January 17, 2010
Wolf Hall, the Man-Booker prize winning novel of last year by Hilary Mantel, tells the story of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII’s first divorce and refusal to be subject to the Pope. One of the effects reading the book had on me was that I started taking violence for granted. Life was not cheap exactly, but death by illness, childbirth or execution was a close reality for most people of the day.
The reality of violence is confirmed again and again in Reformation history. Anyone who wanted to play a role (or who found themselves playing a role) in the affairs of state was vulnerable to imprisonment or burning at the stake depending on the whims of the day. Hilary Mantel, does a wonderful job with the bizarre footnote to history of the tale of the ‘Maid of Kent’, a strange and disturbed woman who seemed determined to ensure her own death at some level. The story is also told in MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cranmer and we get a sense of how he was constantly maneuvering between his own instincts to compassion and the demands of his position as he sought to satisfy Henry’s desires while keeping faith with both traditional religion and the winds of reform which enlivened him.
Cranmer was to die under Mary’s counter-reformation, the story of which has been told in Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor (Yale, 2009). Duffy argues, in effect, that Mary’s policy of burning reformers who would not recant was carefully managed to turn the behavior of the English back to traditional and Catholic religion, and further that it was working in the way it was meant to. Duffy is a revisionist historian in that he ahs reminded us of the coherence that many found in traditional religion including praying to the saints, the appreciation of relics and so on, --all targets of the reformers—were deeply engrained in the life and rhythms of most English. He captured this beautifully with his story of a parish priest in Morebath, Devon called Sir Christopher Trychay. The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2001) won the Hawthornden Prize in 2002 and is the story of a parish priest who resisted the changes sought be one monarch after another as practices that were art one point illegal and the next moment encouraged by the powers that were affected his village. I am not as excited by the underlying argument that people really loves their traditional religion. My intuition is that like most English even today, just getting on with life is what is important and the winds of theological fashion are not terribly interesting unless they can make news or otherwise have some real effect on our life. Duffy is fascinating in The Stripping of the Atlars (Yale, 1999) about what can be learned from wills of the day. The decline in leaving money for masses to be prayed for the dead was more a loss of confidence than loss of desire on the part of the rich it seems.
All in all these were bloody and brutal days. I’m glad that we don’t have recourse to such sanctions in the debates of today.