Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A Man for Our Season

Monday, a friend of mine who runs a book kiosk at her local mall commented on Facebook, "I guess I'll have to start stocking Wolf Hall now." She was referring to the novels behind the BBC (Masterpiece) series that is getting rave reviews in the entertainment press. Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII's England and gives us an image that the UK paper The Telegraph considers a pastiche of "historical fiction" and "fictional history." With impeccable acting and glorious costumes, it would be just the sort of program I would stay up to watch, except for the revisionism that insists on depicting Thomas More (one of the greatest Englishmen of all times) as a misogynist villain and the crass and violent Thomas Cromwell as admirable, if street-smart.

Cromwell did not personally oversee the
destruction of the Walsingham Priory
and shrine, but it took place early
on during his watch, just three years
after Thomas More's death.
The Telegraph goes so far as to call Cromwell the "Islamic State" of the Tudor era, given the (indisputable) fact that he oversaw, indeed instigated, the destruction of 97% of England's art and cultural artifacts: not only stained glass windows, frescoes and entire gothic churches and monasteries, but their libraries: how many thousands of illuminated manuscripts, how much literature, how many one-of-a-kind cultural contributions were lost to the ages by his fanatical zeal in wiping out all traces of English Catholicism?

"...underneath [the] fictionalized portrayal of Henry VIII’s chief enforcer, there is a historical man, and he is one whose record for murder, looting, and destruction ought to have us apoplectic with rage, not reaching for the popcorn" (The Telegraph: read the rest here).

As for portraying Thomas More as a misogynist, nothing could be more perversely unhistoric: The
The Thomas More household. (Count the ladies--and their books).
By Rowland Lockey, after Hans Holbein the Younger
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
scholarly achievements of More's daughters (especially Margaret, who published her first book, a translation of Erasmus from the Latin, at age 19) were recognized by Europe's leading intellectuals (including Erasmus). As to his character, some fifteen years before his execution,  a Robert Whittington testified: "More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability?" Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury commented,"It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain." 

There is something in the water these days that encourages a bit of iconoclasm; Thomas More is not alone in being subjected to that. But as I reflect on the situation, it seems to me that in some way, Catholic storytelling also bears some responsibility. The way we have often told the stories of our saints involved a bit of white-washing and revisionism, too. How many biographies of saints offer a vision  that matched all the expectations of the age that wrote them? Indeed, the word "saint" suggests a person without human flaws; someone who achieved not only heroic virtue, but social and cultural perfection. Unfortunately, failing to appreciate and accept the saints as people of their own era, we leave ourselves vulnerable to scandal when the assumptions of their age and ours do not coincide.

Thomas More was a man of immense stature: intellectually  as a leading humanist (this is the inventor of "Utopia") and as an educator, in his own legal profession and in his profound spiritual life. But he remained a work in progress, not perfect--certainly not by 21st century standards. As a public official, More signed the warrants for the execution of heretics (heresy was not merely a religious offense but a political one, since it threatened the one thing that kept the various social classes united). He was a man of his (changing) times, who assumed (as we do) the values of his surrounding culture and acted on them.  But when More was in prison, he wrote to Margaret in a way that suggests that his own experience of condemnation by the government had led him to repent of the capital cases he had overseen. Only in recent decades are we challenging something that was as taken for granted 500 years ago as the death penalty, but the fact of More's participation in the execution of heretics may be a source of scandal to the devout, or of a kind of schadenfreude for those less inclined to think well of Catholicism. And given the issue which led to More's execution (the King's Great Matter involved a revision of marriage law), some may be tempted to paint the former Lord Chancellor of England as intolerant, close-minded, a man incapable of adapting to new ideas, a hater, even.

Hopefully, enough voices are being raised in England (which suffered the ravages of Cromwell's ideological ambition) to lead interested people into a deeper study of life in Catholic England, even though so many of its traces were wiped away (or burned away, as with the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham) so methodically. Perhaps also the way lives of the saints are told and written can better portray the saints in their own milieu, and not in a sanitized version of ours.

Read more:
Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day: Forget Wolf Hall: this pathologically ambitious "ruffian" sent hundreds to the chopping block and destroyed England's religious and artistic heritage.
Bishops criticise ‘perverse’ depiction of St Thomas More in Wolf Hall
Priest: Admiring Thomas Cromwell is a respectable way of expressing anti-Catholic feeling
Wolf Hall: History through an Anti-Historical, Anti-Catholic Lens

The Center for Thomas More Studies

Historical Fiction:
If you enjoy historical fiction, but are distressed by the venom in Wolf Hall, how about a trilogy of Tudor-era novels that probably more accurately reflect the ordinary people's feelings at the time: 

The Crown
The Chalice
The Tapestry

1 comment:

Robyn Dolan said...

I agree, we have greatly whitewashed our "saints". It seems mankind tends to go from one extreme to the other before settling somewhere in the middle. Hopefully, future story/history telling will feature more balanced and better researched perspectives.