This is a much-needed book. Perhaps no issue, not even those much-discussed issues of Justification by Faith and election, is as central to the debates of the first century of the English Reformation as that of idols or images. In this case, everything is in the word, for one man's image was another man's idol: for one, the terms were almost synonyms, while for another they were as opposite as God and the Devil. The issue not only divided theologians: it divided parishes. The altar stone the Marians recovered from the road at Smarden in Kent was potentially divisive: the altar stones at Sutton Valence and Hartlip, which had been built into the fireplaces of Master Harper and Master Norton, were potential sources of riot. The divisive potential of ecclesiastical ornament lasted right down to, and into, the Civil War, as illustrated by the churchwarden of Bromsgrove, who was reported to the Long Parliament for saying he had saved their church windows, and cared not a fart for any orders of the Parliament not confirmed by the king. Images were not only objects of belief: they were visible symbols of the unity of communities, and an unsuccessful symbol of unity is a symbol of disunity. Images were not an issue, like predestination, which authorities could ever hope to confine to the learned obscurity of the schools: they would not go away, even when taken down. A parish divided on whether to bow to the altar was as hard to manage as a Parliament divided on whether to bow to the mace.
LRB 30 March 1989 | PDF Download