One Year of Remembering the Reformation: the Stainton Missal 1516–2016

24 January 2017

What is that drives a person to commit iconoclasm? It is a question that has been much on my mind for the last year. As part of the project Remembering the Reformation, we have been preparing for the Digital Exhibition that we will launch later in 2017. It has been both exciting and moving to spend a lot of time in various libraries and archives. Alex, Ceri, Brownwyn and I have been greeted warmly by curators at our wonderful national collections — at Cambridge University Library, York Minster Library, and Lambeth Palace Library (our official partners); also at Trinity College, Cambridge; and at the National Archives, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. Everywhere we go, there are objects which jump out at us with their stories, of how they were made, and how they ended up in their modern homes. Not least of this has been the acts of violence which surrounded religious objects before and after the Reformation.

The object that hit me hardest, with a kind of brutal and still extant power, was a sixteenth-century printed missal (York Minster Library, Stainton 12 — A detail from the missal forms the banner for this website.) Even its bare history is a good metaphor for the complexity of the social memory of the Reformation, both in relation to the sixteenth century, and in the long reach of history since. In the exactly five hundred years of its life, to this day, it has never moved outside of a small triangle in north Yorkshire, between York itself and the edges of the Dales and the Moors. It was printed in Rouen in 1516 for sale and use in York. The Calendar contains three signs of ownership. The first is the obit of John Best, rector of ‘faysbe’, dated 14 August 1530. So for its first twenty years, so far as we know, the book was used for its traditional purpose to celebrate the mass; probably in Faceby, a small village in the North York Moors near Stokesley. Then there is a note, from the end of the century, this time dated 5 August 1600, thanking God for the preservation of King James VI of Scotland from the Gowrie conspiracy. And lastly, there are seventeenth-century ownership marks from two vicars of Stainton in North Yorkshire. The second was Richard Lumley, who was vicar after the Restoration; he bequeathed a large number of books in 1694, which formed the Stainton Parish Library. From there, like all of Stainton’s precious books, it was deposited in York Minster Library for safe-keeping in 1911.

However, the sensational aspect of the book is concealed by these details. The opening of the Te igitur at the beginning of the Canon, as in many missals, is illuminated by the figure of the crucifixion, in this case a woodcut which has been hand-coloured with contemporary paint. But this is not what a modern handler of the book sees. Instead, the eye is confronted, we might say assaulted, by a vigorous slash, diagonally across the image of the Cross. It splits the cross without (quite) touching the body of Christ. (For an image, see the banner.) Below, through the next dozen leaves, is another, deeper gouge, in the opposite direction to the slashed crucifix, we might even say forming a reverse cross or saltire. The book is thus an astonishingly vivid example of iconoclasm. In fact, with some painstaking analysis, it has been possible to establish that there are seven different cuts in all, defacing two dozen leaves. Some are indiscriminate, some very precise. In the woodcut facing the crucifixion, there is a God the Father enthroned. In this case, the cuts bisect his face twice, once splitting vertically through the nose from forehead to the tip of his beard, the other cutting directly between his eyes from left to right. God is represented with a papal tiara: did the iconoclast wrongly think it was the Pope?

The Stainton Missal
The Stainton Missal — York Minster Library, Stainton 12. By kind permission of the Chapter of York


Iconoclasm is a subject with a long and distinguished historiography. Following the work of the late and so much lamented Margaret Aston, this defacement may be conjectured to have been done in the late 1530s, but it is more likely that it happened under King Edward in the late 1540s, when the Roman rites were banned. Yet it is unusual in several respects. Unlike Edwardian iconoclasm, it is aimed not at images and icons, but a book. However, the book is uncanny in other ways. The sheer savagery of the mutilation is like an example of over-determination. It is disturbing, like a physical wound. It is clearly aimed at the most sacred moment of the mass — the Canon — but in the process it disfigures Christ and God the Father. Almost as mysterious is how the book survives. Despite its mutilated state, it was kept intact. New owners — not Catholics, but demonstrably reformed in one way or another — looked after it and wrote into it. There is a feeling even that the book’s wounds have made people care for it.

It is easy to dismiss iconoclasm as a species of vandalism. But the sacred mysteries of divine worship were among the aspects of the Reformation that were most argued about and aroused the deepest feelings. Rebels in 1549 demanded that the Latin mass be brought back, but others denounced the old liturgy as mumbo-jumbo or profanity. Such feelings have not gone away. This week the Church of England expressed “huge regret” that a service at the chapel of Westcott House in Cambridge had used the gay slang language Polari. Instead of the traditional “Glory be to the father, and to the son, and the Holy Spirit” the prayer offered was: “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy”. Myself I love the linguistic inventiveness of this, and cherish its use to commemorate LGBT history month; but it appears that some people were upset. Yet we should remember that many people were upset in the 1540s at the idea of using vernacular English to say prayers to God, and said that such prayers could never work. Equally, others said that using Latin turned the prayers into a kind of magic. 

Iconoclasm, viewed from either side, is deeply troubling. It expresses conscious violence against how other people express their religion, a violence which includes censorship and suppression but also goes beyond that in actually destroying what is in front of it. But somehow it also expresses a distinctive and opposed view of the sacred. It is not violence for no reason. At the end of 2016, as part of the Workshop we held in York, I performed a kind of re-enactment of the seven cuts done to the Stainton Missal. (In case anyone is worried, it was not a sacred book, or an old one, but a university document associated with the Teaching Environment Framework.) Part of the point of it was to show how arbitrary and even banal an act of violence can be: at some moment, in probably under a minute, the Stainton Missal was changed for ever, and we will never know exactly when or why. Somehow still the book has come down to us 500 years later. 2016 was a horrible year, but it also reminded us of what is at stake in our lives, what we really care about, and the damage that human beings want to do to each other.