Archive for the ‘History’ Category
When I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall back in 2009, I was less complimentary than most. Despite the weight often attached by the cognoscenti to my sceptical eyebrow, the novel went on to win that year’s Booker Prize. I wanted, in the wake of that victory, to return to Wolf Hall and attempt to see past my discomfiture with its vision of Thomas Cromwell. It is, however, a big book – and I turned to new projects instead. Happily, then, the publication last month of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s sequel, gave me the excuse I was looking for.
On the other hand, this new novel is a different beast. It is slimmer, for a start, and far more focused: where Wolf Hall began in 1500 and ended only in July 1535, its sequel covers barely 11 months – the period of Anne Boleyn’s fall from favour, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This paring-down has two principal effects: first, it imposes upon the novel something approximating a plot which, though often progressing off-stage in the way of a play, has a beginning, a middle and an end; second, it demands a more detailed appreciation of Cromwell’s own decision-making. In Wolf Hall, years flicked by rapidly and schematically – Cromwell moved in an upward trajectory at times almost by luck, and the wisdom of his canny maneuvres were the novel’s organising principle; here, he is more subject to events.
The style of all this, though, is broadly similar: as I wrote in my post on Wolf Hall, Mantel inspires in the reader a kind of fugue state, drifting at seeming random from one dream-like vignette to the next, always in the third person and always following him, Cromwell. He says, he speaks, he directs. Every other character – from the highest in the land to the lowest – revolve around him, Cromwell. “The fist of Cromwell is more proximate than the hand of God,” quips one character [pg. 115], and in so doing cuts to the quick of Cromwell’s dominating presence in the novel. Indeed, humour has a far more significant role in Bring Up The Bodies than its predecessor, with even its opening cast list featuring a grim punchline (the final actor listed as “a French executioner”. This makes for a more playful and supple style than Wolf Hall‘s occassionally occluding severity – although admittedly its lighter tone and shorter timespan works against quite the depth of Tudor grime accrued by the first novel.
What’s odd about this sunlight is that Bring Up The Bodies sees Mantel step away – only a little, but step all the same – from Wolf Hall‘s vision of the Good Cromwell. Her previous refutation of Robert Bolt was made rather too strenuously, and perhaps in recompense Bring Up The Bodies gives us a more ambivalent, more compromised character. The nature of this depiction is encapsulated early on: “He has always done what was needed to survive, and if his judgement of what was necessary was sometimes questionable … that is what it is to be young. Nowadays he takes poor scholars into his family.” [pg. 66] That is, we see a Cromwell haunted by his past (‘The Dead’ get their own section of the cast list) who is intensely involved in convincing himself he is making amends. When questioning the musician Mark Smeaton, and in an instance of the way in which Mantel captures beautifully the theological anxieties of the age, Cromwell says smoothly: “I think you have become too assured of forgiveness, believing that you have years ahead of you to sin and yet though God sees all he must be patient, like a waiting man: and you will notice him at last, and answer is suit, if only he will wait till you are old.” [pg. 336] It’s hard not to hear Cromwell talking to himself here.
As Colin Burrow has pointed out, however, the novel works like the Tudor court: rumours of beheadings and poisonings reach us of which Cromwell denies all knowledge, leaving us to wonder if they are unfounded or he self-deluded. “Ireland is quiet this Christmas,” Mantel explains, “in greater peace than she has seen for forty years. Mainly he has brought this about by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It’s an art, a necessary art.” [pg. 135] Yet Cromwell’s pragmatism still gives him room to mythologise the morality of his methods: “I will not rack him,” he insists of one of four men involved in the Boleyn affair. “I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I need to rack a sad little fellow like this … what next? Stamping on dormice?” [pg. 277] When we first meet the Cromwell of Bring Up The Bodies, “he comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming” [pg. 7] – his rooms full of portraits in varying stages of completion – and throughout the novel Master Secretary is writing himself a history.
As in Wolf Hall, that history is primarily one of the march to modernity. This Whiggish whiff is tempered by a sly vision of Englishness – “The Italians [...] say the road between England and Hell is worn bare from treading feet” [pg. 34] – and Cromwell’s England is most clearly characterised by the double standards of his own self-awareness. “You will not hear of any talent I possess, that England cannot use,” he boasts to his enemy Stephen Gardiner [pg. 72], but these talents are so useful to this putatively modern England because it is itself emerging into an age which requires quiet hypocrisy. The dissolution of the monasteries, and the manuevers to enthrone Jane Seymour as Queen, both take place in sotto voice, less stated aims than private enrichments. “The French do not understand law courts and parliaments,” sighs Cromwell. “For them, the best actions are covert actions.” [pg. 380] But public actions are not necessarily private meanings, and it is the the spurned Katherine of Aragon who captures the tenor of Tudor England best: “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean.” [pg. 140]
Indeed, Bring Up The Bodies has a sustained interest in the role of women in this apparently ineluctably male society. “Women have to adapt themselves,” sighs Margery Seymour [pg. 17], and the novel looks with some interest at the ways in which those adaptations are made. George Boleyn’s poor wife, Jane Rochford, says of her father, “He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would to selling a hound or puppy” [pg. 265], and in his usual way Cromwell professes to feel pity for the downtrodden: “she is fighting with the women’s weapons that are all she has,” he opines of Anne. But in truth it is men’s visions which dictate this impossible position – and Cromwell does little to alleviate them, deciding Jane Seymour’s fate with only an interest in her virginal appearance. “What do we look for in a queen?” the King’s Treasurer wonders aloud. “She should have all the virtues of an ordinary woman, but she must have them to a high degree.”[pg. 215] This prescriptiveness – modesty, humility, obedience – sets the fate of the novel’s women as surely as they do the poor scholars Cromwell pretends to patronise.
Bring Up The Bodies, then, is about power and privilege – and in this way, like its forebear speaks to our present moment. Indeed, this Cromwell still feels “stuck like a limpet to the future” [pg. 406], and this still renders the historicity of the novel – which, though narrower than the world-creation of Wolf Hall, remains one of its primary projects (Mantel is good at images that evoke a society – Anne “orders her women out [... like] a child scaring crows” [pg. 106]). But in allowing a greater complicity in this older, more ambivalent, Cromwell, Mantel at least succeeds in subsuming her protagonist more clearly in the period through which he passes. This produces a surer sense of both time and place in which events overtake even this non-Machiavellian Machiavellian (The Prince “seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions” [pg. 71]). Events – history – catch up with every figure, of course; they write over us, or writes is out, at their convenience. “Unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.” [pg. 159] Perhaps; but in the third volume of what seems increasingly to be a trilogy best judged in toto, the wolves will be at Thomas Cromwell’s door.
In 1609, Sir Thomas Overbury expressed the case of those Englishmen who were pro-French yet anti-Catholic, a squared circle which superficially contradicted the Protestantism of all proud Englishmen:
“Now the only body in Christendome that makes head against the Spanish Monarchy, is France; and therefore they say in France, that the day of the ruin of France, is the Eve of the ruine of England: And thereupon England hath ever since the Spanish greatness, enclined to maintaine France rather than to ruine it.”
In Overbury’s eyes, England was, as it were, lashed to the mast.
Go read China Mieville.
In addition to Jacqueline Rose’s terrific piece on Zola, Dreyfus and the Jewish experience, the latest London Review of Books has a shorter review from Diarmaid MacCulloch. He tackles Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, concluding that Julius is better when dealing with events further back in time, and on less sound territory when considering contemporary anti-semitism. Having not read the book, I can’t comment. But something else about the piece caught my eye.
MacCulloch notes that one of Julius’s natural key moments is the Readmission of 1656, when, almost 400 years after Edward I expelled the Jews from England, Cromwell allowed them to return. (More properly, he achieved toleration – Jewish aliens could already be found in England, particularly in London, but worshipped in secret.) MacCulloch rightly points out that Cromwell’s millenarian tendencies contributed to this decision, inviting Jews back to England so his Puritan cohorts might have some to convert and thus hasten the approach of the longed-for Last Days. The review also emphasises the role of Menasseh ben Israel, the Dutch rabbi, in agitating for the policy.
But MacCulloch, or more likely his tight word limit, rather flattens the real picture: Cromwell was far braver in ordering the Readmission than a picture of consensus Puritan opinion might suggest. A theological conference held on the subject by the Lord Protector was broadly hostile to the idea; and economic concerns, too, played a part – the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4, and sundry other adventures, had left the Commonwealth short of funds and in need of international credit. (MacCulloch does concede that Charles II’s later similar need led to his formalisation of the Readmission.)
MacCulloch portrays Cromwell as a leader “torn between his achievement as a blunt pragmatist who organised the most efficient army of the English Civil Wars, and his ardent Protestant wish to usher in the Last Days.” Accepting a less narrow rationale for the Readmission suggests that – far from being torn – Cromwell was in ordering it attempting the same personal balance for which he always strove.
Just thinking aloud [ablog?] …
“Other phenomena of the Elizabethan political world might also be considered as phenomena of the casuistical mode in which people were driven by conscience to do things that they would in other circumstances consider improper. [...] Casuistry provides the framework within which we can understand a world in which even the most conformist of people might be driven to acts of disloyalty.” [Glenn Burgess, British Political Thought 1500-1660, pp. 126-127]
Burgess’s overview of Reformation and post-Reformation political thought in the British Isles is, by the author’s own admission, a little idiosyncratic: the thinkers he includes, and those he excludes, will no doubt continue to lead to great debate in the review pages. But it represents a convincing portrait of an age in which the central political question was one of obedience, to whom it was owed and from where it was derived. The issues of monarchy whuch Burgess shows writers returned to again and again run through the period and the islands from Buchanan to Lilburne: is the monarch divinely or temporally sanctioned (most commonly, an arcane and ambiguous mixture of the two was devised), and, either way, how far does that writ stretch? Essentially, is anyone allowed to resist the monarch’s authority, and if so under what circumstances?
The theatre of the period is rich with responses to, and instances of, this vexing question: Marlowe’s Edward II prefers Gaveston to governance, and is duly overthrown; Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is pitted against wounded and riotous courtiers; and Henry V, in no fewer than three plays, is put under a lens by Shakespeare, and for every rousing St Crispin’s Day has a moment of cold and unflattering disavowal (of Falstaff, of his father). What is interesting about each of those examples, but especially Shakespeare’s, are the personal elements at play. Shakespeare’s Henry V is not just shown on the throne, but shaping himself for it; Prince Hal is first seen as a dissolute, scheming, human adolescent. This personal dimension is not covered by Burgess for obvious reasons, but it seems fundamental to the battle over the monarch’s mystique which he sees in the philosophy, and which scholars such as James Loxley have seen in, for instance, the poetry of the 1640s.
In his Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate in unapologetic in placing Shakespeare at the heart of the controversies of his day: “He lived between the two great cataclysms in English history: the break from the universal Roman Catholic church and the execution of King Charles I. His plays were made possible by the first and helped to create the conditions that made possible the second.” [pg. 18] Bold stuff, but Bate’s ultimate argument seems fair enough: in examining the personal lives of lords, ladies and kings, Shakespeare and his theatrical contemporaries were rendering the authority of mysticism untenable. Kevin Sharpe has suggested that “the playhouses of the 1630s did something to substitute for the absence of parliaments” [Criticism and Compliment, pg. 32]; the political role of theatre surely had a longer pedigree, and a deeper effect, than merely that.
Due to the weather over the past few days, I have found myself snowed in with a little time on my hands. I have been reading a few books, and writing the reviews I’ve had on my ‘to-do’ pile for ages. It has been quite nice to re-enter the early modern world, which, since finishing my PhD, has grown somewhat distant to me. Absorbing myself again has been a bit like visiting an old haunt, reassuringly familiar. A place easy to forget when you’re busy in the day-to-day gruels of ‘normal’ (as opposed to academic, perhaps) life. You don’t realise how much you miss a place until you return. So, for that reason, I am going to try to write a few more early modern blogs!
My PhD considered early modern patterns of story-telling, and the weaving of cultural narratives, in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. I looked at fairy-tales, and witchy tales, and I have been exploring these ideas a bit further. A little facet of early modern life and story-telling I’ve recently stumbled across is the idea of the moon.
It’s difficult to imagine a world where, at night, everything would fade into almost complete darkness. One in which the night was black, the skies full of stars, and the lights from peoples homes just dim specs in the distance. Not surprisingly, the moon would have been luminous and significant. It would have lit the sky and eased after dark travel. The lunar cycle provided a rhythm to the lifecycle calendar; marking the passage of time, the dawning of festivities and the ebbing and flowing of the tides.
I recently came across an article by David Cressy which explores ideas about the ‘English Man in the Moon’. What did people in early modern England believe about the moon? The answers are numerous. But, the ‘man in the moone’ was a familiar concept.
The man in the moon looked down on earth; he watched the skies at night. Was he a Christian man, they asked? Did he answer to God? Or was he in limbo, irredeemable? According to Plutarch, who wrote ‘the face appearing in the roundel of the moon’, published in English in 1603, the moon was populated by nimble creatures, demons and departed souls. Whereas seventeenth-century writers, such as Francis Godwin, who wrote ‘The Man in the Moone’ told stories of the moon as a “faerie land”, and tales of men who had caught many birds in a net in their endeavours to fly in the moon-lit sky.
One of the most prominent early modern ideas about the moon, however, was influenced by Renaissance theories of travel and of undiscovered, untameable and non-Christian worlds. Ideas about newfound lands filled imaginations and led to stories about the man, or people, who may have walked the moon. In the words of poet Edmund Spenser:
“what if within the moon’s fair shining sphere,
what if in every other star unseen,
of other worlds he happily should hear?”
Such worlds clearly led to many stories and narratives, some sincere, others tongue-in-cheek. Whatever they were, they are undoubtedly worth hearing again…(someone should do some research on them!)
So I read ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and posted some thoughts over at EMU’s collaborative reading. There’s a great deal to say about the play, which I consider to be not just Ford’s masterpiece but one of the English Renaissance more generally. But following what I said last week about looking for historical clues in literary sources, one of the things which struck me was its depiction of sexuality.
No doubt about it, ‘Tis Pity is a racy play. From Soranzo’s penchant for virgins to the central incestuous pairing, Ford’s is a play which spares few blushes. And yet, remarkably for the age, Ford treats his transgressive couple with a good deal of tenderness. Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister but also lovers, are not merely vehicles for titilation, as they might have been in a less writer’s hands. They are given rather moving speeches of love, and share equal responsibility for their dangerous relationship: though it is Giovanni who first confesses his love, it is Annabella who first pledges her troth, as it were.
‘Tis Pity is the first English play to deal so baldly with incest (as far as I know); it’s fair-mindedness – in a play busting outwards with other examples of sexual deviancy – is thus even more surprising. Its setting, however, might hold the clue – Catholic Italy is removed from Protestant England. It is ‘other’ and distanced, and for English audiences of the time Catholic carnality was a source of some fascination: through Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom this play was first performed, it was at the very heard of the monarchy of the time (the play was first performed around the 1630s). As Richard Cust puts it in his Charles I: A Political Life, “[Charles I] was the first English monarch for well over a hundred years to enjoy anything approaching a happy and fulfilled family life and it did much to define his kingship.” [pg. 148] His virility, and his wife’s fecundity, bestowed upon England a quite unprecedented royal line, subverting the tenuous stability of a virgin queen and a homosexual king before him.
Yet this stability was the product of a Catholic womb. This, as Michael Braddick shows in God’s Fury, England’s Fire, “could become the basis of a conspiracy theory” [pg. 23]: namely that England was being converted by stealth, by dynastic usurpation. The wranglings over Catholic counsellors in the Long Parliament would follow right through to James II’s fall forty years later. I started this latest literary/historical train of thought on the back of Thomas Corns’s The Royal Image, in which Ann Baynes Coiro convincingly argued that, “Charles’s reign introduced the possibility of over-whelming dynasty, on the one hand, and of a feminized king dominated by a woman, notably a papist woman, on the other.” [pg. 28] Ford plays a woman, and a papist woman, at the heart of Giovanni’s fall from grace, whilst the rest of Parma falls apart around him.
‘Tis Pity is no political allegory – it is a profoundly literary piece, reaching out to other classics of the English Renaissance (Romeo and Juliet, Doctor Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy). And yet its deep concerns about retribution and power politics, about rebellion against both state and Church, and its concern with marriage – as Cust argues, central to Charles’s public image – and its role in reproduction, all resonate in the politics of the day. Everyone is corrupt in ‘Tis Pity, and the polity is heading for self-annihalation: “To what a height of liberity in damnation,” Vasques, the selfless but ruthless servant, opines towards the end of Act IV, “hath the devil trained our age.” [IV.iii, ll 268-269] The complex and benighted tensions of Ford’s time are all too present in his play.
Remember the fun I was having with Thomas Corn’s edited collection, The Royal Image? It closes with an afterword by Kevin Sharpe, who naturally makes the case for the contribution of critics – literary and otherwise – to historical study. “What we now need,” he writes, “is to combine the skills of critics and historians in a full history of the relationships of courts and kings (and republics) to the images and representations of those courts and rulers over the period of the English Renaissance.” [pg. 290] You could, if not constrained by the theme of a collection, make the wider point that critics, with their sensitivity for genre and mode, are well-placed to identify cultural contexts where the specifity of historians may not do so.
Sharpe himself wrote in his Criticism and Compliment, “it is my purpose to [re-read] literary texts as documents of the culture and values of Caroline England.” [pg. ix] That book was published in 1987; The Royal Image, meanwhile, was published in 1999. Since then, we’ve had David Norbrook’s Writing The English Republic, but the use of seventeenth-century literary texts as historical sources still seems (with the possible exception of some writing on Milton, or the work of historians like James Loxley), in academic historical circles at least, to be a relatively niche activity. There are good reasons for this, of course, not least that such texts tend to prioritise artistic effect over fidelity to their particular age; but isn’t there a broader context yet, in which culture is generative as well as reflective, to which literary material might well be a useful guide?
I was struck by Blair Worden’s particular permutation of an old argument, in his Roundhead Reputations, that, “historians, like novelists, are makers of order.” [pg. 19] Naturally, Worden wasn’t suggesting that this makes the two professions identical in method or intent, but there’s still a hint in those bon mots that the old walls are not as impermeable as they are often still taken to be. You might not be surprised to hear, then, that I’ll be trying to take part in Early Modern Underground’s collaborative reading of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Probably mostly for the great beauty of Ford’s masterpiece; but, also, perhaps, for a bit of historical insight…
Yesterday evening, we attended an annual lecture at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies, where Anna studied for her PhD. Always an interesting and civilised (!) affair, the annual lecture provides an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to listen to a well renowned speaker. This year’s annual lecture was given by Mark Greengrass, and was entitled ‘The Reformation of the Past: Protestants and the Middle Ages’. The paper was based largely on the research Greengrass and others have been undertaking as part of the John Foxe Project, and explored the ways in which early reformers and scholars tried to make sense of Christian past, and the enormous efforts they went to to make sense of and record Church history. The greatest problem for these sixteenth century academics was how to narrate the contentious ‘Middle Ages’, a period of, it was understood, darkness and spiritual regression, where the true Church was lost amid the teachings of Catholic ‘popery’.
A large part of the lecture focused not on Foxe himself, but on one of his key sources, the Magdeburg Centuries. Driven initially by Matthias Flacius, the Centuries were an attempt to compile all known documentary evidence for the centuries of Christianity, it sought to collate data for each 100-year block into 16 prescribed categories (heresies, rites and ceremonies, schisms and controversies, etc.). Dr Greengrass spoke interestingly about the historiographical and methodological problems with which these historians collided when undertaking this undoubtedly ambitious endeavour, but what came through most strongly was their sense of continuity: that the Christian past had been one of ever-increasing corruption, through which nevertheless ran a thin vein of true faith. The Centuries were an attempt to chronicle this new conception of the past in a sort of encyclopedic format.
Greengrass believes that Foxe used the Centuries and the work of John Bale as his principle reference works, using them as signposts to further reading. In this way, the Foxe Project – and last night’s lecture – illuminate both Foxe’s working pattern, and those of his sources. Greengrass pointed out that perhaps such scholarly endeavours were a little like PhD projects gone wrong…
We’ve only very recently been saying that we really must make it out to Kenilworth Castle. The Gentleman Administrator, with a link to more in the comments, has sealed the deal – although, alas, can any garden look good in the grey rain of a turning October? I remember going to Kenilworth years ago as a child and watching some Napoleonic re-enactments (I don’t know); the castle itself has paled in the memory next to the recollection of how heavy a Rifleman’s backpack was.
Meanwhile, like every other blogger with an interest in the early modern period, I am glued to the Eastern Association. Rich, attractive and wonderfully written, it’s a bit special. I like, too, that it is not instantly accessible – you have to work, not too hard but a little, to understand it fully. Add it to your blogroll wotsit, even if you couldn’t give a monkey’s about Charles and Olly.
That is all.
We’re intending to see tomorrow the parts of the Staffordshire Hoard which are on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries, queues or no queues. To which end we may have been stalking the blogosphere in search of writing to whet our appetite, and perhaps also to illuminate ourselves a little further about what has already been speculated regarding the origins and import of the find.
Hat-tip to Mercurius Politicus (to whom belated congratulations – both for submission and new arrivals) for this lovely piece from Jonathan Jarret: “What we are looking at here may be a tribute payment, demanded in silver and gold by weight (which might explain the apparently roughly proportional allotment of each metal).”
Following the links outwards, Brandon Hawk has some analysis of what is fast becoming the most famous piece in the hoard, the gold strip with a biblical inscription: making a link with Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, he says the piece “hearkens to a warrior’s need to keep himself safe from his all-too-real opponents.” (As he says in the comments to Hawk’s post, Jeffery Hodges has some objections to the Guthlac stuff here.)
JJ Cohen at In The Middle spins off Hawk’s post, too, and develops something well worth reading in its own right. If nothing else, it shows how it is possible, contra Karl Steel (also writing at In The Middle), for material finds to deepen and change our understanding of their correspinding (if currently still rather vague and disputed) period.