Catholic Lord Lumley was far from alone in tracing his antecedents all the way back to the garden of Eden

The medieval shock of the new

Changes in the early modern period forced people to look at themselves anew


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1700 a mathematician submitted a paper to the Royal Society in which he attempted to calculate, amongst other things, the rate at which oral testimony (that is, memory) decayed over long periods of time. It’s a quixotic idea, to be sure, but that such a thing might even be attempted speaks not only to the emergence of an empirical mindset. It also speaks to the transformations wrought on how people conceived of themselves, their contemporaries and their families — and how they remembered the past — by the processes of what we call the Reformation.

Generations: Age, Ancestry and Memory in the English Reformations, Alexandra Walsham (OUP, £35)

Pay no heed, the Apostle Paul wrote, “to fables and endless genealogies”. His advice fell on deaf ears amongst the people of 16th and 17th century England. The era was, as the historian J.H. Plumb has said, one of “genealogical fever”. Some identified King Arthur amongst their ancestors. Others claimed descent from biblical figures such as Noah. The Catholic Lord Lumley was far from alone in tracing his antecedents all the way back to the garden of Eden, a boast that prompted James I’s caustic response: “By ma saul I did na ken Adam’s name was Lumley.” 

Memorial culture in the late mediaeval world had been a mutual, collective activity bound by spiritual affinities and bonds of duty and care. Remembering the dead in prayer was undertaken through an extensive range of institutions, including monastic houses, chantries and guilds. 

The scale of this work was staggering. One surviving list of those held in perpetual memory, created in the 1530s for the guild of St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral, contains 51,000 names, neatly organised into extended family lists and groups. As Natalie Zemon Davis noted, the mediaeval dead were “an age-group”, a powerful demographic deeply embedded in daily ritual life. 

In destroying that culture, the Reformation hurled people into a world in which generations might rise and fall in a perpetual cycle of forgetting. As Alexandra Walsham writes in her magisterial new book Generations: Age, Ancestry and Memory in the English Reformations, “at a stroke, the dead were consigned to an absent past to which grieving relatives no longer had access”. The obsession with genealogy was one way to shore your family’s name against oblivion. 

It also functioned as a form of reputation management. Lord Lumley’s father had been executed in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace; the long reach of consanguinity obscured such stains.

Descended from Adam: Lord Lumley

The search for deep-rootedness was also a reaction to innovation, however. It wasn’t just stability that went hand in hand with antiquity; as Walsham notes, inevitability did too. It was important for Protestant thinkers to argue away the accusation of theological novelty: a tripartite history of the world was created in which the early church was succeeded by the era of Antichrist, after which the Reformation would usher in the end times. (It’s where the idea of the Middle Ages originates.) Protestantism thus wasn’t revolutionary; it was a restoration of the earliest Christian practices.

Another way in which the Reformation forced people to think about their inheritances was the idea of original sin. For mediaeval Christians, Walsham writes, the consequences of Adam and Eve’s fall were akin to “a mere absence of righteousness rather than a state of ingrained depravity”. The Protestant mind was seduced by St Augustine’s view of mankind as innately wicked, however. Children absorbed “evil lusts and appetites” whilst still in the womb, one catechism said; they breached the Ten Commandments before they were born. 

Few doubted that both sin and its punishments were hereditary. Heresy, however, was broadly understood to be learned: families were both the bedrock of civil society and engines of subversion. The outlines of a theologically-charged version of the nature vs. nurture debate are readily discernible.

Walsham uses the term “generation” loosely. “Instead of trying to define [it] with any precision, I have actively embraced its ambiguities,” she writes. Which is to say that Generations is a large, allusive and nuanced work that actively resists easy summation. Walsham herself aptly compares her book to a kaleidoscope. 

The mediaeval concept of reformatio was a process, an ongoing cycle of renewal

 The book’s thematic structure itself moves in cycles around and across the early modern period, refracting the changing experiences and perceptions of successive generations — as well as of the different confessional cohorts, from Catholics to Quakers, within each generation.

For all the book’s multiplicity, Walsham’s core insight is that we can’t consider the doctrinal and other debates and developments of these centuries without also considering the generational attitudes and reactions that underpinned them — as well as the generational language of the human life-cycle through which they were often understood. Not for nothing did Protestant polemics equate the mediaeval church with a kind of moral and intellectual infancy: “We be past childhood,” one 1548 text ran, “away then with childish fantasies.”

As Walsham observes, this is not a wholly new insight. Christopher Hill noted back in the 1970s that “the fiercest and most anguished battles were waged within the home, between the generations”. Even contemporaries were aware of the antagonisms, however. The early eruptions of reformist protest in the 16th century were blamed on “lewd lads” who made “merry mockery of their parents”. Rather proving the point, some wag even threw a pudding at the Marian Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner. 

Arguably, it wasn’t a new observation then either. “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth?” Jesus says in the gospel of Luke. “I tell you, Nay; but rather division … The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother.” 

What Walsham does, however, is to use the concept of generational identities and generational friction to illuminate the complex ways in which the theological, political and social changes of the early modern period forced people to look at themselves and each other anew. Walsham would never put it as crassly as this, but just as we find it helpful to look at generational conflict through the prism of baby boomers and millennials, say, so there is much to be gained in thinking about how different experiences and emotional dynamics drove tensions between what you might, for example, call Generation Calvin and Generation Laud.

I have used the word “Reformation” in the singular in this review for familiarity’s sake, but Walsham makes a compelling case for the plural she uses in her book’s subtitle. The mediaeval concept of reformatio was a process, an ongoing cycle of renewal, rather than an event. What we call the English Reformation was really a series of convulsions. 

On the eve of the Restoration, some were still placing the Reformation, or the completion of it, at some point in the future: “Jesus Christ … works us up age after age to a further Reformation, to more light and holiness,” hoped a Fifth Monarchist pamphlet in 1659. The idea of spiritual defeat, that a better world lay dead and buried in the past, was another novelty many had to learn to live with.

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