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18 September 2014
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The Historian's Many Hats

By John Arnold
Interpreting history

Image of a pre-Reformation nun and monk
A 15th-century nun and monk ©
We would probably want a historian to supply some interpretation of the case of John Hogsflesh. There are a number of options here, which will vary from person to person. How we understand or make sense of Hogsflesh's crime and penance depends firstly on the particular context into which we place it.

One historian might point out that in 1534 England was at the beginning of its religious Reformation, as Henry VIII detached the Church of England from Rome. Elements of Hogsflesh's ideas - particularly the rejection of Mary, which probably implied a rejection of belief in all the saints - were beginning to gain a national foothold, with elements of support from the king and his advisors.

'... his trial and penance formed part of a pattern for controlling religious belief ...'

This historian might therefore present Hogsflesh as evidence for a general shift in religious beliefs, and suggest he was unluckily caught out because he expressed his views a few years too early, at a point when the church was still arguing about what orthodox belief should be on such matters.

Another historian might place Hogsflesh's experience into the context of heresy trials, and point out that his trial and penance formed part of a pattern for controlling religious belief that stretched back (in England) to the late 14th century.

Someone interested in heresy itself might note that the beliefs Hogsflesh expressed (including his doubt about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist) can be found in many earlier periods and places - and thus draw attention away from the Reformation to a longer history of dissenting thought.

Someone else again might think about the public nature of Hogsflesh's penance (semi-naked in those marketplaces), and remind us that a variety of people and things were displayed in English marketplaces during this period, from people being punished for more secular crimes to popular entertainments or shows.

Published: 2005-01-28

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