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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 6. Attacks upon it and Replies

Of the principal controversial writings to which The History of the English Reformation gave rise, at a time when polemics between the church of Rome and her opponents could not but be at their height, a bibliographical list must suffice. To a French historian’s, Joachim Legrand, elaborate “refutation” of the first two books of the work (1688), Burnet wrote a reply, which his adversary immediately published in a French translation, with his own counter-blast. Burnet himself was not one of those rarae aves, in any branch of literature, who hold that criticisms are best left to answer themselves, and few challenges found him unready. He quickly (1688) retorted in the Oxford Theses Relating to the English Reformation attributed to Obadiah Walker. On the other hand, in the case of the first two volumes of the popular Antoine Varillas’s long-expected history of heresies, Burnet himself assumed the offensive, and, in two pamphlets printed at Amsterdam in the year of the appearance of this portion of Varillas’s work (1686) and in the following year respectively, contributed to the overthrow of its author’s reputation. Varillas had avowedly attacked the protestant reformation from the political side; and Burnet was well qualified to carry the war into the enemy’s camp, and to show that the new History was “nothing but Sanders drest up in another Method.” That method was the assumption of great documentary learning, and an audacious use of the imagination in the handling of such materials as the writer possessed. Burnet’s pamphlets are in the perennial style of a “smashing” review, with an infusion of the personal element hardly in excess of what contemporary readers expected; and they served their purpose.

Finally, he took up Bossuet’s gauntlet, flung down by the greatest catholic controversialist of his age in his famous Histoire des Variations, where The History of the English Reformation had been treated “as the authoritative text-book of English Protestantism,” in A Censure of M. de Meaux’ History (1688), which sought to turn the tables on his august adversary.