Tuesday, May 29, 2012
This past Sunday's NY Times Book Review includes a review of Bring Up the Bodies, the much-anticipated sequel to Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall about Henry VIII and his court. The hero, of sorts, in Mantel's novels about the period is Thomas Cromwell, whom Mantel sets off against Thomas More (depicted in Wolf Hall as an eager torturer of Protestants). The reviewer, Charles McGrath (former editor of the Book Review), writes: "In Mantel’s version, More is no saint, as he almost certainly was not in real life: he’s fussily pious, stiff-necked and unnaturally fond of torturing heretics."
Let me be clear: Thomas More generally shared in the prejudices of his age and was complicit in practices (most especially the use of state coercion with regard to religious belief) that we would today regard as morally odious. That's just to say that he lived in the early sixteenth century and not the early twenty-first century, and we could have a lively discussion about how the Catholic Church should assess the sanctity of people with the benefit of historical and moral hindsight.
But a couple of further observations about the review:
1. McGrath's statement (characterizing Mantel's view) that More was "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked" is open to debate based on the contemporaneous accounts of More, though I'd simply make the point for now that More's canonization in 1935 was largely based on the manner of his death--the fact that More (alongside John Fisher and later joined by the 1970 canonization of 40 martyrs and the 1987 beatification of 85 martyrs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England) suffered martyrdom for the Catholic faith rather than acquiescing to Henry VIII's assertion of power over the Church in England.
2. It's another thing altogether to make the slanderous claim that More was "unnaturally fond of torturing heretics," for the scholarly consensus is that there is no historical evidence that More engaged in torture. As summarized by John Guy in The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (Yale, 1980), "Serious analysis precludes the repetition of protestant stories that Sir Thomas flogged heretics against a tree in his garden at Chelsea. It must exclude, too, the accusations of illegal imprisonment made against More by John Field and Thomas Phillips. Much vaunted by J.A. Froude, such charges are unsupported by independent proof. More indeed answered them in his Apology with emphatic denial. None has ever been substantiated, and we may hope that they were all untrue" (165-66). See also G.R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Papers and Reviews 1946-1972, Volume 1, 158 ("It is necessary to be very clear about More's reaction to the changes in religion which he saw all around him. No doubt, the more scurrilous stories of his personal ill-treatment of accused heretics have been properly buried, but that is not to make him into a tolerant liberal.").
More was not, of course, a tolerant liberal and was an eager persecutor of heretics while Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. The number of heretics burned at the stake under More's chancellorship is generally agreed to have been six, with three cases in which More was himself involved directly. See Richard Rex, "Thomas More and the Heretics: Statesman or Fanatic?," in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, ed. George M. Logan (Cambridge, 2011), 93-115. Obviously, we rightly regard that today as a gross injustice, but it's hard to see how that constitutes "unnatural fondness" for persecuting heretics, particularly in light of the many hundreds put to death under Mary I or Elizabeth I over the next few generations. Nor was More's involvement out of the ordinary for his time. As Elton writes (161-62), "There is every reason to think that among the purposes [More] hoped to fulfil when he accepted office he put high the protection of the Church against heretical enemies. In this, however, he was not at all out of step with the official policy of those years. At the time, in fact, both king and Commons repeatedly demonstrated their orthodoxy in order to rebut the charge that their actions against clergy and pope were equal to heresy. More was more zealous and almost certainly more sincere than most, but as an enemy of heresy he had, during his years as chancellor, nothing to apprehend from king or Council."