The Ten Commandments, music, and popular belief in Reformation England

The Dome, Bramall Music Building
Arts and Law, Research
Wednesday 1st March 2017 (13:00)
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  • Music Colloquium series 2016-2017

SpeakerJonathan Willis (University of Birmingham)

Venue: The Dome, Bramall Music Building (3rd Floor)


The Ten Commandments assumed an unparalleled significance and ubiquity in the religious culture(s) of post-reformation England.  For most of the middle ages the Decalogue was a relatively low value card in the medieval confessor’s deck, relegated to a distant second in importance behind the Seven Deadly Sins.  However, in the sixteenth century the scriptural pedigree of the commandments catapulted them to a position of primacy as a result of the humanist and reformed impulses to return ad fontes and to emphasise in all religious matters the preeminent authority of sola scriptura, of the Bible alone.

Reformation divines placed the commandments at the centre of a series of complex discourses surrounding order and authority and sin and salvation, and puritans in particular placed them at the heart of their elaborate forms of practical divinity.  But how did the great majority of ordinary people experience the Decalogue, and what sort of message did they take from it?  This paper explores the position of the Ten Commandments in sixteenth-century English Protestant music and liturgy, and suggests that these forms did much to shape the theological message which people drew from the Decalogue itself.


  • Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), Chapter 8: ‘Parish church music: the rise of the “singing psalms”'.
  • Jonathan Willis, 'Repurposing the Decalogue in Reformation England', in Dominik Markl (ed.), The Influence of the Decalogue: Historical, Theological and Cultural Perspectives (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), pp. 190-204.