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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 3. Aspects of the reformation

And, again, the reformation, owing both to the wishes of its academic founders and to the popular tendencies underlying it, concerned itself largely with popular preaching. It is a widespread error to assume that there was little popular preaching in the Middle Ages. It is true that there were many bishops and parish priests who shirked their canonical duties in this respect, but there was much popular instruction; there was, especially among the friars, much simple, at times even sensational, mission preaching. But the deepening of religious life that preceded the reformation led men to employ with greater diligence all means of helping others, and popular preaching was thus more widely used. Here again, both a conservative and a revolutionary tendency are observable. On the one hand, we can trace the fuller but continuous history of the older use of sermons. On the other hand, we find the tendency, seen at its strongest in Zwinglianism, to exalt the sermon above the sacraments, to put the pulpit in place of the altar. Both tendencies made the literature of sermons more popular, and more significant. But, in the literature thus revived, the academic and popular elements were closely mingled.

It would have been strange if, when interest in religion and religious questions was thus rising, religious controversies had not multiplied. The stir of newly felt needs and impulses to fresh devotion stimulated differences of opinion no less than did abuses calling loudly for reform. The English people had always been religious, and there had always been religious controversies; but now these were both multiplied and intensified. Some were of merely passing importance, although of much historic significance; but others represented real and solid endeavours to form public opinion. It is impossible to notice more than a few of them; some were caused by political relations and by the breach with Rome, and their existence has to be remembered, though they must not be taken for the chief religious interests of the time.

But, from the literary point of view, the most striking feature of the reformation is its connection with the English Bible, and that Bible itself is its greatest monument. Here, again, we might consider the production of the Bible as prepared by that more conservative movement, associated with the revival of learning and seen both in the Oxford reformers and in the Cambridge scholars already mentioned. But it was also connected with a more revolutionary school of thought, and was placed by many as the sole rule of life in sharp opposition to the teaching of the church. Thus, the history of the English Bible itself becomes mingled, strangely and sadly, with the history of religious strife. Beyond and above all that, however, its literary influence shows itself as uniquely as its power in giving an inspiration for life.

These general effects of the reformation upon the national literature must be examined in detail, although, even then, there will be many effects left unnoticed, and many results unaccounted for.