bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Cromwell on the Box

Posted in British History, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2015

What would Geoffrey Elton’s reaction have been to Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? He most likely would have treated them with the disdain of professorial silence – even in his most rabid character-assassination of Thomas More, he was able to avoid mentioning A Man for All Seasons, though the success of Robert Bolt’s play surely rankled with him. But if, as we are dealing with fiction anyway, we are allowed to imagine for a moment a meeting between the don and the novelist, I do wonder what they would have had to say to each other. Mantel takes up the challenge of making Cromwell a sympathetic figure but what she provides is hardly The Tudor Revolution in Government: the novel (the cruel could say there is already enough fantasy in Elton’s thesis). Her Cromwell is rarely seen working as a bureaucrat – a master of detail, certainly, someone who can sense how to use the inner workings of the machine for grander political ends – but the genius with which she endows her character is a heightened ability to read humanity. And the human was hardly central to Elton’s histories; for him, the march of civilization was surely greater than any detail of an individual. He felt no need for a biography of his hero, let alone story-telling about him. Before, though, he emits a gruff snort and walks away from Ms Mantel, perhaps she would have a chance to explain her deeper agenda: Wolf Hall (in particular) is not only about an imaginative creation of Henrician politics; submerged beneath that, there is struggle in which Mantel pits Cromwell against More and in which what is at stake is modernity and Englishness. Perhaps, if she had chance to explain that, a smile would have curled Elton’s whiskers.
Mantel’s concept of modernity is revealed by a minor factual slip. In the days after his wife’s demise (in the narrative of Wolf Hall, it is elided with the later deaths of his daughters), so, in 1527, Cromwell ‘has got Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’ [p. 105] – which is impressive, considering that Il Principe was, in the year of Machiavelli’s own death, not yet printed, let alone in a Latin translation. The first printed edition was that of Filippo Giunti in Florence in 1532; Silvestro Teglio’s Latin version did not appear until a couple of decades after Cromwell’s death. The text certainly did circulate in manuscript in Machiavelli’s own lifetime, so we might say that Mantel’s error is a matter of detail, of no consequence to her larger tale. It seems to me, though, that her determination that her hero should know Machiavelli’s most notorious work – not just at this point but also later in the first novel [pp. 488, 501] – is revealing of her construction of her hero. We might infer that her sense of Machiavelli is like that of Burckhardt: a man without hypocrisy who describes things as they really were, stripped of all comfortable pretence. And her Cromwell is a man in his image; a worldly man, who returns to old England a foreigner, enriched by his experience and by his brush with the modernity that is the Renaissance. There is something yet more Burckhardtian about Mantel’s Cromwell, at least in Wolf Hall: he is not just acquainted with new thinking – be it Machiavelli or Luca Pacioli [pp. 363-4] – but he is himself so endlessly inventive, it reminds me of the visual gag in the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters are repeatedly seen accidentally inventing Leonardesque machines. Cromwell has something of the l’uomo universale, the man not many-sided but all-sided who, for Burckhardt, epitomises the Renaissance.
So, this Machiavellian, Leonardian Cromwell returns to the land of his birth; he has seen the future and he lurks in the shadows until he can impose it on his unwilling, ungrateful countrymen. A future defined by the Renaissance and, of course, the Reformation. Cromwell is not just ready to question tradition, he is determined to stamp on its face. There he stands pitted against Thomas More, depicted by Mantel as a man so ensnared in his conservatism that he cannot tolerate modernity. By some paradoxical twist, that cosmopolitan scholar becomes a parochial stick-in-the-mud, suspicious of Cromwell’s well-travelled career: ‘you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions’ [p. 567]. Except, of course, for Mantel, Cromwell is also the future of Englishness – a new England (for ‘England is always remaking itself’ [p. 649]), modernised by being receptive to foreign ideas. That sounds encouragingly liberal: the low-born Cromwell takes on privilege and established power and shakes it to the foundations. In the process, let us remember, he helps destroys the fabric of a church that he sees as corrupt. If we were to look for a modern parallel for Mantel’s Cromwell and think of an outsider who used every wile to challenge tradition and to break the accepted way of doing things, then the closest may be Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, of course, would hate that, her bête noire morphing into her hero in the black cloak. Perhaps she would not recognise such parallels and, even if we can find them, perhaps they do not matter – after all, these are only novels. Except that they are not: they have somehow become a cultural phenomenon. I am not sure how that has happened: I still am perplexed at the decision to have a painting of Hilary Mantel at the top of the stairs to the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. How has she become such a household name? Has she filled a gap left by the end of J. K. Rowling’s time as favourite author? If so, it still cannot explain the hyperbole by which Mantel has taken on the mantle of being ‘our greatest living novelist’ – even ‘our’ most accomplished historical novelist might be excessive (Robert Harris provides strong competition). However, though, it has come about, the cult of Mantel and, in particular, of her Cromwellian novels, demands further questions: are they so loved simply for their evocation of character and context? Or is their attraction deeper and is there an affinity with its projection of ‘Englishness’?
This is where, finally, we come to the television adaptation of the novels which began this week. I will admit that I am in the lonely position of not yet being a fan. There are some fine actors in the production but I cannot help thinking there is serious miscasting: it is always good to have Jonathan Pryce on screen but he has nothing of the smooth-skinned corpulence needed for Wolsey – like Shakespeare’s Cassius, Pryce is a lean man; I would he was fatter. Yet more of a problem is that Mark Rylance simply looks too old to be Cromwell in his late thirties and early forties – the actor is the age now that Cromwell was when his head parted from his body and, even given the changes in aging, he looks too world-weary. This, though, is a small difficulty alongside the greater problems of transferring novels with so much internal monologue into an ensemble performance in which the eyes are on Cromwell rather than our seeing the world through his eyes. What surprised me most was that writing which can be so visual seemed not to survive the move from page to screen. Many of the scenes and the words are there, but not the aura of the work. The dull palette used – presumably in conscious contrast to The Tudors – created an ambience which, at worst, was lacklustre or, at best, homely. And it is that homeliness that concerns me most.
The homely is unthreatening. So, we are invited to view a ‘Tudor world’ as we know it or, rather, as we would like it to be. For instance, I was struck by how classless the society was – social gradation seemed to have disappeared both in the interactions and the interiors. There was little sense (as there is in the novels) of the heavy distaste for a man of such lowly birth as Cromwell’s; there was limited hauteur in a Norfolk or, indeed, the king. Meanwhile, the buildings which were home to Cromwell – still, at this point a lawyer in Wolsey’s service – seemed to lack none of the late-medieval conveniences afforded to the higher born and bettered housed. This is a world which has been domesticated for us so that it is tame, familiar and quintessentially English. Wolf Hall, in other words, as heritage product – ‘our’ great novel depicting ‘our’ Tudor forefathers. The battle of conceptions of Englishness that drives Mantel’s telling of the tale is wiped away by television’s evocation of a world we think is ours. But if the battle has gone, who won it? The arch-modernisers like Mantel’s Cromwell, full of dangerous and destructive if revivifying new ideas, or something more traditional? Is this Henrician politics showing how we can break the mould or is the BBC offering us a vision of how we should be happy to be moulded by ‘our’ inheritance? Is, by some convoluted route undertaken in the process of move from book to programme, Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation, a sort of revenge for the conservative, that is, for Mantel’s Thomas More? Cromwell’s on the box but is he also back in his box?

Religion and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 2 April, 2013

The second colloquium on the Mediterranean City took place a fortnight ago on 19th March 2013. You may remember that these events are organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and that the first of these occurred in St Andrews last November. For the second, our venue was the British School at Rome, co-sponsor of the series, and the theme was Religion.

As our host, Christopher Smith, intimated in his opening words, we were continuing a conversation that had been started in St Andrews. The cast-list for this second day intentionally had some overlap with the first, while others were welcomed in our midst for the first time. What was notable was how some of the themes and concerns of the first day continued in the new setting. So, for instance, there has been a natural – and useful – inclination in these conversations to step back and to ask whether what is being discussed is specific to our subject matter. In both colloquia to date, we have considered whether what we are delineating is specifically Mediterranean or, as it was put on this occasion, would anything be different if we were discussing Paris. That caused a lively debate about how significant climate might be to social interaction – or, to put it another way, what differentiation we should pinpoint between the life of the Italian piazza and that of the northern market square. A similar anxiety about difference that run through our discussion is how ‘city-based’ is religion. As I hinted in my own brief introductory words for the day, there are good reasons to see religion as either blind to physical context or, if it is sensitive to location, setting challenges for any urban environment.  Think of the mystery of cultish sites, whether it be a glade, a grotto, a lake-side or a spring: the magic of most lies in their separation from the everyday, and often in their inaccessibility. Think, similarly, about that other type of difficulty of access: the sense of retreat from life and of other-worldly contemplation that marks many religions. None of these aspects need privilege an urban setting and may, indeed, set it challenges.

And, yet, as was clear from many of the talks, the city did have something to offer religions. Greg Woolf, providing the stimulating opening paper of the day, nicely encapsulated this for the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient world: cities might grow out of the sites of cults or they may pull religions into their ambit, providing a pluralist setting in which many gods could live side by side. The apparent lack of conflict or potentially violent competition in the polytheistic polis marked it off from the medieval cities which were discussed later in the colloquium, but what united all the discussions was a sense in which the city could act as a theatre for religious practice: it could provide both the stage and the audience, its streets and its buildings serving the purpose of vessels into which religious meaning could be poured to overflowing. So, in the processions through Byzantium described by Paul Magdalino or the festivals of Jerusalem evoked by Andrew Jotischky, religion gained from its urban location.

It gained but it also could lose. In Andrew’s fascinating depiction of Muslim observers at the Christian festivals of Easter in thirteenth-century Jerusalem, the European pilgrims might return home claiming that even the unbelievers could not but marvel at the miracles on display in the Holy Sepulchre, but was this what the Islamic onlookers took away from these events? At the very least, the purity of Christian worship had to seek an accommodation, a compromise or modus vivendi with the resident population. The tensions could be equally or more pressing in a city of a single religion, as Paul’s wide-ranging discussion of the confraternities of medieval Byzantium suggested. They were the organising committees not just for weekly acts of overt (some might say excessive) devotion but also for poetry, music, banqueting and drinking – where ‘overflowing’ could be literal as well as figurative. And, consequently, there could be a backlash, a sense that the pious had been subsumed to the merely pleasurable. Religion might be centre-stage but it did not have the theatre to itself.

Perhaps it might be said that to survive within the city, religion had to submit to the rhythms, the norms or the nomoi of the host location. This could be said to be implicit in the concept of civic religion which, as Frances Andrews reminded us in her subtle paper, was given its classic definition for medievalists by André Vauchez: ‘the appropriation of values of religious life by urban powers for the purposes of legitimation, celebration and public well-being’. The direction in which that definition takes us seems clear: the powers have the ability to appropriate, to bring religion into the ambit of their control in order to reinforce or to amplify that control. The city, in short, tames religion or civilises it. The city might also corrupt it, in a way more destructive of its essence than even the fringe activities of the Byzantine confraternities. Such corruption might come from the religious urban powers, as Lucy Sackville so vividly described in talking about the ruses used by Pierre Amiel, archbishop of Narbonne, to deploy heresy charges to his venal advantage. There could, then, be much individuals or authorities in the city could gain from the use of religion, but it may not have been of mutual benefit.

Yet, at the same time, that the urban powers felt the need to use the tools of the religious suggests that they felt it could provide something they otherwise lacked; they simply had to engage with the charisma of the holy – and did so from a position that, in at least some sense, was one of weakness. Indeed, what struck me increasingly through the day was how the people of the cities, both its leaders and its masses, had to negotiate the religious. This came across most strongly in those discussions of those moments when the dominant faith was contested or in question: not just, then, Andrew’s Jerusalem, but also Tony Lappin’s Cordoba, where one’s commitment to Christianity or Islam had necessarily to be fluid if survival was one’s aim, and to Gitte Lønstrup’s late antique Rome, where burials may suggest a tentative change of religion. These latter two papers gave rise to an interesting discussion of the question of how far one’s social standing affected one’s experience of religious change. More fundamentally, though, what seemed to me to connect the tales told in all three papers was the very human practice of hedging bets, of what, if this were later seventeenth-century England, would be called trimming. What I mean is not that one’s religious identity was so marginal it could be donned and doffed like an outer garment – quite the contrary: when dealing with religion, the stakes were so high that utter uncompromising commitment was difficult for all but the far-sighted or the fanatic. In the contexts of High Medieval Andalucia, say, a decision about religion might be a matter of life or death but, for some, at least, that must surely at times have felt of little import when placed alongside the matter of the afterlife. How could one be certain when the decisions might be so fatal not just to one’s body but to one’s soul? When standing before the gods, one does not want to choose too lightly. It would be supremely human to have a scintilla of doubt about the choices made and to want to keep open the possibility of a compromise settlement with the divine beings one had rejected. When, then, Muslims and Christians mingled at the holy places of Jerusalem, they may have both been showing their commitment to their one true God and simultaneously leaving the door ajar to salvation by another route.

I have avoided calling this syncretism because that is in danger of sounding too intellectual when what is often happening is a reaction to the enormity of religion by the little person. In front of the gods, though, all must feel small. It could legitimately be pointed out that the examples from Cordoba to Jerusalem were unusual in the level both of interchange and of potential tension. Yet, even within a city nearly uniform in its commitment to a single religion, hedging bets had its essential place. This was one of the insights I took away from Frances’s rich case study of the fourteenth-century preacher Venturino da Bergamo, who led his rally of penitents to Rome and called on the city authorities to turn over the money usually used for the Lenten festivals to him for religious use. His plea was rejected and he decided it was wise hurriedly to leave the city. What struck me from what we were told of the various reports of his journey to Rome (and then on to Avignon to answer for his deeds before the pope) was a sense of uncertainty from the onlookers. At the same time as they describe Venturino’s  flight from Rome they also hint that this may have invoked God’s wrath. Likewise, the inquisitorial process at Avignon with its question-and-answer format naturally assumed a starting-point of doubt that needed to be clarified. But, for many people, such clarification would have proved elusive. The City Fathers listening to Venturino might instinctively recoiled from his plea for them to do something so unpopular as to disinvest in a much-needed leavening of Lenten gloom but they would have had to have been coldly cynical not to wonder whether this troublesome priest was not a true prophet. You can imagine one of their number positing that in their deliberations and similarly imagine another responding with the question of whether he might be no prophet but, instead, a manifestation of the Anti-Christ himself. If they made the wrong judgement-call, there could be – so to speak – hell to pay. To appropriate religion, the urban powers had to leave themselves open to the potentially bracing experience of being preached at, but were then left with another quandrary: how could they be certain what was the right response?

In discussing the first workshop, I suggested that the city had, in its archetypal spaces which gave it such potency, also the seeds of its own destruction – the bridge and the piazza providing venues for unrest as much as for successful functioning. Religion, perhaps, provide the city with a similar conundrum. It ordered the city with its provision of time, both daily and annually, and with what we might call its structuring of internal distance: it is in the nature of a city and what sets it apart from a town is that it is multi-centred, and the various locations for devotions gave the city those multiple focal points. Of course, religion, by providing that variety and the cohabitation it demanded, also embedded potential tensions and conflicts within the city. It is not that, however, which I see as marking religion’s most basic challenge to the city’s fabric. In its ordering of the city, religion could provide not only a varied texture but also a greater depth: the orange grove of the mosque or the cloister of the convent providing a retreat to higher contemplation in the midst of the bustle of civic life. Deeper but also larger: through religion, the city, physically confined by its physical location, could expand its imagination and become the link between the here-and-now with the ever-after, the window affording vistas on worlds beyond. In a fundamental sense, religion allowed the city to overflow. It connected the stonework and the cobbles – the monumentality of the city, as discussed back in November – with something apparently more lasting and conceptually more concrete: the certainty of belief. Yet, the apprehension of that certainty was necessarily elusive and the negotiating of it in the humdrum circumstances of quotidian existence could never be anything other than a source of uncertainty.

Might, then, the founder of a city have been wise to ban religion (like Plato did poets from his ideal city) from their foundation? Machiavelli, for one, would have argued not, but then added that Christianity with its emphasis on introspection and humility was precisely the wrong religion to be of civic use. But is a city without religion even fully imaginable? I am reminded of the history of Britain’s new town, Milton Keynes, founded in the 1960s consciously without a church, only to find religion soon seeping into its fabric. Religion has acted, time and again, not so much as an opiate of the masses but as their stimulant or, even, aphrodisiac. It has proven so necessary for the structure of the city because it provides a grounding that has its justification far beyond the small parameter of the city’s walls. But it is a certainty that can only be partially comprehended and so is a source simultaneously of strength and of instability.

Let me end by providing you with a photo of the participants of the colloquium, gathered in the warmth of the cortile of the British School (a far cry from the relentless winter persisting in England), and hope that you will be able to be with us when we have the third and final colloquium on ‘connectivity’ in Oxford on 23rd November.

An afternoon in Rome: the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series

An afternoon in Rome: some of the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series

William Roscoe and the Wonders of Not Travelling

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 14 June, 2009

A thought came to me as I moved from slumber to wakefulness this unEnglishly warm Sunday morning. As the title suggests it is about William Roscoe, the Liverpudlian banker and Renaissance scholar at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It is nearly a year since the day-conference dedicated to Roscoe in his hometown, at which I spoke on his friend and Poggio’s first modern biographer, William Shepherd. The proceedings of that conference are to be edited by the indomitable Stella Fletcher. A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in organising a rather different workshop, in Oxford and under the aegis of the Europaeum, on historical approaches to Europeanisation. At that workshop, fleeting mention was made to the Grand Tour as a process of Europeanising — and that set me thinking about our Liverpudlian friend.

If Roscoe’s name is remembered, it will be — I suspect — most often recalled for the curious fact that the author of two volumes on the Medici never set foot in the city of their birth or even visited any part of the Italian peninsula. I say ‘curious’: for some scholars, it seems simply inexplicable, for others, it is a source of gentle mockery.  For much of his life, Roscoe had the money to travel and he expressed the desire to see Florence but he never put the effort into actually crossing the Channel and heading towards the Mediterranean. He relied on friends to visit archives and gather information for him in Italy. How could, it is sometimes implied, a man who had never seen the Palazzo Vecchio or the Medici church of San Lorenzo consider himself competent to write about them?

A recent attempt has been made to answer that question; it can be described as the diachronic justification. Roscoe may have chosen not to travel across Europe; he could not but fail to travel across time. And the inability to visit Florence or Rome as they actually were in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a much greater barrier to comprehension than not touring contemporary Italy. Roscoe, on this analysis, was little more hampered than all historians in appreciating the subject of their studies.

That argument may be correct in logic, though it fails to grapple with an intellectual context that would see a cityscape as the reflection of its people’s spirit. In other words, walking the Florentine streets, however transformed they were from their pristine Renaissance state, would still be able to imbue the perceptive viewer with a sense of the identity that was moulded by and, in turn, moulded its inhabitants.

I do not know whether Roscoe read or knew of Herder, and whether he subscribed to similar ideas of a people’s genius — he certainly did have a sense of Florence’s particular identity, in a way which is a forerunner to Hans Baron’s concept of civic humanism. And he could develop this thinking at a desk far removed from the location about which he was writing. There is, it strikes me, another and more positive way to describe Roscoe’s failure to travel: he may have perceived that culture had developed so far that he did not need to make the journey. After all, his mercantile contacts could ensure that Italian ‘primitive’ paintings could arrive at his door, as could other objets d’art as well as continental books. Those paintings, including  a beautiful-beyond-words Simone Martini now hang in the Walker, not directly by Roscoe’s gift but by the generosity of those who purchased his estate when he fell into dire financial difficulty. The rationale for such a gallery, public or private, as with museums of the same period, was to have available artefacts evocative of distant lands: why would one need to travel abroad when the foreign travelled to England? Or, to put this another way, is it Europeanisation when cultural commerce is so vibrant that Europe can stay at home?

There is the over-used passage from Machiavelli’s letters where he describes retiring in the evening from his daily chores, putting on (metaphorically, we understand) classical garb and conversing in his study with the ancients. He conjures up an image of time-travel through solitude. Perhaps, for Roscoe the non-conformist, there was a similar retreat into contemplation, surrounded by the things of the other world which he visited in his imagination, as he evoked pen-potraits of a place he had seen only in his mind’s eye — if ‘only’ is the right word.