Take care with mod­ern com­par­isons

BBC History Magazine - - Letters -

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

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