bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Thomas Becket and the Materiality of an Absence

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2021

Today is the final day of the Thomas Becket: life, death and legacy conference, an event which is proving stimulating and engaging, even in its online incarnation in our still-distanced world. Funded by the British Academy, its academic organisers are two wonderful medievalists, my colleague at Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Dr Emily Guerry, and Prof. Louise Wilkinson (University of Lincoln). It was originally intended to take place in Canterbury at the Cathedral in 2020, a year with a double importance in the devotional history of that religious community: last year was the eighth centenary of the translation of the remains of St Thomas the Martyr within the cathedral, with his death occurring fifty years earlier, so meaning 2020 was its 850th anniversary. The continuing Covid-19 situation meant the conference (like the related exhibition at the British Museum) had to be delayed, and is now taking place fully online. This has had an impact on my own contribution to the conference. I originally proposed a paper on the English community in Italy and its cherishing of Becket’s name. However, the organisers at the Cathedral on the Heritage Lottery Funded Canterbury Journey project have been keen to retain some sense of that location as the place where the conference is happening so have asked for some ‘virtual tours’ of its riches. The challenge they set me was to talk about signs of the removal of St Thomas’s cult in the books held in the Cathedral’s Library and Archives.

I was, at first, hesitant to take on this task: I do work on erasures but had not before considered in any systematic way how those practices related to the attack on Becket in sixteenth-century England. It required some research on my part but I am now glad that I did it: so, thank you to Sarah and the Canterbury Journey team for nudging this truculent ox in that direction. I am pleased I did for three reasons. First, it gave me reason to consult — within the limits of present government guidance — some fascinating manuscripts and printed books in the Archive’s holdings, some old friends to me, others (like the heavy-weight Plumptre Missal) new acquaintances. Second, and related to that, it is always a delight to work with the highly supportive staff at the Archives, led by Cressida Williams, but the recording of my talk had the added benefit of meeting the Canterbury Journey’s technical expert, Alba Jato: it was a joy to work with someone with such energy and enthusiasm. Finally and the reason for this short post, the research itself brought home to me that there is a richer history about the ‘second death’ of Becket than has so far been written.

Thumbnail image from the virtual tour of Becket erasures in Canterbury Cathedral

That Henry VIII’s proclamation of November 1538 requiring the ‘unsainting’ of Becket included the removal of his name from liturgical books is well known. There are some useful discussions with interesting examples online. My own work revolves around two insights which are not often fully enunciated. First, ‘erasure’ is often the wrong word for how the saint’s name is removed. The process of erasing is a very particular approach to removal, and sits within a wider suite of possibilities. The examples I discuss in the recording include tearing out, blacking out, cutting out, slashing, scratching away, and rewashing — and this is only one subset of a longer list of possible approaches. The results of each are not exactly the same and my challenge to future scholarship is to think about whether the intentions that lie behind each act might also be subtly different.

It might be that the implications of what I have just said would remain in the area of speculation (and so unpublishable, except in a blog like this) if it were not for the second factor. The removal of Becket’s name was not the only one required by the government in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. The first injunctions of Edward VI’s reign twinned his name with the word ‘pope’. This was, in fact, a bringing together of two separate acts of Edward’s father. Henry VIII had required, as I have mentioned, the ‘rasing’ of St Thomas in November 1538; it was a little over three years earlier that he had demanded that the word ‘papa’ and ‘pap[a]e’ should be removed from all liturgical books. Though these became twin acts by the mid-century, the two removals began life at separate points. Thus, for us as scholars, there is an interest in comparing the two related but independent requirements.

Certainly, in some cases, the two words were removed at the same time, or in identical manner so we can not detect any difference between them. We might, in fact, expect that of loyal subjects of Henry’s reign or of those in his son’s reign who followed the royal injunctions. What, then, was striking in the few examples I have time to discuss in the short recording is that in all cases the approach differs between the two terms. There are occasions when Becket is removed but ‘pope’ remains undisturbed; there are others when care has been taken to rub out ‘pape’ from the liturgical calendar, but St Thomas is left untouched. There is also one manuscript when both are scratched out but with markedly different levels of intensity.

I do not, though, want to spoil what small interest might lie in the video Alba and I recorded, and which is now available to the conference delegates and may hopefully soon be put online for all to see (however few ‘all’ might be). Let me finish, then, with this thought: it is said that Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, claimed not to want to have windows on men’s souls. Attending to the detail of an ‘erasure’ will not give us a clear view into the private thoughts of women and men alive in the 1530s and 1540s, but it might bring us a little closer to their inner lives than we imagined we could.