Bernard on Lyon, 'Memory and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Early Modern England'

Harriet Lyon. Memory and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 300 pp. $99.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-00-902910-0; $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-316-51640-9.

Reviewed by George Bernard (University of Southampton)
Published on H-Albion (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)

Printable Version:

It is not, it is often said, for reviewers to suggest that a book would have been better served by being structured differently. Yet it is not hard to feel that Harriet Lyon’s study might warrant such a response. The most serious problem is that the book lacks an integrating overall argument. Different parts of the book deal with unrelated topics. Any reviews are thus going to be a series of thoughts prompted by different parts of the book.

Lyon insists that her book is not about the dissolution of the monasteries as such but about responses to the dissolution; in short it is about what she calls the afterlife, or afterlives, of the dissolution. It is not clear that such a distinction is helpful. Before you can assess responses to the dissolution you surely need to know plenty about the phenomenon itself, certainly more than is offered here. Lyon does devote the introduction and the first chapter to what happened in the 1530s, but her account ducks away from controversies such as the respective roles of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the process of dissolution. It has the feel of a literature search, characterized by brief summaries of relevant books and articles, rather than a substantial and direct engagement with key issues. And Lyon does not really appear at home with the high politics of the dissolution. For example, in places she seems to be endorsing what remains the conventional view, namely that it was the act of 1539 that set in motion the final dissolution. Yet later in the same chapter she offers a view that is less widely held, but more convincing, namely that the act of 1539 ratified and confirmed legally all surrenders of monasteries by abbots and monks to the king, but that in no way did the act actually dissolve anything.

In her account of the dissolution she does not do justice to the popular protests in 1536-37 directed against the dissolution of the smaller religious houses, and in that respect she deals inadequately with the protests as responses to the dissolution. Nor does she do justice to the rebellions of 1536-37 as triggers of that final dissolution in 1538-40 when Henry VIII was enraged by what he saw as rebellions and sent commissioners around the country persuading abbots and monks to make “voluntary” surrenders of their houses to the king. Lyon’s account would have been stronger if she had gone on to discuss by what authority that was done.

Instead the second half of the book deals with a range of scholars and antiquarians, notably John Stow’s Annals (1580) and Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577). Here she brings out the differences between Catholics and Protestants but also emphasizes differences between different strands of Protestants. There should have been more on Catholic polemicists, notably Nicholas Sander and Nicholas Harpsfield. Lyon offers instead some rather grand formulations as when she presents the dissolution as part of “an entire English Reformation” (book abstract). But there was no such “entire Reformation,” as she well knows.

She also makes much of the fashionable notion of “memory” But here the book is at its most problematic. Lyon is aware of the challenge she has set herself. She notes that there is a crucial difference between those who lived through the years of dissolution and those who were born after the dissolution was done, but she does not draw out the implications of this, much less change course. Yet does it really make sense to talk about “memory” when the memories in question rest not on firsthand knowledge but are secondhand at best or even less direct, as is the case with Stow and Holinshed? How useful the modern historian will find “memory” depends on the credibility of witnesses drawing on their memories.

Lyon tries again from a different direction and declares that her book “rests on the premise that historical events are fashioned and crystallised largely in hindsight” (p. 2). But what exactly does that mean? Abbots and monks under pressure in 1538-40 to give up their houses might more reasonably be thought to have needed no hindsight to understand their predicament. They were surely living in the here and now.

Indeed, it can be suggested that when Lyon writes about “memory,” she is really writing about nostalgia. Nostalgia was a theme pursued by Margaret Aston in a pioneering and influential paper, suggesting that the surviving ruins of monastic houses provoked a deep sense of loss and profound nostalgia and contributed to deepening interest in England’s past. Lyon does not appear convinced. The word “nostalgia,” she asserts, was a late seventeenth-century coinage. But that is too literal and nominalist an approach. The phenomenon is surely timeless, whatever one chooses to call it. And curiously, when Lyon writes about memory, she does seem rather to mean nostalgia.

The dissolution of the 1530s did away with monastic houses and monasticism. But the destruction of monastic buildings was not total. Lead could be stripped off roofs, wind and rain made their own contribution. But monasteries were not—could not be—razed to the ground and totally obliterated. That meant that there were ruins in the landscape on a scale that could not be ignored, indeed that demanded continuing attention—and provoked nostalgia. And the destructiveness of the dissolution came to be seen as an embarrassment. What Lyon’s materials thus abundantly show is that there was no consensus over religion in mid-sixteenth-century England. If you were a Protestant you might defend the dissolution as ridding the country of sacrilege. Or you might fear that the destruction had gone too far and think that a gentler reformation would be more fitting. Lyon is alert to such matters but does not quite draw out their full significance. England’s Reformation, inasmuch as there was one, was ambiguous and incomplete. That might have offered Lyon a more persuasive framework for her study. As it is, then, this is an ambitious book that does not altogether realize its aims.

A reader might be forgiven for looking to the conclusion for a concise statement of what the author believes she has found and its implications. Yet the book ends with a consideration of how far the dissolution of the monasteries contributed to the division of the past into periods. In the final sentence of the book Lyon writes, “We ought, then, to see this episode [the dissolution] not only as central to the tumultuous history of the English Reformation, but also as foundational to our understanding of the divide between the medieval and early modern” (p. 249). The dissolution was surely much more than that.

Citation: George Bernard. Review of Lyon, Harriet, Memory and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Early Modern England. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

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