'Domesticating the Reformation: Material Culture, Memory and Confessional Identity in Early Modern England': The SRS Annual Lecture 2014


Images: Dr Gabriele Neher


The 2014 Society for Renaissance Studies Annual Lecture was delivered by Professor Alexandra Walsham of the University of Cambridge, on the subject of Domesticating the Reformation: Material Culture, Memory and Confessional Identity in Early Modern England. The starting point for the lecture was provided by a late seventeenth century delftware dish, produced to commemorate the 1692 marriage of a young Dutch couple. Now in the collections of the British Museum, the plate shows four leading Protestant reformers: John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Opposing them across a table are four representatives of the Catholic Church: a pope, a cardinal, a bishop and a monk. In the centre of the table is a candle, representative of the reformed faith; the reformers declare that ‘The candle is lighted’ whilst their opponents regret that ‘We cannot blow it out.’


From this intriguing starting point, Walsham led the audience on a journey through the material culture of the seventeenth-century English home, paying particular attention to the role of decorated tin-glazed earthernware. By exploring both the medium and message of such items, she illustrated how theReformation entered the household in the form of material goods, and thus became part of the country’s collective memory and national identity.  Since such items penetrated a long way down the social hierarchy and were used on a daily basis, they had the potential to exercise considerable influence over the hearts and souls of the English people.


Whilst the reformers were generally opposed to the display of images in churches, they were rather more accepting of the display of certain images within a domestic context, as Walsham’s lavishly-illustrated talk amply displayed. Images of leading reformers were popular, both on plates and in print. Such images ignored both chronological and confessional differences between leading reformers, in order to propogate the myth of a long and united history of Protestantism; they also emphasised England’s place within the Europe-wide reform movement. Other popular themes included Old Testament stories (Adamand Eve were often invoked on wedding plates) and texts which served as memento mori.


Walsham also drew attention to the role of househood goods in the commemoration of national events, such as the Restoration of Charles II, the Popish Plot and the defeat of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden. Images such as these provide an insight into popular royalism, and the extent to which such sentiments became intertwined with anti-Catholicism. But connotations shifted as political circumstances changed; for example, the Glorious Revolution significantly altered the significance of possessing a piece of delftware made in celebration of James II. In this way, ownership of commemorative delftware could serve subversive agendas as much as conformist purposes.


Yet the significance of these items was not merely ideological. Not only were pieces of delftware prominently displayed and used on a daily basis, but many were purchased in celebration of the key events of the human life cycle: birth, marriage and death. Amongst the items to which Walsham drew attention was an early eighteenth-century mug, probably made to commemorate the death of a small child. Consequently, many of the pieces of delftware which survive in contemporary museum collections are deeply affective objects, offering an insight into the beliefs and emotions of our ancestors.


Overall, this was a lecture which provided an important re-evaluation of a group of objects which will be familiar to many people, but are in many waysunder-appreciated. Moreover, it served as a powerful corrective to the traditional view that post-Reformation England suffered from ‘visual anorexia’, and to the (fortunately declining) tendency to consider the English Reformation in isolation from the rest of Europe. Perhaps most significantly, Walsham offered a truly impressive example of what can be achieved by bringing material remains in from the margins, and placing them at the centre of the historical record.


Katherine Harvey (SRS Postdoctoral Fellow 2013-14)