bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Glimpses in The Mirror and the Light

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2020

‘Dead men are at work’ (p. 615). The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is a book of ghosts. It opens only a second after the previous instalment, Bring up the Bodies, ended, as life leaves the now truncated queen. The world, however, has changed in that twinkling of an eye. Both the main protagonists — Thomas Cromwell and his master, Henry — have aged. Henry has always been plagued by dreams: one of the bravura moments of writing in the earlier parts of this saga saw Cromwell and Cranmer stand over the king, moulding a positive construction for the nightmares that had woken him from his royal sleep. Now Cromwell, though still a man of action, is in his fifties and he broods, recalls, regrets. He finds the darkness sometimes haunted.

Leemput after Holbein Whitehall Mural

A 1667 copy of Holbein’s lost Whitehall Mural, by Remigius van Leemput (Royal Collection).

The Mirror and the Light moves backwards as it moves forwards. It fills out Cromwell’s back-story, giving more details of his childhood and fathering on him a daughter from his Antwerp years. It also cannot forget his former adversaries: Thomas More casts his shadow across these pages. There are new enemies and there are new traitors. Some friends gain new prominence: Mantel has fun giving a more prominent role to Thomas Wyatt (who was Cromwell’s political protégé), and likewise to Hans Holbein. In particular, she provides an ekphrasis of the Whitehall Mural, which is doubly suited to her purpose as it is itself now no more than a reflection in mirrors, known only via copies, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1698. Cromwell is immersed in this cultured milieu and can act his own part within it. Mantel’s invention retains something of the inventiveness seen in previous instalments and now he also becomes an author, with Mantel endowing her creation with drafts of a ‘Book called Henry’. The title teases with a hint that this was to be like Thomas Elyot’s Book named The Governor (first printed in 1531), or rather the mirror image of that work of political advice addressed to the king; what we learn of Cromwell’s opus is that is a set of reflections on how to deal with his monarch. We can only wish we could read it. This is a book about ghosts of books.

Mantel has talked of these ghosts as ‘erased texts’, which in their illegibility invite us to read more deeply. She made this comment in response to a post I wrote with reflections on her use of Machiavelli in the first two volumes. The Prince makes a guest appearance in The Mirror, in a depiction of event which accords with the historical record, the gift to Cromwell of a copy of the book by Lord Morley. Cromwell reflects that his ‘king has nothing to learn from Niccolò’s book. But it may pass an hour for him…’ [p. 646]. Machiavelli is not a defining influence on this older, less confident Cromwell. Indeed, if a contemporary work by an Italian holds resonance for this novel, it is one which is not mentioned by name but which we know the historical Cromwell owned and which may have influenced the creation of this Cromwell’s own book of reflections (as it did Elyot’s Governor). It is Castiglione’s The Courtier.

While the central character of Mantel’s trilogy is the royal servant, through whose eyes we are meant to see the politics of the later 1530s, her most remarkable construction, it seems to me, is the portrayal of the king. It is Henry VIII who is alluded to in the title of the novel, in a phrase used of him in the historical Cromwell’s diplomatic correspondence. What Mantel does so well is to depict the unknowability of a king to even those close to him — and the way in which the monarch, a changeable man by nature, becomes inscrutable to himself as he attempts to continue to be unknowable to his courtiers. Cromwell, for all his skill as an efficient bureaucrat, is no less a courtier than the landed nobility who despise him. Though he never alludes to Castiglione, he has learnt some of his lessons. With his mastery of detail and his subtle manipulation of political intrigue, he has achieved his own style of sprezzatura, but his superiority is becoming ever more effortful, his grasp ever more tenuous.

As should be already clear, The Mirror and the Light is a tour-de-force in combining historical research with human sensitivity. The first part of the trilogy, Wolf Hall, felt at times weighed down by the note-taking that sat behind the writing, but the assimilation of research to narrative was perfected in Bring up the Bodies. The knowledge displayed is yet deeper here; it is so steeped in wide reading of the available primary sources and of historical scholarship that I can imagine the publisher is already preparing to commission a ‘reader’s companion’ or ‘scholar’s edition’, chronicling the influences and their transformations. Indeed, I see another publisher already has one on its way, by Lauren Mackay. I wonder what Mantel thinks of volumes like this. After all, any attempt to endow her fluid narrative with certainty would surely be inimical to her intentions. She wants to breath life into the past for us, but is always conscious that the best anyone can do is to conjure fleeting mirages, which leaves us only being better able to embrace our own ignorance.

In the context of her meticulous preparation, there is one element I find particularly notable. She is willing at times to have her Cromwell speak of ‘the Tudors’ [e.g. p. 240]. This might seem unsurprising, given that it remains the popular term for the period 1485-1603, but, as C. S. L. Davies demonstrated, it was not a contemporary one, at least if one wanted to avoid being accused of traducing the monarchy. Naming the kings by that surname signified their low-born origins, rather than their place in the long pedigree of rightful, anointed rulers. We might object that the Whitehall Mural which Mantel so well evokes could be taken as Holbein projecting a Tudor royal identity but this is a family portrait not a dynastic one. The inscription on the central monument celebrates the virtue of father, man and son, emphasising that the commissioner, Henry, is the eighth of that name to hold the sceptre. The prime importance of legitimacy means that Henry VIII could not claim that the tradition in which he stood began just the generation before him. Beyond him stood so many spectres of so many centuries waiting to whisper in his regal ear.

‘Tudor’ may be a useful shorthand but it misguides us if it allows us in any way to imagine that it describes a world that came into being fifty years before the action of this novel. If it did that, it would lead us naturally to underestimate how radical the fissure was which we know as the Break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The second of these is part of the backdrop to the action of The Mirror. Backdrop is merely what it is, not its perpetuum mobile, as it could plausibly have been. Mantel’s choice here helpfully reminds us how gradual the process of the destruction of the old order, and many (apart from those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace) might have been unable to detect when the point of no-return occurred. Its relegation to an occasional reference means that it is not allowed to preoccupy the mind of Mantel’s Cromwell. He might wonder how his family can profit from the closure of certain abbeys but, strikingly, he is not burdened with worry about its long-term consequences, nor does he feel the need to justify to anyone its rationale. What was once called ‘the age of plunder’ passes here for the custom of the country.

‘Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims’ [p. 432]. Mantel is the business of remaking reputations. If by the end of Wolf Hall, Thomas More seemed a little less like a martyr, at the final page of The Mirror, Cromwell seems no closer to being one. Her Cromwell would not have described himself as a victim or wanted to be remembered as one. He would also, I think, not considered himself a hero and I wonder whether, by the end of her writing, Mantel thought him to be that. What she has portrayed is something more interesting, more complex, more human than a hero. Yet, Mantel underplays the enormity of what her protagonist achieved. He had his time in making others victims —  not just humans, but also major buildings and traditions. They were so many that one wonders that his nights were not haunted with more ghosts.

A very conservative Renaissance

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 March, 2014

I am not in the habit of shouting at the television.  In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).

I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.

I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme).  No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.

It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.

Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.

And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.

Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’.  Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?