History

The Reformation of the Past

Matthias Flaccius

Matthias Flaccius

Yesterday evening, we attended an annual lecture at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies, where Anna studied for her PhD.  Always an interesting and civilised (!) affair, the annual lecture provides an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to listen to a well renowned speaker.  This year’s annual lecture was given by Mark Greengrass, and was entitled ‘The Reformation of the Past: Protestants and the Middle Ages’.  The paper was based largely on the research Greengrass and others have been undertaking as part of the John Foxe Project, and explored the ways in which early reformers and scholars tried to make sense of Christian past, and the enormous efforts they went to to make sense of and record Church history.  The greatest problem for these sixteenth century academics was how to narrate the contentious ‘Middle Ages’, a period of, it was understood, darkness and spiritual regression, where the true Church was lost amid the teachings of Catholic ‘popery’.

A large part of the lecture focused not on Foxe himself, but on one of his key sources, the Magdeburg Centuries. Driven initially by Matthias Flacius, the Centuries were an attempt to compile all known documentary evidence for the centuries of Christianity, it sought to collate data for each 100-year block into 16 prescribed categories (heresies, rites and ceremonies, schisms and controversies, etc.). Dr Greengrass spoke interestingly about the historiographical and methodological problems with which these historians collided when undertaking this undoubtedly ambitious endeavour, but what came through most strongly was their sense of continuity: that the Christian past had been one of ever-increasing corruption, through which nevertheless ran a thin vein of true faith. The Centuries were an attempt to chronicle this new conception of the past in a sort of encyclopedic format.

Greengrass believes that Foxe used the Centuries and the work of John Bale as his principle reference works, using them as signposts to further reading. In this way, the Foxe Project – and last night’s lecture – illuminate both Foxe’s working pattern, and those of his sources.  Greengrass pointed out that perhaps such scholarly endeavours were a little like PhD projects gone wrong…

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