Book Review: The Senses and the English Reformation by Matthew Milner

The study of the senses and the English Reformation is one of the most creative historiographical interjections on the Reformation in England in recent years. Matthew Milner’s work is the first substantive treatment of the senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste) in the English Reformation, which is surprising, as the historiography of the senses as a lens to view history has existed since the 1970s. The Senses and the English Reformation is nothing short of groundbreaking. This is a fresh perspective on the English Reformation through its understanding of the senses and how the senses were used by the Henrician, Edwardian, and Elizabethan governments and the Church of England as a tool to shape worship, correct doctrine, and focus the five senses on the godly.

To fully understand the impact of Milner’s work, I present a brief overview of the historiography of the English Reformation and selected works as they relate to Milner. A. G. Dickens’ seminal work The English Reformation became the textbook for understanding the Reformation in 1964, separating the Reformation into the unorthodox pre-1530s and the attempt at creating a godly church in the 1530s and beyond. Other scholarly attempts at a history such as Keith Thomas’ 1971 Religion and the Decline of Magic continued associating late medieval piety with superstition, rather than providing an accurate representation of medieval belief. This Protestant triumphalism evolved through the works of Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy. Both argued that late medieval Catholicism was a vibrant orthodox representation of the Catholic faith. Within these frameworks, Milner falls into the category of “post-revisionism,” defined by Eamon Duffy as “the processes by which in the course of those three generations the assimilation of Protestant practice and belief took place.”[1] Milner’s work, and others in the post-revisionist camp, bridge the divide between the clean-cut break of Dickens and the late medieval piety and unwanted Reformation of Haigh and Duffy. Milner bridges this gap through his analysis of beliefs on the senses, liturgy, and continuity before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

In The Senses and the English Reformation, Milner argues that instead of a wholesale break between the late medieval Catholic Church and Reformation Church of England over liturgy and the senses in the Reformation, he contends that the English Reformation focused on a reorientation of the role of senses in the liturgical life of the church.[2] Beginning with an analysis of Augustine and Aristotle, Milner describes the church’s historical use of these thinkers to understand the senses concerning both the soul, spirit, and body. These senses are impacted by liturgical worship, prayer, seeing the Host, sacramentals, and many other facets of Catholicism. Senses are everywhere in the liturgy of the pre-reformation church, found in the aural hearing of the offices, the imagination used to contemplate the words spoken, gazing upon the stained-glass windows adorned with the Saints, among others. Sacraments are central to the understanding of senses, the touch of the bishop in confirmation, the anointing of oil for the healing of the sick. So too is the liturgy a focal point of sensual interaction. In this place, private devotion and communal participation are married: the hearing of the Gospel, the smell of incense, seeing the consecrated Host, and feeding upon Christ all direct the senses towards God.

Evangelicals during the Reformation expressed a fear that existed in the late medieval church, yet with more fervor than their late-medieval counterparts. Their concern was that the use (or misuse) of the senses could potentially draw one’s attention away from Christ. In other words, the senses could become a means unto themselves. Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide became the metric whereby certain practices were deemed godly and edifying or distracting from the central focus of worship. The Reformers, extending even to Henry VIII’s opinions on liturgy, expressed a pastoral concern that manifested itself in the edicts and injunctions from the Crown over right belief and worship. Those wanting reform voiced concern about the misuse of the senses; sensory things were not inherently wrong but could create a false experience that took away from the true faith. The crux of Milner’s argument lay in the implementation of The Book of Common Prayer and its iterations during the middle of the sixteenth century.

The prayer book represented control of the people’s sensory perceptions in worship, from when to stand and kneel, the hearing of Gospel, and the focus on the Eucharist. Eucharistic theology was a hotly contested element of The Book of Common Prayer. Just as English doctrine over the presence of Christ in the elements developed, so too did the prayer book’s understanding of the role of the senses during the Eucharistic service. Due to the infrequency of the Eucharist, the aural hearing of scripture became central to the liturgical life of the church, especially in Elizabethan England. Under Elizabeth, the focus of worship was on preaching and teaching, walls were adorned with scripture, and the people’s seats were brought closer to the priest even while contentions remained over the use of certain words, such as priest and absolution, and the degree to which parishioners would be receptive to often lengthy sermons.

Milner’s work ends with Elizabeth. The monograph is not a history of English liturgical practices or The Book of Common Prayer (G. J. Cuming’s 1969 work A History of Anglican Liturgy provides a detailed account, for those interested). Milner’s work shows the continuity of the English Church’s focus on the senses and how they were controlled by the institution in its pre-Reformation and Reformation contexts. The result of this approach jettisons the historiographical tendency to juxtapose these two epochs against one another, opting instead to see the English focus on how the senses should engage in corporate worship as a harmonious progression.

Milner’s writing is admittedly technical and at times jargon-laden. Although Milner does explain the various theories of the senses in great thinkers like Aristotle, Augustine, Ockham, and Aquinas, the early sections may be troublesome to the lay reader lacking a concrete grasp of the debates of scholasticism and its influence on the development of the Church’s liturgical life. The monograph is divided into two parts: Pre- and Post-Reformation worship. Those without the time to read the work (it is nearly 400 pages in length) are encouraged by this reviewer to read chapter four on the pre-Reformation liturgy, and chapters seven and eight which detail the liturgy’s evolution under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I.

The Senses and the English Reformation is a treasure trove of sources for those interested in the debates on the origins and development of English worship. Citing a range of sermons, letters, and archival material, Milner employs the work of Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, John Foxe, Thomas Cartwright, John Calvin, John Frith, Thomas More, and many other central figures who contributed to the historical and intellectual development of the Reformation.

Although covering much ground, Milner leaves room for further discussion of the role of the senses during the Stuart era with its many tumults and controversies. However, this is a project for another time. I recommend this work for students of the history of Anglicanism and the English Reformation. While the average lay reader may be bogged down in the details of intricate explanations in early chapters, his sections on the development of the liturgy in Tudor England and its impact on the senses are worth reading for any Anglican interested in their faith’s heritage.

Bibliography/Recommended Reading

Collinson, Patrick. The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. First published 1982.

De Boer, Wietse. ed. Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe. Brill, 2012.

Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press,

1989. First published 1964.

Duffy The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Haigh, Christopher, ed. The English Reformation Revised. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life. Yale, 1992.

Milner, Matthew. The Senses and the English Reformation. Routledge, 2011.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Scribner, 1971.

  1. Eamon Duffy. “The English Reformation After Revisionism.” Renaissance Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2006): 724.
  2. Matthew Milner. The Senses and the English Reformation. Routledge, 2011.

Tanner Moore

Tanner Moore is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Purdue University.

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