ‘late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century hymnody … was not simply an appendix to Watts’, since over time the dominance of the single voice was tempered (p. 124). Still, it is possible to say that the study of the dissenting hymn is also a study in Isaac Watts's literary afterlife.

Another consideration to which the volume periodically returns is the part hymns played in instructing congregations in sound doctrine. Even though many hymns avoided divisive theology altogether, and others appealed to multiple denominations, which suggests that there was some overlap in the beliefs of different groups, confessional divisions and distinct dissenter identities did exist. John Rippon, for example, recontextualized Watts's hymns for Baptist use. However, this still tends to suggest that dissenting hymn culture was one of negotiation and compromise. Editors in their publications, like congregations in their worship, responded to hymns not passively but actively, altering and appropriating them. Hymns were therefore ‘living texts’, more mutable than fixed, since at each point in the historical narrative they were coloured by the contexts in which they were received (p. 68).

Once again we meet with the issue of ‘reception’, but this should be expected given that anything at all to do with communication – the circulation of texts, for example, the transmission of religious truths, the socialization of devotional practices – must treat of the relationship between subjects and objects, communicators and their audiences. Dissenting Praise is one instructive example of this, taking as its focus the dynamic relationship between the producers of hymns and their readerships; for another it is worth turning to the splendid study by Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing, which concentrates less on the ‘means by which religious ideas were transmitted from the clerical producer to the lay consumer’, but more on ‘the problem of audience response’ (pp. 4–5). Hunt's vehicle for this investigation is early modern preaching, which played a crucial role in England, as in Europe, in the spread of religious ideas. Indeed, some were persuaded that sermons were the only proper instrument of theological instruction and that there was ‘no salvation without preaching’ (p. 32). But what sets Hunt's work apart from other studies of early modern preaching and sermon culture – and there has been a surge in this, particularly from literary scholars interested in the sermons of John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes – is that his book is first and foremost ‘a study of hearing’ (p. 5).

This means that The Art of Hearing is altogether a study in reception, but more than this it is an attempt to recover the seemingly irrecoverable, since ‘vox audita perit, litera scripta manet – the spoken voice perishes, and only the written word remains’ (p. 8). This is no simple task, for attempts to reconstruct the early modern aural world from supposedly oral texts – which includes printed plays and sermons – are fraught with difficulties, since the majority of these were reconceived to fit their new medium. Literary scholars are certainly no strangers to play-texts that made a virtue of the fact that they were ‘not the same with that which was acted on the publike stage’, and it appears that students of early modern sermons should brace themselves for similar. As Hunt maintains: ‘any form of words that later appeared in print might differ substantially from the sermon as previously delivered from the pulpit’ (p. 134). Perhaps the most significant shift related to animation, since printed sermons ‘wanteth the zeale of the speaker, the attention of the hearer’ (p. 121). Although this argument is not newly made – B. L. Joseph, for example, pointed out decades ago that there ‘was nothing stereotyped, stiff or formal’ about Donne's sermons (Elizabethan Acting (1964; first printed in 1951)) – it has been given new force by Hunt, so that it should no longer be possible for scholars simply to dismiss sermons as monotonous; though they may appear that way in print, in delivery they were a much less humdrum affair.

That Hunt is even able to probe the ‘encounter between the spoken voice of the preacher and the participatory response of the hearer’ is remarkable, and this he does from a variety of perspectives, using a range of manuscript and print sources (p. 18). The result is sweeping, as Hunt moves from an examination of contemporary theories of preaching to a consideration of what happens when sermons moved from the pulpit to the page, and back again; he turns from a survey of contemporary theories of listening, outlined in manuals and conduct-books, to an investigation of who may have constituted the audience of sermons in London and in the country. Along the way, Hunt demonstrates that the relationship between a congregation and its preacher was often dialogic, so that, for example, preachers would steer away from sermons based on the Old Testament if their parishioners objected to these. Listening, in other words, was not simply a passive activity. On the contrary, audiences were expected to take notes on sermons, to memorize them, to repeat them, and to submit themselves to self-examination in the light of what they had heard. In return, it was hoped that a preacher would demonstrate his ‘love of his neyghbours’ by tempering the message preached if social harmony demanded this (p. 289).

Needless to say, some congregants fell short of the ideal listener, succumbing to ‘The Drousie Disease’ during sermons; similarly, in many quarters preachers and their sermons were the cause of discord, as a raft of complaint literature shows. Consequently, it remains to be seen whether the case studies examined by Hunt are truly normative, but this will be discovered in time as others follow Hunt's leads and test his conclusions. At least for now, Hunt's The Art of Hearing has set the agenda for the study of early modern preaching, and scholars of the period's literature will want to read this book as well as historians.

Hunt's work is a very specific, and expert, study in reception, but as the author himself makes clear – with reference to the Hufton essay already cited – his thought does not exist in isolation (p. 4). Consider, for example, some of the questions that have dominated Reformation historiography in the past. Was the Reformation a widespread movement, the demand of an irrepressibly anticlerical public, or an imposition of the monarch's and his or her clergy on an unwilling nation? What was the pace of religious change? Was religious reformation inevitable? Indeed, was it a success? Such questions are concerned with the spread of ideas, with directions of influence, with the reach of reform, with its impact, with its origins, degrees of penetration and repercussions; in short, these are all questions to do with what type of Reformation was received in England, by whom, how quickly, and how willingly. These also remain the sorts of questions that Hunt is asking, though of course he is offering a new way of answering them. The point is that there seems nothing remarkable in the suggestion that reception has always been central to the study of religion and the English Reformation, however scholars have set about investigating this. What is unexpected, then, is that the final book under review, The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain, co-edited by Polly Ha and the late Patrick Collinson, should disagree.

In her introduction to this volume of essays, Ha takes it upon herself to defend ‘the usefulness of reception’ to Reformation studies, even though it is unclear that the case needs to be made (p. xv). Readers of Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), for example, will already be familiar with work that investigates the ways in which apparently competing world-views were received at all levels of English society. Similarly, those familiar with Margaret Spufford's and Tessa Watt's work on mentalités populaires – on how ordinary people responded to religious pressures, for example – will recognize not only the need to explore the relationship between elite and popular religion, but also the fact that this work has been taking place. So whereas Ha is probably correct to identify that previous scholars have not engaged in ‘any direct discussion of reception and reformation’, this does not mean that they have not already been asking, and answering, many of the important questions (p. xv).

Of course it is no bad thing that Ha should want to bring the concept centre stage – a point I will return to in due course – but it is worth setting aside concerns about the collection's novelty for just a moment, in order to consider the volume's other primary focus. This is the variety of ways in which European Reformation was received – or not – in England. In their emphasis on continental reform and how this impacted on the English narrative, Ha and Collinson claim to be doing yet another thing differently. As Collinson has it in his introduction to the volume, ‘nobody has yet succeeded in writing a book in which the English Reformation is fully integrated, subsumed and contextualized in the history of the Reformation on a European scale’ (p. xxxi). Even though Ha concedes that this is not the book to plug the gap, being instead ‘an indicative way forward, rather than a comprehensive overview’, on this point the editors are on surer ground (p. xv). Even though Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, as well as a host of other European figures, are not unknown to students of the English Reformation, the institutionalized division between English and European strands of history, taught in our universities as well as our schools, is also repeated in many published works. This may be to do with feasibility; it may even be because what happened in England genuinely was exceptional. However, as Andrew Pettegree effectively shows in his afterword to the collection, there was a tremendous degree of movement between England and the continent, which means that for many the idea of an isolated England would have been unintelligible. Explicitly, ‘sixteenth-century cultural and intellectual life was not narrowly chauvinistic or nationalist, but international’ (p. 236).

Individual contributors give flesh to the bones of this argument from a variety of perspectives. Whereas Jane E. A. Dawson draws attention to the Scottish enthusiasm for the Genevan model of reform, and the English suspicion of it (given its association with revolution), Torrance Kirby lauds the continental reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli – an Italian who variously lived in England, Strasbourg and Zurich – as one of the chief architects of the Edwardian and Elizabethan church settlements. His argument is for an English church touched by Zurich; Anthony Milton's, on the other hand, is for an English church of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries touched by the Palatinate (specifically, Heidelberg). The adjective ‘touched’ is used cautiously – and I hope not misleadingly – since each essay allows for some complexity, and mutuality, in the Anglo-European relationships explored. For example, Dawson notes that even though Elizabeth and her ministers disapproved of all things Genevan, the Genevan Bible still had a significant impact on the English consciousness. Bruce Gordon tells a similarly divided tale, one that deserves to be known more widely, concerning Thomas Cranmer's abortive attempt to produce a Latin Bible. In this endeavour the English archbishop employed the European scholars Paul Fagius and Martin Bucer, and his aim was to involve England in a heated conversation that was already under way on the continent, relating to the production of the Bible. And yet this attempt failed, and ‘England was not to produce a Bible of international importance in the sixteenth century’ (p. 6). Apparently the England that engaged with the continent was also an England set apart from the continent.

Separately the essays in this volume identify a number of areas where there was contact between the English church and various religious currents in Europe. They show that a range of continental influences came to bear on English thinkers, though more could have been done to gauge the relative significance of each of these. Likewise, more could have been done to address larger concerns relating to the ‘dubious word’ influence (Collinson's phrase), and the ‘slightly less dodgy word’ reception (Collinson, again), given the apparent significance of these to the collection (p. xxxv). Some essays do more than most in this respect, such as Carl R. Trueman's and Carrie Euler's essay on Martin Luther's reception in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. There the authors note how difficult it often is to determine with precision Luther's influence in England, particularly as time went on and he became less ‘a specific source of doctrinal or exegetical wisdom’ and more a general ‘figure of symbolic power’ (p. 80). Elisabeth Leedham-Green's essay pushes in another, no less interesting, direction; she asks whether probate inventories, library inventories or bookseller inventories – her ‘Unreliable Witnesses’ – have anything at all to tell us about the reception in Cambridge and Oxford of continental reform. In the main, however, the volume's chief interpretative lens, reception, is left unexamined, and this is despite the fact that The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain is the only book under review to propose that reception may itself constitute a way of approaching the study of early modern religion. Certainly, nothing approximating a theory of reception is developed, even though one might have been expected. Perhaps, though, this is no bad thing. As Bradstock, Hunt, and the contributors to Rivers and Wykes's collection ably show, in common with previous scholars, in common even with the contributors to Ha and Collinson's volume of essays, Reformation studies is not hindered by the lack of such a theory. Indeed, it is possible that after decades of work in the area, the study of the reception of religion is now just an exercise in common sense, rather than a method of approaching history. It seems that this is one area of historical studies where history is still about the doing, not the theorizing.