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Posts from the ‘16th Century’ Category


Q Combinations 6: Auden and Brueghel (a bit of a cheat, this time)

So I should be upfront about this one. It’s a cheat – because I’m not the instigator of this particular combination – the poet was. And it’s one of his best-loved – although the subject matter is not cheering, it’s certainly all too real. Despite being inspired by a renaissance painting of a greek myth! Read more »


Friday Fun 39: Swotting up on the English Reformation (part 3: Elizabeth I)

For the time being, this is our final dip into the murky waters of Sellar & Yeatman’s classic 1066 and All That. After all, overindulgence is always wrong. Wouldn’t you agree?

Having digested the reign of Henry VIII, and then gobbled up his heirs & successors Edward and Mary, we come at last to Gloriana herself, Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, the one who was to be obeyed (on pain of decapitation etc etc). These Tudors weren’t exactly a straightforward bunch. No doubt, there were post-natal attachment issues which can explain all the shenanigans.
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Friday Fun 38: Swotting up on the English Reformation (part 2)

Boys and girls, last week’s lesson was only the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. How could you possibly imagine that we had plumbed the depths of the English Restoration? There is more work to be done – not least because Bluff King Hal left quite a legacy, much of which was left much to be unravelled amongst his 3 children and successors.

What a mess web he weaved.
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Friday Fun 37: Swotting up on the English Reformation with Sellar and Yeatman

A day late, but hey. It’ll be worth it. But whatever you do, don’t use this for your GCSE history revision. [If you have done your revision, you’ll see why]. Having read this, how will you ever be able to confuse the Reformation and the Restoration again? What’s more, whoever thought we’d need Hilary Mantel to bring this era to life?

Anyway, thought I would dedicate one or two Friday Funs to the sublime brilliance that its 1066 and All That. So let’s dive in straightaway, with Henry 6th and his 8 wives. Or was that the other way round? Read more »


The British Empire was never quite what you thought: John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire

Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.

  • “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
  • “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”

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Et in arcadia essemus: a visit to Wilton

With both children away on camp, Rachel & I ventured out on rather a road trip from Wiltshire along the South Downs and up. Marvellous.

At the start of the week, we had a chance to visit the original Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney’s imagination (see right for poet pic) – Wilton House near Salisbury, home of the Earls of Pembroke. Read more »


A Renaissance Paradise: The costs and glories of a Wiltshire Arcadia

I have a mild obsession with human attempts to create heaven on earth. Of course, their idealism is infectious: who doesn’t want heaven on earth? But such visions always come with a cost – in whatever society, in whatever generation. But if modernist visions of utopia have been about projecting the dream of the future through rejection of the past, others have been more concerned with recreating the long-gone, supposedly golden past. The English Arcadian vision is one such: it gripped several generations before the English Civil War and is the subject of Adam Nicolson’s fascinating book Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England.

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15 questions to ask of popular history

Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…

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Rehabilitating the Medieval Scientific Mind and why it matters

Sir Isaac Newton is a titan in world science, so it’s no surprise that he features on the very first, and the penultimate page of James Hannam’s excellent, 2009 book God’s Philosophers (which made it onto the shortlist for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

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Experiments in black and white in Norfolk

We celebrated 5th November en famille early – and here was a jammy shot from above of everyone watching a rocket head out.

Yesterday we visited Langley Abbey – a family-run farm built up around a pre-Reformation Abbey, dissolved by Hank 8. There’s now a cafe and you can wander round the remaining buildings and ruins. Lovely. These shots are in the Abbot’s cellars, the second being the breathtakingly beautiful brick roof:

Then this was quite a fun shadow shot – Joshua was standing in a window, which was then reflected on a glass balcony wall:


Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: Reflections on Islam & The West (2)

Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?

Hermetically Sealed Isolation

One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.

A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)

So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).

But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.

As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.

While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):

In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)

Tolerance & Freedom

I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.

The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)

I found this was very striking indeed.

Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:

According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)

And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:

[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)

But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…

But no grace…

It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)

The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….

… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)

So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.

Not on our watch…

This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.

Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.


Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: Reflections on Islam & The West (1)

I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.

I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.

A very provocative question!

Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:

… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)

One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.

Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)

I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to  be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:

The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)

It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.

The problem with Islamic Secularism

The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.

A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:

Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.

… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)

Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!

Ataturk, Father of Modern Turkey

And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.

The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)

Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:

The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer  in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.

[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:

Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)

This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.


The generous web: Clay Shirky again, on generations, revolutions and Gutenberg

The Blair autobio was far too chunky for me take on the plane to Albania, last week, so instead I took Clay Shirky’s followup to the wonderful HERE COMES EVERYBODY, from which I’ve posted before. He’s called it Cognitive Surplus, which is perhaps rather an intimidating and opaque title. Nevertheless, he’s still his readable, informative and thought-provoking self. It’s perhaps not as ground-breaking as the first one, which his why i gave it 4 not 5 stars. That good old ‘second album syndrome’, I guess. But it is definitely worth a read for any wanting to understand further how the Internet is shaping our lives and cultures. Read more »


Shardlake returns: that awkward protector of the vulnerable in the brutal world of the Tudors

I admit it. I’m a total sucker for historical fiction – and absolutely adore all the books of C J Sansom. I’ve reviewed a few from the Matthew Shardlake series before (e.g. Revelation, Dark Fire and Dissolution) so i eagerly opened my copy of the 5th in the series: Heartstone. I only hope that there are more…

What makes them such page-turners? Well for a start, they have the pace of a good detective mystery. Shardlake is a superb creation. Amateur sleuth and stubborn, hunchbacked London barrister, he takes on the sorts of injustices from which the ‘great and good’ walk by on the other side… or even perpetrate. He’s a valiant-for-truth and a protector of the weak, in large part because he is one of society’s marginalised himself despite his mind. We’re frequently reminded that ‘hunchbacks bring bad luck’. Is there a subtle allusion to the Tudor propaganda against Richard III here as the hunchback, I wonder? (To see what I’m getting at, check out Josephine Tey’s masterly Daughter of Time.) Sansom’s sublime skill, however, (as I’ve noted before) is his ability to weave genuine plot-twists and cliff-hangers into the meandering events of genuine Tudor history. For not only is Sansom a trained lawyer, he is also a PhD historian. When combined with story-telling abilities, this is a potent combination.

In Heartstone, we’re in the last few years on Henry VIII’s reign, following on a few years after previous books (which, incidentally, all get nods by Shardlake on p296). He’s engaged in his 3rd campaign against France (as disastrous and pointless as the previous ones), but is now married to Catherine Parr, an old friend of Shardlake. The queen engages the lawyer on what (inevitably) proves to be a rather dangerous case. I will not plot-spoil at all – it’s too good a read to do that! But despite coming in at just over 600 pages, I’ll simply say that this is a rich and gripping book. More than that, there were aspects of Tudor life about which I previously knew nothing, and yet get meticulously researched and vividly brought to life:

  • the sweat and heat of the old iron foundries in Hampshire and Sussex
  • the recruitment and training of the famed English military archers – and the impact on a whole society of a country threatened with French invasion
  • the protocols, snobberies and excitements of a Tudor stag hunt
  • the brutal life on board the warships like the great Mary Rose

The biggest eye-opener, however, was the ancient Court of Wards, created by Henry to raise revenue by overseeing the sale of orphans’ wardships. It was appallingly abused and notoriously corrupt – as Sansom notes in his afterword, its abolition was one of the great achievements of Cromwell’s Parliament. While Shardlake normally works in the Court of Requests (which was a forum to protect land rights for the vulnerable), he gets dragged into this murky world at the Queen’s behest. And these 3 big themes come through the book – all of which seemed very contemporary.

  1. The power of leaders to drag their country to war: a frequent refrain is the cost of the king’s wars with France – both in terms of taxes but more importantly, in terms of lives. It is chilling to see, especially when the campaigns seem so futile and whimsical – an elderly cleric near the end of the book reflects on just war theory and concludes this French campaign certainly wasn’t that. Does this all sound familiar? Not quite the same, I realise, but Iraq anyone? My hunch is that the various post-invasion enquiries were going on in London while Sansom was writing this.
  2. The destructive grip of ambition: as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that ascending the power ladder in Tudor England takes ruthless dedication and single-mindedness. Several characters are determined to rise at all costs. And several of the crimes encountered by Shardlake illustrate the point perfectly, with the victims of others’ ambitions are left reeling or dying. But they are not the only victims. The ambitious men themselves suffer awful consequences. As one character says ‘Ambition, sir, I believe it a curse.’ (p281) Two characters are told that they ‘deserved it’, after all that they’d done.  Therein lies a wordplay that forms the book’s title. A heartstone was in one sense a goodluck charm. It was a bone from a stag killed at a hunt – and was presented to the first person to bring it down (presumably itself a wordplay on heart’s bone or hart’s bone (the old name for a deer)). As well as bringing the owner (who’d wear it on a necklace), it was meant to have healing properties. But 2 or 3 different people are described in the book as having hearts like stone. And as Shardlake bitterly observes to a great adversary near the end of the book, the king takes advantage of henchmen around him, because they are ‘men without even hearts to turn to stone‘ (p547). And the power of ambition is something that never goes out of date, does it?
  3. The extreme vulnerability of children, especially daughters: this is probably the key thread of the book, however – as one might expect when the subject is the Court of Wards. There are 3 parallel stories of children that Shardlake struggles to protect. And this is what makes this, the 5th in the series, one of the most poignant. We see children consigned to Bedlam, stolen as military booty and mascots from invaded lands, sold when orphaned to so-called protectors. It is truly horrendous – but one has little doubt about the credibility of such plot-lines. No doubt things were far worse. And in order to survive, such children find themselves having to act parts (as several in the book have to) – they are trapped and institutionalised, to the extent that even when they can physically walk way, they are chained psychologically. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the horrors of those abused as children by parish priests – which again bring such issues horribly up to date. (To see an impassioned articulation of the decades long damage, see this plea on Irish TV).

History should teach us – but rarely does. However, it’s amazing to find so much depth, provocation and research in a novel, and a whodunnit to boot. I’ve one, tiny stylistic quibble I’d not noticed before – I sometimes wished he’d let the dialogue speak for itself, without having to explain the significance of what everyone says immediately in the narrative. But that’s not a big deal. These are all wonderful books.

One undercurrent I’ve not touched on (but it’s something that this book has in common with its predecessors) is Shardlake’s struggle to sustain a theistic worldview. He is full of anguished doubt as he battles injustice after bloody injustice – as well as seeing firsthand the horrors caused by wielders of power. Belief in God or providence or fate has been dissipated. One or two characters half-heartedly try to resurrect his faith – including Queen Catherine Parr herself. And it is left to a decrepit parish priest (who harks back to the old pre-reformed ways) to attempt, amidst his beer cups, to attempt a defence. He even manages to point to precisely where I’d point when seeking to grapple with the goodness of God in a suffering world – the cross of Christ. As Seckford says, because of the Cross ‘I think Christ suffers with us.‘ (p601) But Shardlake dismisses this with a simple ‘What is the good of that, Reverend Seckford?’

If only he saw. But I certainly don’t begrudge him his questions – for none of this is easy nor lightly dismissed. This is a brutal world – and the Tudor world far more brutal than ours, perhaps. One is only glad that there are people around like Shardlake – and hope that there were those of conscience and integrity even in those dark Tudor times to stand for truth, justice and the downtrodden – as in fact Jesus himself did. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shardlake manages if he reappears in young Edward VI’s reign and even Mary I’s – for religion will be even more a burning issue. I fear that the events of those years will in many ways make faith even harder him. But I, for one, can’t wait to find out.


The papal visit and truths worth dying for

The pope is arriving on these shores next week. And there are many things that make his visit controversial. There are of course even people who want to try to arrest him. I certainly don’t think that is the right way to proceed and bear him no ill-feeling necessarily. Nor does it particularly worry me that he’s visiting the country. Why shouldn’t he? And as they say, ‘some of my best friends are Catholic’.

But if one of the purposes of such visits is to raise the profile of Catholicism, then it is perfectly fair game to re-examine the reasons why many of us count ourselves Christian but not Catholic.

Some believers constantly relive past battles of spiritual ancestors as if little or nothing has changed for decades or even centuries; while others reject the need to get involved those such debates altogether (perhaps in the mistaken assumption that this makes them more contemporary). Neither path makes sense. The past is not irrelevant but nor is it a straightjacket. As I previously quoted on Q a few weeks back, Tom Wright helpfully sums it up like this:

the trick is to recover the first-century questions and try to give twenty-first century answers, rather than taking sixteenth-century questions and giving nineteenth-century answers…

Still, some past battles continue to have relevance when they concern first-century questions – and that is in large (though not entire) part what the Reformation was concerned with in its determination to get back to the sources (‘ad fontes‘) of Scripture and the early church. We might not answer the questions in exactly the same way that the likes of Luther or Calvin answered them (not least because the presenting issues are different) After all, 21st Century Catholicism is by no means identical to its 16th Century forebear. But we would be unwise to ignore what they said and why they said it, especially if there are aspects of Catholic belief that have not in fact changed that much.

This then was the thinking behind a recent, but all too brief, series preached by the boss, Hugh Palmer last month. It was a corker on the 4 ‘sola’s of the reformation, under the title TRUTHS WORTH DYING FOR. Definitely worth checking out:


Communion and the Virtual Presence

Communion was of course a hot button issue 500 years ago. It’s unlikely to be again in quite the same way, even though the debates were fiercely fought over issues of transubstantiation, real presence or (in Zwingli’s case) a real absence. The question all revolved around the extent to which God was actually present in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine at Communion

Things have moved on – some of the concerns may matter still, but as Tom Wright so pithily put it (when speaking about hermeneutics and the New Perspective on Paul):

the trick is to recover the first-century questions and try to give twenty-first century answers, rather than taking sixteenth-century questions and giving nineteenth-century answers…

And the twenty-first century has certainly thrown up some new conundra to get our heads around – things that the likes of Calvin and Luther could never have anticipated. For it seems that a Methodist minister, Tim Ross, has started tweeting the Communion service. This was his explanation:

Twitter offers unique possibilities for communication for the Church. It’s a community that’s as real and tangible as any local neighbourhood and we should be looking to minister to it… The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we’re prepared to embrace the technological revolution.

Where he’s onto something…

Well, he’s right about perceptions and the unique communication possibilities that offered by new media. And I do believe embracing the technological revolution is important (as I said in my Digital life paper). For online, people can look for, find and make genuine, authentic connections with other people.  These are essential ingredients if any community is to grow and develop.

But that doesn’t mean that what is created by the likes of Twitter is necessarily ‘a community’ – not in the traditional understanding of the word, at any rate. A community is where we rub shoulders with one another, where we deal with our quirks and foibles, where personalities clash and where conflicts must be resolved somehow. Authentic community life is not a consumer’s paradise of pick and choose (and thus avoid what we don’t like), but a place where we are forced to face hard realities about ourselves as we learn other-person centredness.

Where he’s missed the point…

So Twitter might be a way of attracting people into a community, and it might conceivably be a means to deepening that community life; but it can never replace community life. Communion is one of the key, but not only, places where (if it is functioning as it should) community life is challenged to be Christ-centred, cross-centred, forgiveness-centred. That’s why ‘the peace’ (all too often, completely skimmed over) is so important, for example.

We are to forgive as we have been forgiven… And there is something important about the tangibility of the sacrament and the togetherness of a community service that no virtual reenactment (however real it might be in other senses) can ever convey. And it’s not because I’m going all anglo-catholic here. Far from it.

It’s just that I sense that (quite apart from what’s happening with the bread and wine) a communion without the real presence of the community is no communion at all.


3 Men of Genius in the same place, at the same time: thoughts on “a fateful collusion”

Leonardo, Machiavelli, Borgia: these 3 men were, each in their own way, extraordinary. Genius is not too strong a word (though some might balk at the idea of Cesare Borgia being included – especially after what we learn in this book of him and his father Pope Alexander VI). What Strathern calls a ‘fateful collusion’ in his book The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, was a story largely untold (as far as I can tell) before this book – and is therefore a fascinating approach. The period in view lasted only a matter of 4 or 5 years – and its complexities require much explanation and background study – but it works successfully as a piece of gripping history.

This is no straightforward biography of the 3 men – it is a study of a unique cultural moment. And that is this book’s greatest asset… but also its constant challenge. Even though we’re dealing with only a few years (roughly 1500-1505), it is sometimes hard to keep track of all that was going on (not least because of the sheer complexity of Italian Renaissance politics – many city states, different dukedoms, not to mention the intricacies of the inner-workings of the Papacy). Then, despite the book’s title, the number of times the 3 men intersected was not actually that great – their meetings (never with all 3 in one room, as far as we know) are largely described from (perfectly reasonable) conjecture – although we have clear records of Machiavelli’s encounters with Borgia from his own writing (e.g. regular diplomatic despatches back to Florence, and the impact of Borgia on his ground-breaking The Prince). Yet there is no doubt that all 3 knew each other (probably pretty well) – and so the book does have a sound basis. I found at times Strathern’s need to repeat, backtrack or review moments quite confusing (because the book is structured so that each of the 3 is repeatedly given focus in turn) – and was only saved by the essential chronology at the start. It would have been even better to have a summary of that timeline at the start of each chapter, just to keep the reader on track.

Despite these minor gripes, I couldn’t put the book down. I was enthralled from the start – and found myself hankering for more at the end. For any interested in the background to the European Reformation, this is essential reading, since the charges of corruption against the Papacy (most notably from Luther just a few years later) are given clear grounds. The escapades and ambitions of the Spanish Borgia family knew no bounds – the orgies and machinations within the walls of the Vatican were simply shameless. Strathern pulls no punches in what are at times rather lurid depictions of the goings on. More significantly, because every great work of art or writing has a context or provocation (rather than being some ethereal timeless revelation), the wonders of Leonardo’s inventions, painting and imagination now make so much more sense, as does Machiavelli’s political philosophy, because of this book. Then, to top it all, the account manages to convey moments of great poignancy – for example in the analysis of what probably turned Leonardo away from his work as a military engineer, and Machiavelli’s enforced languishing in professional isolation on his farm once the Florentine political winds had changed.

This is a well written and deeply researched book, full of gems and insights – and any book that leaves you sad to be finishing has clearly succeeded in what it set out to do.


Leonardo da Vinci’s map of Imola

So what’s the big deal with an old map? Well, quite apart from the fact that I love maps anyway, this is a pretty special map.

While reading and enjoying Paul Strathern’s The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior (about the extraordinary confluence between around 1500 and 1504 of Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia), I came across this fascinating section about Leonardo’s map making. Yet another facet of his genius. Centuries before manned flight was possible (despite the fact that it was something that obsessed Leonardo), here is a map so accurate that it could almost have been traced straight from Google Earth.

The confirming evidence placing Leonardo at Imola during this period [i.e. when Cesare Borgia was headquartered there] is a map that he made of the city. This is a work of astonishing technical achievement and precision; it is also a work of some beauty, which is heightened by the delicate wash colouring of the snaking blue course of the nearby River Santerno, the pale green of the surrounding fields and even the red clusters of houses within the city. Leonardo’s map depicts every street, every parcel of land and its buildings, main fortress and surrounding moat. These are all seen as if from the heavens, or a bird’s-eye view, just as we expect of a map today. At the time, this was something of an innovation. (p158)

Distances were measured by simply pacing them out on the ground, or by the use of cords knotted at regular lengths, or with the aid of a hodometer, an instrument that measured distances by running a wheel across the ground. This hodometer was Leonardo’s own invention, and probably followed one of the three designs he drew in his notebooks during his period in Milan. The most advanced of these made use of a vertical rotating wheel set horizontally set above it (see below). (p160)

Medieval maps, with their drawings of mountains, castles and even fanciful animals such as dragons, possessed their own quaint but nonetheless recognisable aesthetic quality – a beauty which the more precise and practical early Renaissance maps frequently lacked. It may be that this copy of the original military map for Borgia was an attempt to explore how some element of that medieval aesthetic quality could be retained. As such, it certainly succeeds, in a way that many ensuing similarly precise maps do not. Precision quickly gave way to the formulaic; the reality of the terrain was adapted to the purpose of the map, rather than simply protrayed. Specific features – such as roads, towns, mountain contours, and so forth – were emphasised at the expense of a natural charm and beauty. Here too, though in a much more subtle way, it seems Leonardo was far ahead of his time. (p161)


Andrea Clarke on Henry VIII at the BL

This was made by a US network to plug their broadcast of the Tudors series. Its Spooks-like opening seems a bit OTT. But the point of posting this is not Natalie Dormer (who played Anne Boleyn) but the fact that she goes to the British Library during the brilliant Henry VIII: Man & Monarch exhibition (sadly now closed) to be shown around by the awesome Andrea Clarke.

Andrea is a friend and fellow NT Greek fan – but more importantly she co-curated the exhibition with David Starkey and slogged at it for months. There are some amazing things on show, including one of his loveletters to Anne and his own annotations on complex legal documents in Latin concerning his break with Rome. Enjoy.