The Change from A-Level: The Reformation Church and State

It's not all about him.
It’s not all about him.

Happy New Year to all of our readers! I hope you’ve all had an excellent break. I spent some of my own relaxing, restorative and restful holiday thinking, of course, about A-Level curricula. Why? Well, following my last post about the differences between studying Machiavelli for A-Level and as an undergraduate, I turned towards considering other parts of the early modern A-Level syllabus which students might be interested to study further – and with which they can engage here at Gloucestershire.

My research specialism is the history of the Reformation, that historical process of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that saw Protestantism develop and diversify throughout western Europe and beyond. As a result, most of my modules include some significant elements of religious and cultural history – and some focus very squarely on the condition of religion and the Church during the Tudor and Stuart periods.

As with Machiavelli, my first-year survey course is a case in point: compulsory for new students, this module assesses the late medieval church, and examines the condition of religion in early sixteenth-century Europe. I’m always very keen to ensure as broad an understanding of the Reformation as possible: it was a continent-wide phenomenon, and as such simply studying Luther or purely assessing Henry VIII’s religious policy will not provide the ‘widescreen’ vision of the period undergraduates require.

The question of support for, and opposition to, the Reformation in its early days is one which demands students look at Europe as a whole. We might take a case study approach – focusing on the Tudor realms and the enthusiasm there for Protestantism, for instance – but at all times we aim to centre this assessment on an understanding not just of Luther but also of Calvin, Bullinger and Zwingli; we discuss the ways in which Reformation ideas were transmitted, and what parts of which populations might have been more zealously Protestant that others (this latter question continues throughout the course of early modern study at Gloucestershire, culminating in detailed third-year examinations of the shifting fates and faces of the Elizabethan Puritans).

Indeed, A-Level students may be familiar with the term ‘confessionalisation’, but at university level a lot more work is put into understanding the shaping of religious identities in Reformation Europe. Take the veering religious policies in England of Edward VI, the godly ‘boy-king’, and Mary I, the Catholic ‘Bloody Mary’. We examine the primary materials which have so set the vision of these periods – John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, for instance – and abandon binary notions of ‘bias’ for a more nuanced understanding of the push-and-pull of contingent religious identities.

The Reformation was a process as much, if not more, than it was a story, and a purely narrative approach is insufficient at undergraduate level. So students take a much more analytical approach to, for example, how religious opinion was divided by the time of Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne: we look at questions such as the development of the early modern state, of religious war and persecution, but also look in detail at the very real beliefs which powered debate at this time. Many of my modules revolve around understanding ‘mentalities’: the cultural assumptions or beliefs which motivate individuals to act and react in certain ways. Understand those, and this we can do only through detailed study of what is an often alien and unusual period, and we can understand events much better than we might from a mere narrative approach.

The A-Level syllabus, then, asks questions such as, “How successfully did Elizabeth tackle the Catholic challenge to herself and her church?” At Gloucestershire, we ask why Elizabeth felt compelled to act at all, what drove Catholics to put themselves in positions of vulnerability, and what effect all this manoeuvring had on the identities and agendas of all involved. In short, we begin to ‘look under the hood’ of the Church- and state-craft of the period via a quite detailed investigation of ideas, intellectual developments, and cultural change.

If that development from A-Level interests you, I’m always interested in talking more with prospective students!

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