Red Ned Tudor Mysteries

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Reality of the Written Word and Thomas More

Truth, the Tudors and Thomas More

Greetings my well regarded readers, all several of you, I hope that the approach of spring (in the north) fills you with the budding joys of renewed life after the crisp chill of winter.  At any time to restore the balance of the humours unsettled by the changing seasons I can recommend a good measure of brandywine infused with honey, ginger and cinnamon as a decent tonic.  I know it helped me regain a lost equilibrium.
Just to repeat my message from the last post, if at all possible I ask you to assist one of the aid programs for those displaced by the Japanese Tsunami, as we’ve seen the news on that multiple tragedy is not improving.  As an example my dear partner and most excellent Uber editor suggest this one for the crafty amongst you

I thought today in between posting chapters from Red Ned’s first book The Liberties of London we’d discuss a vexing subject of Tudor times;

The Truth and the Written Word.

Now in these Postmodern times we’re told that truth is entirely relative I mean we have marketing truth which is only occasionally truthfully or political truth which has a half life of the length the media blurb.  Or we have historical truth which tends to last a very long time indeed, usually just on the life span of its most ardent advocate.
Then again according to Wiki and two modern critics of postmodernism;
Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler offer the following definition of postmodernism:
“A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.”

That’s amazing it is almost exactly a reading of the prevalent attitude of the Tudor period, where truth was whatever Henry VIII said it was!  If the truth shifted, or as frequently happened, reversed in a 1984 kind of way that was only to be expected, from the most royal of prerogatives.  Politics, personality and dynastic imperatives drove every shift in the Tudor realm as his sovereign majesty desperately pursued a course to gain a male heir and shore up the precarious position of his throne.  This religious, moral and legal flexibility was of course loyally subscribed to by his various ministers during his reign, some more than others.   
To add an extra layer of complexity we also have the intense and bloody religious debate over whether the bible should be translated into the vernacular.  This radical act would allow the commoner to read the gospels in their own language, without the benefit of priestly and naturally more learned and experienced interpretation.  To give a more modern example it is equivalent to walking into Wall Street and demanding to inspect of the books.  As well as requesting a public accountability of Goldman Sachs and having all their records translated from jargonistic financial speak into every day English.  My God absolute heresy!  A damnable threat to the very foundation of the nation!  So with that in mind perhaps you can now understand all this fervour and bloodshed over the truth of the written word, and of course more importantly who got to define that truth.

It was this certainty of the truth of the written word that I want to look at today and how it fitted in with the following:

Truth, the Tudors and Thomas More

Now in these modern enlightened times we look back at the figure of Thomas More with extremely rose tinted glasses.  The famous Tudor writer has this century been canonized as a saint, the subject of a famous play A Man for all Seasons by the British playwright Robert Bolt. This was later turned into a very successful film starring Robert Shaw and Orson Wells.  Saint Thomas More has his own society (on the web) of academics and literary devotees and has been the subject of numerous books praising his courage and devotion in a flurry of devotional or literati appraisals.  Two in particular are considered to represent the latest thinking, one by Peter Ackroyd and the other by Richard Marius.  All of these are devoted to discussing More the humanist, the writer and the catholic martyr.  If a perusal of the Amazon list on More is to be believed, he was a religious thinker extraordinaire and the only man in Tudor England to stand up for Common Rights and Parliamentary Government. 

I feel that this is extremely over glossing the man in his times.  In this adulation and almost sycophantic hagiography (that’s a work similar in style and passion to the lives of saints, all miracles and wonder) we have missed the essential fact of exactly who and what Thomas More was in the reign of Henry VIII. 
For a start More was every inch a Tudor period lawyer, politician and royal servant.  For instance while More was a noted humanist and a friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam, his literary efforts were mostly at the direction of his royal master and senior churchmen all done in the ready expectation of preferment and must be viewed as a form of Tudor period literary flattery.

An excellent example of this is Utopia acclaimed as More’s greatest piece.  For a start it is a direct imitation of Plato’s The Republic.  Now in this period imitation was a standard literary practice and an accepted form of homage to the classic styles of antiquity.  However what most modern hagiographers have missed or ignored is that the mythical land of Utopia about which More writes so intently, is being compared unfavourably with the splendours and liberties of Tudor England, then flourishing under the wise and benevolent rule of the young Henry VIII.  In other words his great work Utopia (which was written and published in latin) was a political satire modelled on popular classical works framed to make Henry’s England look spiffing compared to other kingdoms of Europe.
Thus through that lens it acquires a different complexion, still a brilliant piece of writing but now more political in nature and substance.  As the eminent Tudor historian John Guy makes clear in his work on the public life of Thomas More, the noted humanist writer was primarily a lawyer and a royal servant.  These are the two areas where More made his name and reputation for his ability to negotiate commercial treaties, contracts and represent the King in foreign affairs.  To the knowledgeable Tudor man in the street Sir Thomas More represented the very power of the state via the twin pillars of Tudor monarchy; Law and the Privy Council.
Having set the man in his period we have to accept a common attitude of the time that has carried down to the here and now.  The sanctity of the written word.  I don’t know whether at some subconscious level this is linked to our veneration of sacred texts, or royal and state decrees but it may well be so.  But if anything is written down it carries a certain imprimatur of truth, fact and validity.  Even in obvious pieces of written fiction there are many who insist that Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code really is disguised fact.
It is the same for Thomas More, especially since his canonisation.  However I believe this is revisionism of history of the worst kind.  Whatever More wrote cannot be accepted as the unvarnished truth, he was as stated above, first and foremost a lawyer and a politician.  As both of those professions will quietly affirm, truth can be a very subjective and elusive creature. After all do you believe everything a politician tells you?
 ‘Read my lips no new taxes’ is one infamous quote, or for the antipodeans;
“No. There's no way a GST will ever be part of our policy."
"Never ever.  It's dead. It was killed by voters at the last election."
If you want more contemporary instances we have suspected WMD’s as justifications for war.  While violent acts of repression of legitimate protest and rigged state trials are unfortunately still a fact of life in this modern world as much as in the Tudor Period.  It is a common fact that we draw upon figures and events of the past to justify current ideological positions or attitudes, historians may not like it and disapprove, however it is a fact of life.  In this regard the actions and life of Sir Thomas More are no different. In the coming posts I am going to examine More and his actions as a moderately independent historian.  At this point I must state that I am not an evangelical protestant nor do I belong to any fundamentalist religious sect of any persuasion.  To firm that position I am also not a catholic lapsed or otherwise, I have no particular angst or vendetta against the Catholic Church other than its habit of convenient rewriting of history.  (A sin that all states and organisations have suffered from through out history) 

That said I will explore in coming posts evidence that suggests that it was More’s political actions that created the hard divisions between Protestant and Catholic in Tudor England. Also that his trial for treason rather than being a travesty of justice was more fair and just than any similar proceedings up to the trial of the Leveller leader Lilburne over a hundred year later.  Even more controversial I believe that Thomas More was guilty of real treason against the realm of England which I hope to prove by the end of this series.

In the mean time keep an eye on these post as well as Smashwords and Amazon Kindle the Red Ned story  The Liberties of London will be out soon!
Regards Greg

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