Genealogies of Reform

Reflections on a seminar paper given by Professor Alexandra Walsham at the University of East Anglia, 25 January 2017.

Thomas Stapleton, The apologie of Fridericus Staphylus (1565) [source: Shakespeare Folger Library] Creative Commons License (

Historical generations are not born; they are made.
— Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914

Professor Alexandra Walsham visited the University of East Anglia last Wednesday to talk about one of her current research projects, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, which explores the category of age and generation in relation to the English Reformation, and examines the interconnections between age, ancestry, and memory. Generations have been seen as a product of modernity but Walsham argued that generational aspects of religious change shed new light on contemporary understandings of remembrance and the Reformation.

The work of three important scholars on generation has encouraged us to conceptualise generations as part of the malleability of human beings' responses to change: Rohert Wohl, Mary Fulbrook, and R.F. Foster. For Walsham, they have inspired her to consider the way in which those who experienced, remembered, and processed the religious transformations of the early modern era used ideas about generation to frame narratives of change.

The Genealogy of Christ, from the 1611 King James Bible [source:  SCETI University of Pennsylvania ] Creative Commons License (

The Genealogy of Christ, from the 1611 King James Bible [source: SCETI University of Pennsylvania] Creative Commons License (

Walsham's material was typically rich, and the wide-ranging paper teased out many features of generational thought and imagination in early modern England in relation to religious transformation. This was on one level an intellectual and theological interest since early modern Christianity had a renewed interest in its own origins. Family trees and genealogical tables detailed the descent of Christ, whilst trying to reconcile scriptural inconsistencies or chronological dilemmas. Religious division injected new urgency into the exercise as confessional groups used genealogy to buttress their claims. Protestantism sought to demonstrate that it was not an upstart religion, and the Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574)),the great Lutheran historical project, or a work such as Richard Bernard's Looke beyond Luther (1623) emphasised the perpetual visibility of the true Church. Conversely heresy could be characterised by opponents as an ancestral sin related to sexual perversion, and the marriage of clerics in the Reformation gave new energy to these arguments. (Luther's own union with former nun Katherina von Bora was, as is well known, criticised as incest between spiritual brother and sister.) Suggestively, Walsham argued that this was linked to contemporary discourses of witchcraft, which centred around the sexual perversions of copulation between Satan and his female agents.  

Yet Walsham also illustrated that concern with generations and ancestry was a family affair and one that functioned beyond the level of elite society. Certainly high-ranking families seemed obsessed with ancestries and histories, tracing their descent back to Noah and Adam, but a rise in anxiety about bastardy, adultery, fornication, and sexual honour betrayed the widespread social scrutinisation of generation and lineage. Furthermore, this became a confessionally marked exercise. Genealogies rarely put a red circle around the date of the Reformation, but confessional pedigree was on display through a selective process of remembering some ancestors and forgetting others. Protestant families also had to confront the question of whether their Catholic forbears were damned, since the Reformation brought an end to the conversation between the dead generations and the living.

Generational interaction, therefore, was affected by the religious change as individuals looked back in time and examined the actions of their predecessors, but is also affected the forward gaze about future generations. The abject wretchedness of human nature in Protestant theology posed a dilemma for parents who could effectively do nothing to guarantee the salvation of their children. True Christians were not not born in blood but created by God's work, a form of horticulture as Walsham described it. Yet this despair gave way to hope for future generations, a longing for the possible notion of hereditary grace, a desire to use domestic piety to express familial blessedness, and a belief that future generations would carry on the work of reform. Walsham cited the remarkable letter of Welsh martyr John Penry written on the eve of his execution in 1593 to his four young daughters, Deliverance, Comfort, Safety, and Sure Hope, charging them to follow God's commands so that they might all meet again in Heaven.

Remember and believe assuredly that salvation is perfectly to be had by Jesus Christ, and none other. If you will be partakers of this salvation, you must assuredly believe all your sins to be forgiven you, for His sake. If you will do this, oh! blessed shall your reward be in the kingdom of heaven.
— John Penry, letter to his daughters, 1593
Delftware dish depicting the Protestant reformers Wyclif, Luther, Calvin and Beza, seated around the candle of the Gospel, 1692. British Museum, item no. 1891,0224.3; image no. AN1305850. © The Trustees

Delftware dish depicting the Protestant reformers Wyclif, Luther, Calvin and Beza, seated around the candle of the Gospel, 1692. British Museum, item no. 1891,0224.3; image no. AN1305850. © The Trustees

Generational language fostered a sense of belonging by establishing the notion of a chosen generation who had suffered and charging the next generations with the continued work of reform. Generation is inextricably linked with the question of memory and how the Reformation came to be conceived of as a landmark event, a question that in the anniversary year of the Reformation of 2017 is particularly pertinent. Cultural memory was celebrated in stories and histories,  prayers, Bibles, recipes, and almanacs, as well as physical objects.  A Dutch delftware dish from 1692 which celebrated the marriage of an Amsterdam tailor was decorated with the well-known image of the Protestant reformers around the light of the Gospel, intertwining personal events with historical narrative.

Finally, Walsham explored how this generational aspect of early modern religion and culture has fundamentally influenced the way the Reformation has been remembered. Libraries, family archives, and official archives have shaped our view of the medieval and reformation past through they way organised recollections and understandings of generational shifts. Walsham's work is provocative and exciting, and she underscores the important of age and generations to our accounts of the Reformation. She addresses the the intellectual, communal, and interpersonal understandings of memory, religious change, and historical narrattives through the analysis of generational motifs. Generation and memory is dynamic and malleable, in constant movement, but Walsham provides a model for the way in which we can understand the slippery, intangible question of memory and memory creation in a broad cultural context. We are at a time when this focus on generation, memory, and change seems particularly relevant. 2017 is not only Lutherjahr but also a year in which contemporary society perceives that it is at a moment of great change after the major political shifts of 2016. The year has been characterised by some as a year of death or disaster, by others as the year in which people stood up to the establishment. Are we witnessing the creation of a notion of the Brexit generation or a Trump generation, and how will we remember 2016 in years to come? Walsham's work provides much food for thought.