Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Book Review: 'The Life of Thomas More' by Peter Ackroyd

Public Man, Public Faith

Thomas More, this biography suggests, looked outside himself to know why he had to die.

October 25, 1998

Any biography of Thomas More has to answer one fundamental question. Why? Why, out of all the many ambitious politicians of early Tudor England, did only one refuse to acquiesce to a simple piece of religious and political opportunism? What was it about More that set him apart and doomed him to a spectacularly avoidable execution?

The innovation of Peter Ackroyd's new biography of More is that he places the answer to this question outside of More himself. He is able to see More not as an early individualist (as in Robert Bolt's gorgeously anachronistic play, ''A Man for All Seasons''), or as an early ultramontane absolutist (in the vein of much 19th-century Roman Catholic hagiography) or even as a twisted and conflicted bigot (as in Richard Marius's biography, ''Thomas More''). Rather, Ackroyd sees More simply as a particularly sensitive, and elegantly playful, representative of a vibrant, late-medieval, Catholic England. The key word here -- and the core of Ackroyd's analysis -- is vibrant. For Ackroyd, More's Catholicism -- the faith he died for -- was a tangible, sensual, dynamic way of life, a way of both being in the world and of not being in it, a culture that had by no means run out of steam by the 1530's. What More's death meant, then, was a simple and understandable resistance to vandalization, a refusal to accept the wrecking of a successful and beautiful civilization for the banal sake of a royal divorce.

What was this civilization about? Ackroyd, both a biographer and a novelist, begins his book with an immersion in it. The prologue is inspired, for it tells us entirely what is to come. It gives us the first truly significant thing that happened to More. And it is a baptism:

''At the church door, the priest . . . made a sign of the cross on the infant's forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby's mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the Devil from its body with a number of prayers. . . . The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odor of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself.''

The publicness of this religion is something Ackroyd intuitively grasps. He has an ear and a nose for physicality, and he deploys his expertise in the history of London to illustrate this faith. Rather than condescending to medieval Catholicism, Ackroyd empathetically observes it. This is the first biography of More to have absorbed the small revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last 20 years -- pioneered by historians like Christopher Haigh and Eamonn Duffy -- and is able to see England, through the mists of Protestant and Whig propaganda, as one of the most authentically Catholic countries in the history of Europe. In an early chapter, Ackroyd evokes the meaning behind the sacrament of the eucharist as well as any theologian I have ever read. Or take his evocation of the city of Coventry's Corpus Christi plays of the 14th and 15th centuries:

''Hell mouth was characteristically a painted set of gaping jaws, perhaps on a separate smaller wagon wheeled in front of the main pageant; the unfortunate victim could then be seen to be devoured alive to the sound of pipes, drums and gitterns. . . . It was a highly embellished dramatic art, with certain scenes played out in the street with noise and bustle, while others were presented in the solemn stillness of a holy picture. Adam and Eve wore white leather costumes to symbolize their nakedness, the prophets wore golden wigs while Judas was conventionally adorned with one of flaming red; yet, on the whole, the actors wore contemporary dress. The Corpus Christi play was not an historical entertainment, but a restatement of the eternal truths and episodes of the faith.''

It is the simple concreteness of this religion that makes its exponents, like More, so alien to us. Ackroyd's sharpest insight in this regard relates to More's legendary sense of irony. It is because belief was so entrenched, Ackroyd argues, because the medieval secular world was so richly saturated with spirituality that More (and others) could entertain such whimsy about it, could play with words, and humor, and wit, in a way that mocked the transience of everything mortal. So for the first time we can read ''Utopia,'' for example, and see its sense of play as fully integral to its meaning. It is a book, after all, narrated by a man called Raphael Hythlodaeus, a name derived from the Greek for ''one who is cunning in nonsense or idle gossip.'' Utopia (''no place'') contains a river Anydros (''river without water''), a city, Amaurotum (''dark or dimly seen'') and a ruler, Ademus (''one who has no people''). 
It's in this context that More's fierce attack on political utopianism can be fully understood (as powerful in its way as that of Plato, to whose ''Republic'' More's treatise owed much). These kinds of games, these subtle hints at meaning and nonmeaning, are premised on a small band of elite readers and a political order in which settlement is assumed. And it's only when we can see the depth and power of that settlement that we can see the true nature of the irony with which More famously greeted the world, a man who spoke, according to a contemporary, so soberly that ''few could see by his looke whether he spoke in earnest or in jeaste.''

By showing us the fabric of that political and religious settlement, Ackroyd successfully delineates the vast complexity of More's faith. This perspective alone can help us understand how More could engage, as he did, in brutal court intrigue, while flogging himself at night for spiritual penance; how he could be such an effective and funny lawyer, while longing for monasticism; how he could have been the author of sometimes vicious, crude and unsparing diatribes against new heresies, and yet also of such profound and subtle texts as his final ''De Tristitia Christi''; and how he could have succumbed to martyrdom with such understatement and yet such resolve. These were not contradictions. They were modulations of a man who saw absurdity and contingency everywhere because he saw God everywhere. And they were dramatic shifts that reflected the seismic shock that More's England was experiencing in the early 16th century.

Not that Ackroyd is deaf to the Machiavellianism of More's career. (It's quite likely that More read Machiavelli and was appalled by him.) Ackroyd details More's enmeshment in the power structure of London's merchant elite and the country's legal system. He is a little soft on More's factional maneuvering in the Henrician court, especially his plotting on behalf of Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. But he is effective in detailing the last years of More's life as an essentially political marginalization, even while More clung to every last, frayed thread of power he could. The fascination of More, of course, comes from the fact that he wasn't simply a saint or a writer. He was actually Lord Chancellor of England, a cunning protege of Thomas Wolsey and no innocent ingenu in London politics.

One odd innovation of this book is Ackroyd's insistence on reproducing all quotations from the period in their original spelling and grammar. At first, this irritates. But as Ackroyd folds the reader into More's world, you begin to see the reason. Ackroyd is intent on showing why More was for a long time seen as a truly powerful literary presence, regarded as one of the most accomplished poets of the early 16th century. Ackroyd also wants us to see More as a gutter polemicist, a Londoner steeped in the vernacular and able to deploy the low in defense of the high. More's ''Confutation of Tyndale's Answer'' is a classic of this vituperative genre. By the time it is written, much of what More loved was under threat, and so he wrote accordingly. In it, More constructs an imaginary dialogue with the Protestant Bible translator William Tyndale that makes our contemporary political invective seem positively benign and humorless:

Tyndale: Marke whyther yt be not true in the hyest degree. . . .

More: Tyndale is a great marker. There is nothynge with hym now but marke, marke, marke. It is pitye that the man were not made a marker of chases in some tenys playe. . . .

Tyndale: Iudge whyther yt be possible that any good sholde come oute of theyr domme ceremonyes and sacramentes.

More: Iudge good crysten reader whyther yt be possyble that he be any better than a beste oute of whose brutyshe bestely mouth, commeth such a fylthye fome.

More's descent into vulgarity, as with his descent into persecution of heretics, must be seen, Ackroyd persuasively argues, in the context of More's singular judgment of what was going on in England in the 1530's. More gambled that Henry's divorce was far more than a simple adjustment of political power. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he clearly saw what he believed to be the end of Christian civilization as he knew it. He glimpsed, precisely and methodically, what the assertion of secular authority over church law meant. He foresaw the vandalism that would soon sweep across the English church, the first truly totalitarian attempt by a modern state to expunge not just political but spiritual resistance to its hegemony. And he saw it first.

None of this fully explains, however, More's contemporary luster. Ackroyd's biography became the best-selling book in England for a while, in part, perhaps, because it arrived at an apposite time. It's easier now to see, in the wake of the pseudoreligion of the Diana cult, how great a loss was the kind of popular, tangible religiosity Ackroyd evokes and More defended.

It's also easier to see now, at the twilight of the nation-state, that national sovereignty, as More understood it, may not possess the final word in the history of Europe. As England finally moves to undo its legal and political separation from Europe, over 400 years after Henry VIII began it, it is easier to see More as perhaps prescient, rather than reactionary. And as cynicism grows on both sides of the Atlantic about political leaders, it is hard not to long for More's principled interaction of politician and writer, believer and fool, lawyer and prophet. More's sanctity was flint-edged, to be sure, and Ackroyd captures this with a historicism as punctilious as Holbein's portraits. But More was also more than a saint. He was a believing ironist and a politician who chose death over the splitting of legalisms. Less a man for all seasons, perhaps, than a tonic for ours.

Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of ''Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival.''

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