BBC Four runs excellent programme on ‘the three books’ of the English Reformation

Dr Janina Ramirez presents informative programme on Tyndale’s New Testament, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that is unashamed of explaining the issues of the day

Three books that changed a nation — the Bible in English, the Book of Common Prayer, and Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Three books that changed a nation — the Bible in English, the Book of Common Prayer, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Last night I had my annual TV catch-up and managed to watch BBC Four’s ‘England’s Reformation: Three Books That Changed a Nation,’ presented by Janina Ramirez and first shown on 19th October as part of the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

“Of these three men, [Tyndale, Cranmer and Foxe,] two died agonizing deaths as heretics for their beliefs.”

The programme took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of three books that defined the Reformation in England: William Tyndale’s New Testament; Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer; and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Of these three men, the former two died agonizing deaths as heretics for their beliefs; while Foxe’s work rescued their reputation and ensured their place as heroes of the Reformation.

Janina Ramirez’ programme was a real education, as she managed — I don’t know how in twenty minutes per book — to get to the heart of why each of these books was so important to the Reformation, why it was so explosive in its day, and how it’s shaped our own lives even down to this day.

“Janina Ramirez’ programme [… got] to the heart of why each of these books was so important to the Reformation, why it was so explosive in its day, and how it’s shaped our own lives even down to this day.”

I’m no expert but I know a fair amount about the Reformation; but I learned a lot from this that I hadn’t known previously — such as the hostility towards the Book of Common Prayer when it was first promulgated in 1549, and how it led to a revolt in Cornwall which was bitterly crushed.

Her presenting style has improved since I first saw her in 2013 presenting the BBC’s ‘Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War’. Since that programme, she has become more authoritative and appears to have stopped using phrases like, “I think this,” and, “I think that,” and, “For me the Battle of Agincourt means…” Although she has developed this style of walking towards the camera in such a way as makes her appear to be in a music video. I couldn’t help but think of Richard Ashcroft and his famous (and controversial) video for ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony.’

I don’t know what Janina Ramirez’ personal beliefs are, but certainly as an historian she really seemed to enthuse about these three books and the impact they had both on the people of Tudor England and on people today.

“Up there is the priest performing the rite, the one who ‘understands’ what’s happening; down here are the laity, the ones who ‘don’t understand’ the mysteries being performed.”

I also appreciated the personal touch when she said that she had grown up attending Catholic Mass in a Polish-Irish Catholic congregation. This, however, she said, was the first time she had ever sat through an entire Latin mass, and it really brought home to her the passivity it engenders: up there is the priest performing the rite, the one who ‘understands’ what’s happening; down here are the laity, the ones who ‘don’t understand’ the mysteries being performed (although I suspect that, as an historian, Ramirez is actually quite capable of following the Latin of the mass).

A really good and informative programme, and I sincerely hope the BBC puts more like this on our screens in the coming weeks.

“Will [the BBC] give the same prominence on its home page to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, as it recently did to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967?”

This programme was broadcast, however, on BBC Four, where it’s quite unlikely to offend anybody. I reckon that the principal daily interaction of a large tranche of the UK populace with the BBC is actually via its website, and it still remains to be seen whether BBC Online will give the same prominence on its home page to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, as it recently did to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

 

 

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