Take care with modern comparisons
In his article on the Reformation (November), David Starkey made much of the comparison of its violence and destructiveness with the actions of Isis in our own times. An over-emphasis on similarities can, however, obscure important differences. The Reformation certainly resulted in a most regrettable wholesale destruction of the monasteries, but there is scant evidence of violence against the deprived monks, who were encouraged to apply their skills in other areas.
In England, both Henry VIII and Mary I were indeed responsible for executing ‘ heretics’, but this was not a necessary component of the Reformation, as reference to other countries shows. In Scotland, the burning of Walter Mylne in 1558 was a rare example of the persecution of Protestants during the regency of Mary of Guise, which nevertheless was a key event leading to the end of French influence in Scotland and the establishment of the Reformation there in 1560. The reformed church’s emphasis on education at parish level could well be viewed as the genesis of a process leading to the Scottish Enlightenment.
Comparing a great historical event like the Reformation with current events such as Brexit or the atrocities of Isis has a superficial attractiveness and indeed relevance. The big task for the historian, however, must be to disentangle the local political details, such as the actions of particular bloodthirsty rulers, from the big sweep of events attendant on a major social and economic disruption like the Reformation. Norman McChesney, Kent
We reward the Letter of the Month writer with our ‘History Choice’ book of the month. This issue, it’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury. Read the review on page 67