A Tin Tabernacle, Thorlby
A Tin Tabernacle, Thorlby

In the aftermath of the British referendum on leaving the European Union, and amidst the oceans of commentary already written and still to be written about what it all means, I find myself thinking about my old friend, the late Lionel Rothkrug, and what he would have made of it. More exactly, what we would have been arguing, as we used to do, many years ago, when he had found some document or quotation and had to read it to me over the phone at two in the morning.

Rothkrug’s Religious Practices and Collective Perceptions: Hidden Homologies in the Renaissance and Reformation appeared in 1980 as a special number of Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques (of which I was then editor). It never got the attention it deserved. Partly the obscure publication, partly the whiff of eccentricity that surrounded Rothkrug, who could be difficult, obsessive, pugnacious, out of step with received views and states-of-the-question in academic fields he touched on, prepared to stretch an analogy or a correlation—or, his word, a homology—into a vast dialectical edifice. Always strange, always stimulating.

Religious Practices and Collective Perceptions is about connections between habits and loyalties, and about boundaries between communities thus constituted. A startling demonstration in the book, for example, is that one might have safely predicted the fault line between those German lands that became Lutheran and those lands that remained Catholic merely by looking at the distribution of medieval shrines to native saints. Not remote celebrities like Mary and the Apostles but local, specialist saints, quirky rustics, madmen. Everywhere in the South. Non-existent in the North. In the event of the Reformation, Rothkrug argued, people elected Remain in places where the Church’s grand economy of souls, its monopoly on salvation and sanctity, was felt to be organic to their communities, producing outcomes that fostered localism, and Leave in places where that same economy was felt to be irredeemably alien, that actively alienated people from themselves and from one another.

People don’t think of Britain as a religious country, least of all British people themselves. But religion, if it is not merely private opinion, or personal feelings, or a fantasised cosmology, is fundamentally about loyalty, collective identity, boundaries, deeply engrained feeling for what is native and what is alien. It is, in short, as much of map as of mood. A Rothkrugian interrogation of Brexit would be not so much in terms of class, even less of race, but of the webs of regional practices in respect of honour and sanctity, bonds of trust among the generations of the living and the dead and between the native and the stranger, marks of use and reverence in the landscape, of churches and trees and animals.

Think of EU as the new Rome, and the question of In or Out, as in the sixteenth century, is whether one can discover in one’s practices a place for that other identity, or not. Rothkrug would by now be mapping the distribution of Puritans and Anglicans, of abbeys, holy wells and wayside chapels, of Methodists and Quakers, High Church and Low Church, cosmopolitan free-thinkers and seekers, Welsh Baptists and Scottish Presbyterians, searching for buried fault lines, silted-over boundaries seen only from a great height and in a raking light.