The pick of new history programmes
Janina Ramirez reveals how a trio of texts transformed religious belief across England
“Every man, woman and child listened to these texts for all the big moments in their lives”
England’s Reformation: Three Books that Changed a Nation TV BBC Four Scheduled for October
For more than four centuries, a trio of books shaped British life profoundly. Tyndale’s New Testament, The Book of Common Prayer and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were, points out historian Janina Ramirez, “in every church – and every man, woman, child listened to these texts for all the big moments in their lives: births, deaths, marriage”.
Half a millennium on from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the dawn of the Reformation, it’s easy to overlook just what a profound break with the past these books represented. Rather than the mass being given in Latin, here was religion in the common tongue, an explicit challenge to the “global empire” of the papacy. “It was the end of a thousand years of tradition, a thousand years of ritual,” says Ramirez.
Such change inevitably brought huge upheavals. Religion was democratised and William Tyndale (1494–1536), for one, saw his translation of sacred texts as “empowering through the vernacular, through the English language, every member of society down to the lowliest ploughboy”.
Yet we also need to remember that, when The Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1549, it led to a huge uprising in the South West.
As for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), the visceral imagery of its copious woodcuts, argues Ramirez, helped create “a bedrock of hatred” for Catholicism that endured for centuries. “You can see what’s happening to these martyrs: pregnant women are giving birth on the pyre, people are being dragged behind horses, and it’s grim, really grim,” she says. “Because of that, it creates a whole climate going forward of complete Protestant disdain for Catholics, and it comes to define so much of our relationship with Europe, it also comes to define our relationship with Ireland.” These words go to the heart of Ramirez’s documentary, which is in part about how historical religious schisms have an effect even in the present.
Three Books is part of a wider season across the BBC. Among other highlights, Reformation: Europe’s Holy War (available via iPlayer) sees David Starkey arguing that Henry VIII’s break with Rome was akin to a “Tudor Brexit”. Meanwhile, Reformation: The Story of Martin Luther (BBC Four, October) is a drama charting the life of the religious revolutionary.
Janina Ramirez discovers how a thousand years of tradition were smashed in the 16th century