We Were Here First: a Medievalist’s View of the Reformation

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 produced celebratory lectures, books and ecumenical services worldwide, but Medievalists, those whose job it is to know what the Reformation was reformed from, were mostly not on the radar.[1] This is nothing new, alas: the name “Early Modern” itself implies, or rather, insists that not much could have happened or been invented before “Early.”  Our irrelevance dates back at least to 1905 when Weber published Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  As Yale’ s Reformation historian, Carlos Eire, noted in his celebratory 2017 lecture:

Over one hundred years ago, Max Weber argued that Protestantism “disenchanted” the world and eliminated “magic” from it. Today, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, … this assertion needs to be reappraised. Did Protestants really vanquish “magic,” and, if so, what was that “magic,” exactly, or the “disenchantment” that accompanied its demise? Exploring the various ways in which Protestantism redefined the sacred might…allow us to appreciate more fully what the Protestant Reformation bequeathed to the world.[2]

Eire’s clarion call to discover how Protestantism redefined the sacred is refreshing, but, as he notes, the ghost of Weber remains a stumbling block, leaving Protestantism misunderstood. So, too, I would add, his ghostly presence leaves the Middle Ages misunderstood, and underestimated, too.  Our period is the “enchanted” world that Protestants allegedly lost, like Adam and Eve all over again,  just a placeholder in someone else’s historiography. So, since these misconceptions are costly for mutual understanding and in shrinking market shares of the Humanities, let’s take a moment to remember what the Medieval era bequeathed the Reformation, and how heavily Luther and all who came after depended on it.

A 1617 broadside on the centenary of the German Reformation, “Göttlicher Schrifftmessiger…,” showing Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg. His over-sized pen knocks off the tiara of Pope Leo X. 

Weber had argued that the “ascetic” strand in Protestant ethics was a major factor in the rise of Western capitalism, and that the “disenchantment”(Entzauberung) so evident in Modernity stemmed originally from a devaluation of mysticism, “magic” and other (supposedly) pre-Modern worldviews.  For Weber, “disenchantment” grew out of mental habits of “rationalization,” which, along with burgeoning bureaucracy and valorization of the scientific, contributed to modern secularism. Little did Weber know that the Middle Ages were rife with their own forms of rationalization, bureaucracy, and secularism (scholasticism, laicization of the civil service, and disillusionment with clerical corruption and schism). In contrast, for traditional societies, Weber argued, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.[3]

Mercifully, Weber’s patronizing vision is mostly behind us, but not far enough. Eire argues, rightly I think, that types of “enchantment” survived on both sides of the Reformation Protestant-Catholic divide, with different emphases in each religious culture, and, I’d stress, different aesthetics: e.g. Protestant painters like Rembrandt painted less medieval iconography, but experimented with inner and outer light; Protestant poets like Spenser reinvented medieval romance’s “enchanted” world as a four-part invention of inner and outer voices. But still missing from this more holistic picture is the recognition that, however many “disenchanting” attitudes one believes Protestants unleashed, they were already unleashed in the Middle Ages, itself as varied and unstable as any other period in history.

Medieval views of the supernatural were complicated at best, and often not naïve. Moreover, many forms of “disenchantment” flourished throughout Middle Ages, not just in the Late Middle Ages, the “age of decline” some Reformation historians conveniently blame. Carlos Eire noted the fact that many atheists were willing to die for their beliefs in the Spanish Inquisition, heralding a newer age, but I’d note that the High Middle Ages, too, saw many doubters who faced parallel dangers  (e.g. in England from 1161 onwards).[4] Books were even written to try to turn doubters: e.g. Peter of Cornwall, an Austin canon and prior of Trinity, Aldgate, tells us c. 1200 that he compiled his massive Liber Revelationum (now London, Lambeth Palace MS 51) to convince “unbelievers”:

“Since there are still some who believe that there is no God and the world is ruled by chanceand many who believe only what they see … I (ego, Petrus ecclesie S. Trinitatis Lundonie) have collected out of the lives and acts of the saints, these revelations and visions… . I have confined myself to those which occurred since Christ’s passion, excluding from my view the Old and New Testaments, to which all have access.”[5]

Whoever these unbelievers were, then, they were highly literate, apparently readers of Latin with access to the Old and New Testament – part of the establishment.  Medieval attitudes toward vision could range widely from the devout, like Peter (who nonetheless verified his witnesses officially) to skeptics, like Archbishop John Pecham (who in the 1270s questioned Hildegard of Bingen’s visions using historiographical methods worthy of later Renaissance humanists), to outright deniers, like John Wyclif (who denounced Hildegard’s visions as “extra fidem Scripture”).[6]

Without this range and complexity, the Reformation’s doubts, queries and changes would have been unimaginable, because their writers and reformers would have had less legal and theological precedent. In fact, I’d argue, Luther himself benefited enormously from medieval academic protections and precedents, achievements hard won via the legal and theological challenges of evolving academic institutions. These are the gifts that Medieval writers offered posterity, too often missed in the rush to pigeonhole the Middle Ages as simply “Other.”

Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum(The “95 Theses”), Nuremberg, Hieronymus Höltzel, 1517

What allowed Luther in 1517, then a Wittenberg professor of moral theology, to commit his famous act (actually a routine act at the time[7]) of nailing up theological propositions for dispute was the fact that medieval universities had rights and privileges. He posted the Ninety-Five Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences) on the door of the Castle church (in fact, often used as Wittenberg’s university “billboard”), an action that depended upon a series of medieval inventions and precedents. First, a university had a right to some degree of self- governance independent of the local bishop, and to some forms of academic freedom (not so large as our own, but worthy ancestors of them). So, for instance, in 1290 Godfrey of Fontaine wrote his Quodlibet VII on whether a master of theology may contradict an article condemned by a bishop (“Utrum magister in theologia debet dicere contra articulum episcopi si credit oppositum esse verum”), deciding, strikingly, that on truths necessary to salvation a theologian should not comply with a condemnation he disagreed with, even if others are “scandalized” by his disobedience.[8]  Those outside of the protection of the university could be less fortunate: Godfrey later wrote an approbation of Marguerite Porete’s mystical work, which, however, did not prevent her tragic execution in 1310. Second, Luther had access to the technologies of medieval book and pamphlet production – like the university, the printing press, too, was a medieval invention,[9] but the pamphlet genre was even earlier, as was the broadside.[10] Third, in medieval university contexts, lists of “points” or topics for disputation were common, while “conclusions,” a related genre, were considered more aggressive. Famously in England, the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were affixed to the doors of both St. Paul’s and Westminster Hall in 1395, though the genre does not itself imply heresy.[11] In fact, medieval universities had developed a very specific set of loopholes for academic freedom, from the famous Paris condemnations of 1277 (which reached even to Thomas Aquinas), through John XXII’s persecutions of dissenting academics, and beyond, resulting in an intellectual tradition of disputations probing the one problem that could override any episcopal censure: the question of what was necessary to salvation.[12] I would argue, then, that it was precisely on such matters of “truths necessary to salvation” that many reformers, including Luther, benefited from a protective umbrella, to some real extent, developed – and not without pain and sacrifice – by academics in the Middle Ages.  Lest we forget.

Medieval stained glass fragments gather after destruction by Cromwell’s soldiers, Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire.

So, when medievalists look at Luther 500 years later, they think not of rupture, but continuities – all the earlier times history came so close. Instead of thinking of the Reformation like the smashed fragments from Ripon Cathedral’s medieval windows (above), we probably think instead of one of the literally thousands of intact medieval windows across Europe, like the one from York’s Holy Trinity Goodramgate (below) of family-friendly saints smiling down upon the altar for centuries, over the Early Modern tablets bearing the Creed and Commandments in English.[13]  What divides us is never greater than what unites us.

15th-c East window of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, with (bottom row) female saints, biblical families and Holy Trinity (centre). For close-ups of each see Corpus Vitrearum.


The same window in situ, with Early Modern tables of Creed and Ten Commandments above the altar.


Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Emeritus Professor
University of Notre Dame



[1]My thanks to Mike Johnston for creating one welcome exception, Purdue University’s The Meaning of the Reformation” conference where this paper was first given Nov., 2017.

[2]I quote here from Eire’s blurb for “Reshuffling the Seen and the Unseen: A Reappraisal of the Legacy of the Reformation,” given Oct. 17, 1017 at University of Victoria for The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation series. See Eire’s, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven, 2016).

[3]Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion(Boston, 1971) p. 270.

[4]See the Chronology Chart in K. Kerby-Fulton, for Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England(Notre Dame, 2006) xix –lii (BUS); and “Skepticism, Agnosticism and Belief: The Spectrum of Attitudes Toward Vision in Late Medieval England,” in Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis, ed. K. Kerby-Fulton (Victoria, 2009) 1-18.

[5]Quoted here from Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe, “Peter of Cornwall, The Visions of Aisli and his Sons,” Mediaevistik(1998): 248, from Peter’s Prologue.


[7]Andrew Pettigree, Brand Luther(London, 2015) 71. The Castle Church functioned as a classroom in the university, and its door was used as a billboard.

[8]BUS, 38-9.  For a similar case involving the privileges and liberties of Oxford (libertatum et privilegiorum universitatis Oxoniensis), see BUS,3.

[9]In Europe, but in China mechanical printing dates from the 8thc. C.E.

[11]Hudson, Select Wycliffite Writings, (Toronto, 1997) 150.

[12]BUS, 35.

[13]Sarah Brown, “Reformation, Iconoclasm and Restoration Stained Glass in England c1540-1830” http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/english-stainedglass/english-stainedglass.htm.


The Art of Imprecise, Imperfect Interpretation: Using the Manuscript Annotations of Piers Plowman as Evidence for the History of Reading

In grade school, I was never one to resist the advice of a teacher. So, when told that successful study habits included taking notes, underlining, and starring right in the book itself, that is precisely what I did. Those teachers were right, of course, and I find myself often repeating the same advice to my own students despite their frequent resistance to marring the pristine pages of their soon to be resold copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What I did not know in grade school, however, was that writing in my books meant participating in an ancient tradition of responding to and even interpreting texts, and that one day I would write an entire dissertation about how medieval readers read by studying the evidence left behind by the medieval and early modern readers of a famously unstable text called Piers Plowman by William Langland.

The truth is that people have pretty much always written in their books and, sometimes, books belonging to others as well—rubricating, annotating, bracketing, scribbling, doodling, and more. Whether those readers responded in sparse intervals, limiting their voice on the page to vague marks, or, in contrast, wrote intensely, vociferously inscribing their presence irrevocably onto the page and into the text itself, these voices often remain the best extant evidence available for scholars attempting to understand the reception history of an author whose earliest readers have long since passed.

One example of a vocal, reform-minded reader can be found in an early modern household manuscript copied by Sir Adrian Fortescue, a distant relative of Anne Boleyn executed by Henry VIII for some unknown act of treason.[1] His manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, contains a personalized, conflated copy of what we now call the A and C versions of Piers Plowman alongside a political treatise written by Adrian’s uncle, John Fortescue, called The Governance of England. Filled with annotations in the hands of at least three readers, this book documents a series of responses made over time by Adrian, his wife Anne (who signs her name in Latin!), and the unknown Hand B.[2] The conversations among these readers make this record of reader responses particularly special, but it is Hand B, the subject of this post, that becomes the most reactionary to some of Langland’s biting criticisms of the Church.[3]

Hand B’s responses become increasingly inflammatory in the poem’s apocalyptic final few Passūs. In fact, he goes so far as to conflate the pope and the Antichrist in two of his annotations. The first annotation appears next to a passage in which Langland criticizes the schismatic pope for his role in the spilling of Christian blood:

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, fol. 121v. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

þe poppa/                  And god amend the pope that pelith holy chirche

                                                   And claymyth before the kyng • to be kepar ouer crysten

                                         And countith not though cristen be kyllid & robbid

ô very Antechrist             And fyndith folk to fight & cristene blode to spylle.[4]

The annotation, “O Very Antichrist,” transforms Langland’s corrupt pope into the face of the Apocalypse itself, an even more extreme condemnation of immoral papal behavior than Langland’s. This annotation also lays the groundwork for his second conflation in which he identifies Langland’s Antichrist as the pope, writing “puppa [sic]” next to the line, “And a fals fend antecriste ouer al folke reynyd.”[5] Here Hand B reads the Antichrist’s extensive and increasing worldly authority as the same as that belonging to the pope. In both instances, the annotator melds the Antichrist and pope, two separate entities in the poem, into a single figure responsible for an eschatological catastrophe. In some ways, Hand B’s sixteenth-century reactions to this medieval poem make sense amidst a backdrop of increasing religious instability in Henry VIII’s England. Perhaps Hand B saw in the unstable papal seat produced by the Schism a parallel with the splintering of religious power between Rome and Henry leading up to and during the English Reformation.

Beyond these historical inferences, however, what exactly do Hand B’s strong, reform-minded reader responses teach us about the identity of this reader and his interpretation of the poem? In fact, it tells us both a lot and not very much at all. He clearly disagrees with the ecclesiastical corruption that he sees as trickling down from the Church’s highest seat of power, and he reacts strongly, even emotionally, as he inscribes his interpretive voice onto the page. Piers Plowman’s ending evokes a passionate, rather than objective, response from this reader, who adds his own polemical lament to Langland’s verse. This reader provides just one example of the strong personal investment that Langland’s early audiences felt when reading Piers.[6] He also demonstrates how reading and interpreting literature can aid in the formation and circulation of reformist ideas, especially in precarious times.

However, to what end Hand B voices his cry for reform remains unclear. Without knowing his identity, his exact purpose is impossible to discern because he could be either a Catholic hoping for ecclesiastical reform or a Reformation era Protestant. Adrian’s manuscript stayed in his family until Bodley eventually bought it, increasing the likelihood that Hand B was a family member, or at least a close affiliate. Moreover, the Fortescues maintained their Catholic identity throughout the period, but that does not mean that every single member of the family necessarily adopted the exact same religious practices and beliefs. Without word choices that obviously indicate one camp or the other, the greater social implications of Hand B’s readerly perspectives lead to fuzzy conclusions at best. The enigma of whether he desires institutional change or seeks an altogether new institution of faith must by necessity remain unsolved, at least for now. For this reason, scholars must, with care, entertain multiple possibilities, sometimes foregoing exactness and precision when faced with limited evidence for a text’s reception history. Hand B actually teaches us a great deal more about his reading of Piers than many other annotators, but, as is the case with so many historical records of literary readership, his reader responses still require a certain level of imprecise, imperfect, and even incomplete interpretation.[7]

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

[1] For Adrian’s biography, see Richard Rex, “Blessed Adrian Fortescue: A Martyr without a Cause?,” Analecta Bollandiana 115 (1997): 307-53.

[2] On Anne Fortescue, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “The Women Readers in Langland’s Earliest Audience: Some Codicological Evidence,” in Learning and Literacy in Medieval England and Abroad, ed. Sarah Rees-Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002), 121-34. On the identification of Hand B, see Thorlac Turville-Petre, “Sir Adrian Fortescue and His Copy of Piers Plowman,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000): 29-48.

[3] For my full analysis of these readers’ annotations, see Karrie Fuller, “Langland in the Early Modern Household: Piers Plowman in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 145, and Its Scribe-Annotator Dialogues,” in New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices: Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall, eds. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, John J. Thompson, and Sarah Baechle (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 324-341.

[4] Transcription mine, fol. 121v. The equivalent lines appear in C.XXI.446-449 in A.V.C. Schmidt, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C, and Z Versions, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Kalamazoo: MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011).

[5] Transcription mine, fol. 124r; C.22.64 in Schmidt.

[6] For another example, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s transcription and discussion of the annotations in Bodleian Library MS Douce 104 in Iconography and the Professional Reader: The Politics of Book Production in the Douce “Piers Plowman” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[7] Examples of more terse annotations, which tend to be more characteristic of B-text manuscripts, can be found in David Benson and Lynne Blanchfield, The Manuscripts of Piers Plowman: The B-Version (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997).