Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (1060, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII f.13r) © British Library
Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (1060, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII f.13r) © British Library

As the Reformation became more bloody and arguments more entrenched, an accusation was made by Protestant scholars that Roman Catholics had, over the centuries, destroyed and hidden manuscripts that revealed the truth of English history, or at least a ‘truth’ which they wished to believe had once existed. 

In Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman’s 2011 study Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ a footnote concerning John Foxe’s approach to England’s manuscript chronicle traditions observes a certain paranoia concerning the capabilities and wholesale devious approach attributed to Roman Catholic writers and clergy of past ages.  There is a belief displayed here by Foxe and his colleagues that the sources available to them had been tempered with, or worse, eradicated entirely when it came to their honesty about the English past.  The example given is Archbishop Lanfranc (d. 1089) and other Norman bishops, who Foxe accuses of destroying books which, in his mind, proved that the English clergy had not previously believed in transubstantiation.  Foxe wrote:

And thoughe the Latine copies and exemplars of these foresayd Sermons, are not remaining in our Libraries, let that be no meruel to thee, louing reader:  but vnderstand thereby the craftie packyng of the Popes Clergie, who in the tyme of Lancfrancus, and Pope Innocent, studying by al meanes, how to preferre and further this their newcome doctrine of transubstantiatio[n], did abolish & rase out of Libraries & Churches, all such bookes which made to þe contrary. And therfore because Lancfrancus and other Italian Priestes here in England vnderstode not the Saxon bookes, as they did the Latine, all that whiche they vnderstode, they made away. The Saxon bookes because they knew the[m] not, they let remaine. And this is þe cause why our Latine copies now are not to be found. (A&M, 1570, p. 1343)

A similar accusation was made by Archbishop Matthew Parker in his Testimony of Antiquity in which it is argued, forcibly, that manuscripts of Aelfric’s homely had been purposefully tampered with by Roman Catholic scholars.  In the 1560s his work became a focus for Parker’s household.  They had discovered a number of variant versions, one of which had been rubbed out in its Latin form where it talked about transubstantiation.

Why did such arguments come about?  In part, I suspect, a genuine belief had been formed by evangelical scholars that their history had been tampered with.  Perhaps the belief had come out of wishful thinking and an overpowering desire to see things in the sources that were not actually there.  But in some cases it was a genuine and honest corrective to the established traditions.  After all the printing press was a relatively new invention – multiple and duplicate copies of texts, clean from scribal error or amendment, were a pretty new thing.  It had only been around for a century, and even then scholars and printers were only just beginning to come to grips with the capabilities of the new technology.

We have to consider that most texts still came in manuscript form.  This was particularly true for chronicles and annals, upon which histories such as Foxes’ were constructed.  No two copies of a manuscript would ever be the same.  One would look different to another in style as well as substance.  Dialect, punctuation, colours, writing style, and amount of text on any given page would differ wildly.  Many scribes would add to the text – note in the margins their disagreement with something the original author wrote, become confused by a segment or believe it inaccurate, so they would change it.  Amendments would be made all over the place – perhaps filtering in text from another chronicle to fill a gap or provide a superior (in their view) version.  Chronicles were widely brought up to date as well.  Where the original author ceased to write, another would take over, then another.  If you imagine that each of these manuscripts might be borrowed by other monasteries – replicated there and given the same treatment, then you will see that there would be multiple versions of the same text, each differing in some way, each added to and extended to varying degrees and by different authors with different purposes and interests.

It was very easy therefore to mistake – or at least claim – that these were not simply part of the process of manuscript production but a purposefully erasure of things that monks in the past had disliked.  Indeed, in some cases this accusation might well have been true, even if it were not some great conspiracy as Foxe and others liked to accuse.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman, Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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