Iconoclasm As Child's Play
Joe Moshenska




IN 1566, seven years after Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, royal visitors were sent into the county of Lincolnshire to ensure that it had been thoroughly cleansed of the vestiges of traditional and unreformed religion that had been brought back under Queen Mary. The previous year, the archdeacon of Lincoln, John Aylmer, had been appalled while undertaking a routine visitation by widespread evidence that the restored paraphernalia and practices had survived into the early years of Elizabethan reform. He appealed successfully for a special commission “for reforming this church and diocese . . . for undoubtedly this country [sic] hath as much need of it as any place in England.”1 The commissioners duly made their way through Lincolnshire, casting their beady eyes over the liturgical apparatus of the parish churches and grilling priests and parishioners to determine the precise fates of the holy things that they were supposed to have expunged. They compiled long lists, itemizing every previously holy object that each parish had once possessed and detailing the properly iconoclastic fate that these items had ultimately met.

The lists that the commissioners compiled have survived, and they have periodically been examined by historians of the English Reformation for the remarkable glimpse that they offer into the practicalities of iconoclasm.2 Reading them, one finds it impossible not to be struck by the diverse forms that iconoclastic actions might take. Burning or breaking an object was one obvious way to abolish its holiness, but it was far from the only way. Many of the items were adapted for new purposes, and the phrase “put to prophane use” echoes like a refrain throughout the lists.3 The commissioners were told of “the covering of the pix”—the container for the consecrated Host—“sold to John Storr and his wief occupieth yt in wiping her eies.”4 More than one item was given to a tinker, and vestments were donated to the poor.5 Other objects were put to still lowlier uses: a holy water vat was used to make “a swines troughe”; a sacring bell was redeployed as “a horse bell therof to hange at a horses eare.”6 Altar stones were now used as “paving as to the townes behofe,” and parishioners could routinely undergo the daring experience of placing their profane buttocks onto a rood loft, converted into “seates . . . for people to sytt in,” or even fornicating and sleeping in another rood loft converted into a bed.7

Amid these diverse iconoclastic forms, however, the lists include several entries that cannot easily be grouped either with those objects that were burned and broken or those put to profane use. The commissioners were told of two pyxes “defacid and geven away . . . vnto a child to plaie with all.” Later, it was reported to them that “three banner clothes” had been “geven awaie to childerne to make plaiers cotes of.”8 Some holy things, it seems, did not meet their fate on the pyre or beneath the hammer, nor were they refashioned for emphatically humdrum purposes. Instead, like the objects described by Roger Edgeworth in the 1530s, they were placed in the hands of children, to be desacralized by being made into toys.

The appearance of these entries on the Lincolnshire lists is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it confirms that Edgeworth’s scene of iconoclastic child’s play from the 1530s was not a unique or isolated instance: three decades later, making holy things into playthings remained a viable way of, in theory, demeaning them and reducing them to insignificance. The context in which we encounter this evidence is, however, strikingly different. Edgeworth described iconoclastic child’s play from the point of view of an appalled adherent to traditional religion. He depicted a scene in which an image was treated as a plaything in the interior of an irreverent household, but he did not suggest that this was a reflection of official policy—only that it encapsulated the ungodliness inherent with the program of reform as a whole. In the case of the Lincolnshire lists, though, matters are very different. The fraught position in which the parishioners of the county were being placed merits further consideration. They knew that these men were coming to inspect them with the most suspicious of attitudes, sharply attentive to any suggestion of lingering traditionalism or failure to act as thoroughgoing iconoclasts. These parishioners could be sure that if a formerly holy object was found to have remained among them unobliterated, they would have to be able to explain why. This meant that they must have been confident that the visitors would accept placing an object in a child’s hands as an adequate strategy for ridding it of its holiness and its numinous force.

If the presence of the entries on these lists provides further evidence for iconoclastic child’s play as a wider phenomenon, then, it also indicates some important challenges to my attempts to interpret it. I ultimately want to argue that iconoclasm as child’s play is replete with the possibility of multiple meanings and that the nature and extent of the transformation that a holy object undergoes when it becomes a plaything is open to serious question. If this is the case, it must be asked: why did it not worry the Lincolnshire visitors, who apparently accepted it as a straightforward form of iconoclasm? To this I must add a caveat leading to a second, parallel question. It is important to stress that I have by no means discovered that iconoclastic child’s play took place: Edgeworth’s sermon, and the entries on the Lincolnshire lists, have been discussed by numerous historians, but they have tended to mention it only in passing, folding it into the large and varied repertoire of iconoclastic activities rather than considering it as a distinctive phenomenon in its own right.9 Why, if it seems to be so distinctive to me, has it not seemed so to them?

The answer to both of these questions, I believe, lies in the relationship between the practice of iconoclastic child’s play and a prominent and frequently discussed strand in Protestant polemic, which sought to demean and diminish Roman Catholic ritual by eliding it with the mere playing of children. In this context a particular cluster of words emerged that were used again and again to effect this deliberately insulting juxtaposition. A good example is the New Catechism written by the incessantly vituperative Thomas Becon, which presents a dialogue between father and son, in which the former proclaims: “How unmeet a schoolmaster a blind idol, a dumb mawmet, a popish puppet, a dead image is to teach us any good thing.”10 Later in the century we see the ways in which such polemical strategies found their way into poetry. In the “Maye” eclogue of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar (1579), the shepherd Piers (who, the “Argument” tells us, represents a Protestant minister) tells a fable of a “false Foxe” who fools a kid by dressing

. . . as a poore pedler . . .

Bearing a trusse of tryfles at hys backe,

As bells, and babes, and glasses in hys packe.

In case the reader misses the implied denigration behind these words, E. K.’s gloss explains that “by such trifles are noted, the reliques and ragges of popish superstition, which put no smal religion in Belles: and Babies .s. Idoles: and glasses .s. Paxes, and such lyke trumperies.”11 Nor was this polemical strain confined to England but emerged in comparable German contexts: in one of the sets of reformed church statutes compiled by Johannes Bugenhagen, the “child’s play of the papists” [kinder spel der Papen] is derided as “idle deception and doll play” [poppen spel].12 We see beginning to emerge in these moments a cluster of words that seem strongly related to child’s play—mammet, puppet, baby, and especially trifle—which are compared to the workings of “popish superstition” in order to confirm its equally empty triviality.13 Indeed, in Lincolnshire we find some parishioners sufficiently aware of this emerging polemical strand that they used it to describe earlier acts of destruction that they could not prove had taken place: the people of the Isle of Axholme insisted that “the Rest of such triflinge toyes and tromprie apptayninge to the popishe masse and popishe prelate was made awaie and defacid in Kinge Edwardes tyme.”14 The iconoclastic child’s play in Edgeworth’s sermon or in Lincolnshire has therefore seemed quite comprehensible (both to the Elizabethan visitors and to recent historians) as the actualization—the putting into practice—of this polemical strain. The playing children merely confirm the supposedly holy object to be the inane plaything that, in the iconoclasts’ eyes, it always already was. This is the claim made, for example, by Amy Knight Powell, who outlines the polemical dismissal of popery as mere child’s play and notes in passing that “other reformers made the same point by simply giving the images they removed from churches to children.”15 But was it quite that simple?

Although the practice of iconoclasm as child’s play is clearly linked to this polemical strand, I argue in this chapter that they should not be conflated too swiftly. To do so is to mistake a strenuous attempt at simplification for something that was, in fact, simple in practice. My central claim is that there is nothing at all simple about trivialization strategies, which involve powerful and complex processes. It is no great surprise that they have not typically been recognized as such, however, since such strategies function not only by denying power and complexity to that which they trivialize but by concealing their own power and complexity in the process. “This object is straightforwardly banal and trivial; my claim that this is so is itself an equally simple reflection of this object’s uncomplicated and patent triviality”—so runs the implicit logic of strategic trivialization. There has been significantly more attention to the processes by which value is created and reinforced than to those by which it is removed or diminished, but the latter is a potent social force with, I would argue, a crucial role to play in the formation of social, religious, and aesthetic communities. One way to understand such communities in practice might be not so much in terms of their shared commitments or beliefs but a common (and often tacit) agreement as to what they will and will not risk trivializing. Discussing the section of Homo Ludens that sees the spoilsport as the true enemy of play who “must be cast out as a threat to the play community,” E. H. Gombrich writes that “the more one reads Huizinga, the more one comes to the conclusion that it was this character of common consent, the agreement to refrain from certain questions, that constituted for him an important condition of civilization.”16 The power of this tacit agreement is immense and underrated. Belief can be debated, but ritual practice relies on a common willingness to accept this particular set of embodied acts as at least potentially significant; there is little to convince those who reject them, and this makes such acts intrinsically, not accidentally, prone to ridicule and trivialization. If such practices are seen as ridiculous and trifling, this judgment seems to draw on the ceaseless potential for ludicrousness that comes with the human predicament of being an embodied agent in the world. The language of trifling cuts to the heart of how values actually function in specific communities and the deep fragility of this functioning, based as it is on a mixture of collective practices and a concomitant collective willingness to refrain from asking certain questions about why we do what we do. As Webb Keane puts it, “the fact of not being talked about can be an important part of the power and persuasiveness of certain aspects of a culture.”17 This is how, outside iconoclastic contexts, culturally essential trifles continue to function.


1. Henry Gee, The Elizabethan Prayer-Book and Ornaments (London: Macmillan, 1902), 147.

2. See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 572–73. The definitive account of these visitations is now Margaret Aston, Broken Idols of the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 164–83.

3. The surviving lists were published as English Church Furniture, Ornaments and Decorations, at the Period of the Reformation: As Exhibited in a List of the Goods Destroyed in Certain Lincolnshire Churches, A.D. 1566, ed. Edward Peacock (London: John Camden Hotten, 1866), 30 (for breaking and burning), 33, 35, 36, 151, and elsewhere for profane usage.

4. Peacock, English Church Furniture, 57. Pyxes were targeted by fifteenth-century Lollards in a spate of robberies in London churches, so were established iconoclastic targets: see Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, 101.

5. Tinkers mentioned as recipients: Peacock, English Church Furniture, 33, 71; donations to the poor: 30, 104, 120.

6. Peacock, English Church Furniture, 95.

7. Peacock, English Church Furniture, 39 (for altar stones as paving slabs), 40, 147 (for rood-lofts as seats), 119 (for a rood loft converted into a bed).

8. Peacock, English Church Furniture, 55, 108.

9. See, e.g., J. W. Blench, Preaching in England in the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964), 122; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Penguin, 1971), 86 (citing Blench as his authority); and Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 172.

10. The Catechism of Thomas Becon, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1845), 62.

11. Edmund Spenser, “Maye,” lines 236, 238–40, and commentary, in The Shorter Poems, ed. Richard A. McCabe (London: Penguin, 1999), 85. See the discussion in Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America and Literature from “Utopia” to “The Tempest” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 118–19.

12. Johannes Bugenhagen, Der ehrbaren Stadt Hamburg christliche Ordnung 1529: De Ordeninge Pomerani, ed. Hans Wenn (Hamburg: Friedrich Wittig, 1976), 5–7. See the brief discussion by Amy Knight Powell, Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (New York: Zone, 2012), 195.

13. See Alexandra Walsham, “The Pope’s Merchandise and the Jesuit’s Trumpery: Catholic Relics and Protestant Polemic in Post-Reformation England,” in Religion, the Supernatural and Visual Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Spinks and Dagmar Eichberger (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 370–409.

14. Peacock, English Church Furniture, 170.

15. Powell, Depositions, 106 (my emphasis).

16. E. H. Gombrich, “Huizinga’s Homo Ludens,” in Johan Huizinga, 1872–1972, ed. W. R. H. Koops et al. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), 133–54, 145 (my emphasis).

17. Webb Keane, “From Fetishism to Sincerity: On Agency, the Speaking Subject, and Their Historicity in the Context of Religious Conversion,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39, no. 4 (1997): 674–93, 678n7 (my emphasis).