Tag Archives: protestant reformation

Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *


My 3 Proudest Moments as a College Student (all of them exceptionally strange)

28 Apr

Like thousands of other twenty-somethings across the country, I’m graduating from college this spring.  In fact, I’m graduating this week.  It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, though that might be due to the fact that I have 5+ years of grad school ahead of me.  Fun!

Team USA Quidditch at the University of Alabama, preparing to lose to Iceland.

I never went to a football game, stayed up no later than 10 pm on weeknights, and maintained my admittedly bizarre and anachronistic 19th-century teetotaling ethos the entire four years–but even so, I’m still going to miss being an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  And maybe it is all that 19th century research, but I’m feeling a little sentimental.

In that vein, here is a list of my Top 3 Proudest Moments as a college student–all of them being very, very strange.

1. Reformation! The Musical

When I was in middle school, I was president of the Drama Club and performed in a number of musical productions.  I was so good that, in fifth grade, I was the understudy for the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.  In eighth grade, I was the understudy for Wendy in Peter Pan.

I was an awesome understudy.

It’s only logical, then, that I got my breakout starring role this year as Martin Luther in “Reformation! The Musical,” a short film I wrote, filmed, edited, and bankrolled myself .  I was amazed that so many of my friends actually agreed to participate.  We were equally amazed at how horrible the movie turned out to be.

Our tagline?  “The worst film in all of … history.”


Hey, you can’t say we didn’t have fun.

2. Team USA Quidditch at the World Cup

Way, way back in high school, I spearheaded the creation of a quidditch league at my school.  That’s right, quidditch.  We even got in the county newspaper, which would have been super awesome except that the reporter included the fact that the league was organized by a group of my friends and me passing notes in AP Calculus.  Our teacher was quite gracious about the revelation–maybe because it was already pretty obvious that I was never going to pass that AP exam.  As she told me before the test: “Let’s get this over with so you can use words for the rest of your life.”

They gave me differential equations to solve.  I wrote them palindromes.

Team F*cking USA with an American flag I made out of cardboard and colored paper.

Imagine my delight when an organization at UA hosted a massive quidditch tournament two years ago.  I eagerly got a team together (mostly composed of my Reformation! cast mates).  We lost.  But this year, this year, I was determined that we would win. Well, win one game anyway.  After all, we were Team F*cking USA.

It was a dramatic final five minutes.  The Snitch ran onto the quidditch pitch in a sweat, both Seekers (one of them my precious younger sister) in hot pursuit.  I was playing Beater, but had thrown my last bludger at an enemy player.  The other team’s Seeker was getting closer and closer to the tennis ball dangling from the back of the Snitch’s pants.  My sister, exhausted but still determined, having stripped out of her sweatpants into pink running shorts right on the field, was only a few steps behind.  I shouted to my team’s other Beater: “Aim for the Seeker!”  She had a bludger in her hands and, in one last desperate act, pelted the enemy Seeker in the balls.  He doubled over in pain, and my sister caught the Snitch.

I had never loved her so much as I did that moment, and I doubt I ever shall again.

3. Senior History Honors Thesis

About three weeks ago I defended my senior history Honors thesis, a microhistory of youngest daughter of a white cotton planter and enslaved African American woman in Reconstruction-era Alabama.  I’d give more details, but I think this could turn into a dissertation and I’m terrified of my story getting scooped before I have a chance to publish.  There’s a reason they call academia the School of Hard Knocks.

Don’t they?

The Protestant Reformation Comics have moved

9 Aug

… to Narricide, my other blog.  You know, the one with all those research papers, historical marginalia, and other academic odds and ends.  Sorry about the confusion!  So if you’re looking for Henry VIII and Thomas More playing chess, or Thomas Cromwell singing to the pope, you can find them here: Go to Junker George, Narricide’s completely historically-accurate comic of biblical proportions.

Or if you’re looking for something specific:

#1 Dissolution of the Monasteries

#2 The Holy Eucharist

#3 Devious Thomas Cromwell

#4 Teresa of Ávila writes The Interior Castle

#5 Henry VIII and Thomas More Play Chess

#6 Debunking Superstitions

#7 King Lear’s First Mistake

#8 Tudor Truth or Dare

#9 Commie Professor

#10 Anne of Cleves gets her picture taken

Save your stamps and don’t bother with the hate mail– I know I’m going to Hell.


Isabela Morales

Popish Protestants in Tudor England

10 May

Even before the king’s “Great Matter” took center stage, Henry VII had a number of extramarital affairs, with both Catherine and the court looking the other way.  In the case of Anne Boleyn, however, Henry did not simply desire a new mistress: to make the succession secure he needed a son, which meant a young queen strong enough to bear children.  To achieve this goal, Henry needed a divorce, irrespective of his lust or Anne’s royal aspirations.

So though in his heart a true son of the Church, King Henry VIII’s personal attachment to Catholicism could not override his political motives: to support Protestant reform efforts in a pragmatic attempt preserve the stability of the realm after his death with a male heir.

Ironically, however, this very attempt to secure a legitimate male successor through a nominal change in theology opened the door to true radicals whose espousal of Protestant doctrine would reflect not just political expediency, but social reform that would serve to destabilize the social order Henry VIII valued.

But contradictions in scripture provided support for both Henry and Catherine—while a passage in Deuteronomy promoted the practice of levirate marriage, a man taking his brother’s widow as his own wife, two passages in Leviticus denounced it.  Most compelling to Henry, Leviticus 20:21 stated that if a man marries his brother’s widow, “he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness” and, as a result, “they shall be childless.”

Because of these contradictions, a special papal dispensation had been required for Henry and Catherine to marry in the first place, as she had been the wife of Henry’s late older brother Arthur.

This very dispensation demonstrates the Vatican’s willingness to consider dynastic and political necessities in its interpretation of scripture, and so Henry’s desire for an annulment would not have been unreasonable—if he had not based his argument in the idea that the Pope had not had the right to issue the dispensation to begin with.

The king’s insistence on this argument Henry’s rejection of the concept dual loyalty to both a temporal power (the king) and a spiritual power (the Pope)—a break reflected in the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Supremacy in 1533 and 1534

Building on the precedent of the 14th century Statutes of Praemunire, which addressed the issue of “numerous persons being taken out of the kingdom to response in cases of which the cognizance pertains to the court of our lord the king,” the Act in Restraint of Appeals established the king of England as the highest justice to which an Englishman (or woman, like Queen Catherine) could appeal.  Henry was accorded by “Almighty God with plenary, whole and entire power, preeminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction.”

The subsequent Act of Supremacy institutionalized what the Act in Restraint of Appeals had made true in practice: that “the King’s Majesty… is the supreme head of the Church of England.”

Yet even after this radical break from Rome, however, Henry VIII still saw himself as a devoted Catholic, the “defensor fidei” his renunciation of Martin Luther’s ideas had made him.  Henry demonstrated near-orthodoxy in most areas of religious doctrine, simply replacing the Pope with himself.

His adherence to Catholic doctrine is reflected in the 1539 Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions, also known as the “Six Articles.” While Protestants rejected all but two sacraments (communion and baptism), this document upeld all seven, along with transubstantiation, communion under both species for priests and not laypeople, the doctrine of purgatory, and the vows of chastity made by monks or nuns—even after the dissolution of their monasteries.

The document, in fact, parallels his defense of the sacraments in response to Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church—Henry’s “Assertion of the 7 Sacraments” was the treatise that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith.”

Though a seeming contradiction, both Henry’s rejection of the Pope and support of otherwise “popish” practices ramify from his central motivation: to preserve the stability of the realm by upholding the “Great Chain of Being,” best maintained by the rigid hierarchical structure and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

When the young Edward VI succeeded his father, however, his Council of Regents found that Protestant doctrine carried with it inherently destabilizing ideas.  The king could not simply be substituted for the Pope, because Protestants did not see the clergy as possessing special access to either truth or the path to salvation.

Catholic priests were the sole interpreters of a Latin Bible, but (like the Lollards before them) Protestants supported vernacular Bibles and preached a “priesthood of believers.

Catholics believed that one received God’s grace necessary to salvation through the sacraments, but Protestants rejected all but two sacraments and preached that one was saved through faith alone, or solefideanism, for which sacraments were not necessary.

Depicting this shift visually, the elevated altar of the priest is replaced with a simple table in the illustration of John Foxe’s book of Protestant martyrs, Acts and Monuments: the altar is labeled “The Common Table.”

These doctrinal positions undermined the authority of the religious hierarchy by emphasizing the essential spiritual equality of all believers, and were used as partial justification for Kett’s Rebellion in 1549.

Henry VIII’s disastrous economic policies of debasement of the currency and reckless spending on unsuccessful wars continued into Edward VI’s minority reign, leading to a century of high inflation and skyrocketing prices.  The 16th century, the Tudor century, marked a time of rapidly deteriorating living conditions—what a common laborer could get for his salary during this time dropped to pre-plague levels.

(The Black Plague took a tragic toll on human life in Europe, but for the survivors—life was good.  A radically reduced labor force meant that peasants could demand higher wages, lower rents—with landowners having no other choice but to cave.  Essentially, the Plague, not any royal fiat, killed serfdom.  By Henry’s time, however, these benefits had mostly eroded.)

These economic troubles led to social unrest in the mid 1500s and catalyzed Kett’s Rebellion, but were justified by an egalitarian Protestant doctrine similar to the rhetoric of John Ball, whose demagoguery used Lollard ideas of equality to preach “killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors,” and so on.

Edward VI’s deep Protestant piety had been shaped by the Regency council that educated him, and so when faced with this rebellion, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was a true radical who not only repealed Henry’s anti-Protestant legislation but went so far as to sympathize with the social application of Protestant religious doctrine.

Though he ultimately lost power for hesitating to suppress the uprising, Somerset illustrates how Henry VIII’s political pragmatism inadvertently undermined his own personal social conservatism.

Trial by Combat: God, Feudalism, and the Crusades (part 2 of 2)

8 May

The belief that God will necessarily lead the righteous to conquest reflects the superstitious mentality of feudal judicial practices, only now on a much wider scale.

Where trial by ordeal or combat once applied the principle to feuds or disagreements between individuals, the crusades incorporated this feudal institution into the realm of international politics.  But emphasis on more admirable values of feudalism than superstition also crossed over into the “crusading mentality” to fuse with religious sentiment­—in particular, the importance of personal loyalty to one’s lord.

For instance, loyalty to God’s cause is demonstrated by devotion to Charlemagne, characterized through the epic as a pious king who receives visions from God and is guarded by St. Gabriel.

Moreover, the swords of both Roland and Charlemagne symbolize more concretely the connection between feudal service and religion; while Roland’s Durendal contains relics from various saints and the Virgin Mary, Charlemagne’s Jouise holds the point of “the lance with which our Lord was wounded on the cross” (108), providing a direct connection between Christ the heavenly king and Charles the earthly emperor.

But this synthesis of religious ardor and feudal values ultimately creates a conflict of interest within the vassal-crusader.  While combining the fervor of supposed divine sanction with a belief in infallibility makes Charlemagne’s army a formidable force– described by the enemy as “fierce” men with “no thought of failing” (129)—Roland’s interpretation of war as holy encourages zeal over caution.

Roland’s courage and pride, bolstered and supported by certainty of moral rightness, approaches recklessness when he refuses to blow his horn for help.  In this way, religious zeal comes into conflict with the traditional qualities of a good vassal—prudence, common sense, and cooperation.

In the Song of Roland, this war of values finds symbolic expression in the inadvertent battle between Roland and a blinded Oliver—Roland, described as “brave,” represents the crusader, valiant to the point of recklessness and proud nearly to the point of sin; Oliver, “wise” (64), reflects the caution and discretion of the feudal vassal.

Rejecting the established Benedictine standards of piety, which held secluded monks and nuns as the holy men and women who ensured God’s blessings on earth, crusading warriors instead emphasized the active life, dashing headlong into the world to “administer His judgment” (136) themselves.

Filled with confidence in both their rightness and the divine support of God in their mission, these crusaders—as depicted in the Song of Roland—carried feudal values with them, in the head and hilt, into an atmosphere of religious fervor.

But ironically, while feudal standards and superstitions help to create the “crusading mentality” of moral certainty and certain victory, it is this same fusion which, by contributing to the pride and reckless confidence of the crusader, ultimately leads to the rejection of a number of core feudal values in the Song of Roland.  Though “Roland never loved a coward, nor arrogant man” (97), the title warrior demonstrates that—in an arena of religious zeal—avoiding the one may create the other.

A/N: After re-reading this paper (written about a year and a half ago for a University of Alabama history course), I had another couple ideas about The Song of Roland—in light of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation course I took from the same professor this semester—

The idea of God’s sovereignty and divine will in the crusading mentality makes for an interesting example of the Catholic theology early Protestant reformers so vehemently opposed.  Traditional Catholic theology of justification holds that divine will cooperates with human will in a person achieving salvation; Protestants, on the other hand, hold that justification and receipt of grace is a strictly passive process (human works are worthless).

In Roland, the message is absolutely orthodox: faith in God’s will makes the crusaders certain of their moral superiority—but also of a very temporal victory.  The knights, after all, are the ones who initiate battle, in the belief that they are the ones carrying out God’s work.  Thus, cooperation between heaven and earth.  How lovely.

Just thought that was interesting; it’s a pretty good example, too, of the original justification for indulgences (something else the Protestants abhorred).  Indulgences were original created as an incentive for potential crusaders, or rather, an assuagement of their fear—otherwise, why would a man fight without being able to receive Extreme Unction and confess before he died (die with a mortal sin on you, and it’s straight to hell, buddy).  The theology behind the practice paralleled the crusading spirit itself: You do this for God, and he’ll reward you.  Again, cooperation.

And please remember to cite your sources, if you don’t want to end up in the eternal torment of the Saracens (because, naturally, they’re all going to hell, the heathens):

The Song of Roland. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Democratizing Technology, again

14 Dec

The more we control our technology, the better we like it.

This weekend I took the advice of 17-year-old Marcus, hacker protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother (2009’s Prometheus Award winner for Libertarian SF, by the way):

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city. Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off- limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.

It’s less a subtle suggestion than a call to arms, but I was inspired anyway and messed around with Python for an afternoon—because I’m a Humanities student and very proud of the fact, I used my very limited skills to write a program that quotes Hamlet at you, substituting your name for Ophelia’s (user_reply = raw_input (“Get thee to a nunnery!”)).

It was amazing.  And Cory Doctorow/Marcus was absolutely right: every time that little program carried out a command I typed, I shouted very loudly and very excitedly with the astonishing power of even my limited abilities (very, very limited abilities).  Doctorow’s call to arms is something almost as cool as my hamlet.py program: computers are complicated, and the Internet can be frightening, but we don’t have to be passive users.

It’s democratization of technology.

We’ve probably all heard the faux-Chinese curse once or twice before: May you live in interesting times.  Interesting being dangerous, of course.  Well, this is an interesting time (Cory Doctorow: it’s one of the “best and weirdest” times in human history), and what makes it interesting—the powers, good and bad, of technology—are shared by some of the other weird and best periods in history.  Take 1850 to 1900:

Historians have a lot of names for these mid to late-1800s—Mark Twain’s designation of the period as the “Gilded Age” is probably the best known.  The second half of the 19th-century, Twain believed, demonstrated unprecedented superficiality, decadence, and extravagant displays of wealth.

But Twain seems to ignore where that wealth came from—the growth of industry in the northeast, so productive that we call it the “Second Industrial Revolution.”  This was the time of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Michael Faraday, among many, many others.  Advertisement, commercialization of the automobile (Henry Ford), and the mass production of consumer goods all began at this time.  Not to mention its affect on communication: for the telephone alone, this half-century has even been labeled the “Technical Revolution.”

Technology was changing lives, making the world smaller, and spreading ideas like never before.  Great inventors may stand on the shoulders of giants—no one’s disputing Newton here—but there are clear periods of time in which our gradual technological snowball triggers an avalanche, and everything shakes up.

The later 1400s were one of those times, with the invention of the printing press and movable type (in Europe, at least).  It was the first major democratization of knowledge in human history, and led to one of the greatest social upheavals in Western Civilization: the Protestant Reformation.

Another one of those inventive periods was the latter half of the 19th-century, the scientific and technological “revolution” that Mr. Twain called the Gilded Age.  And—in this case, I think unjustly—the quips of a great satirist like Clemens tend to stick.

There’s a competing name for that epithet, however: the Age of Optimism.  Hearing a friend or family member in your ear across thousands of miles must have seemed like magic.  Confidence in the power of technology skyrocketed.

But power can go the other way too—and when WWII’s atomic bomb proved, as Carl Sagan writes, that “scientists knew sin,” faith in technology waned a little low.  In the 1970s, Vietnam War protestors burned their draft cards in napalm, another contribution of science to the destruction of humankind.

No wonder our history books never mention that the “Gilded Age” optimism might have been warranted.

But I increasingly think that we’re in one of those technological avalanche periods—like the printing press and the telephone, the Internet has only further democratized knowledge and communication.  (Remember Bruce Sterling’s comment?  The Internet is the world’s, history’s, only “functional anarchy.”)

Newsweek shocked me this week with their feature: The Decade in Review.  At #8 on the happy endings list was the story of Martin Takleff, convicted in 1990 for murdering his parents—as it turns out, he didn’t.  It’s a brief story, literally six lines, and half of them are these:

Because of new technologies, we can prove that mistakes were made.  Technology is neutral.  It is dispositive proof of objective fact, and it brings us closer to truth.

So it’s not unbridled optimism, but that’s a pretty confident assessment of the benefits of technological advances—and the talk about “objective fact” makes me grin with the thought that postmodernism might be falling out of favor.

I think we’re starting to trust technology again.

That can be dangerous—more than ever, there’s the risk of this ubiquitous, ever-more-powerful technology being twisted to watch us, track our movements, and surveil ordinary people’s activities in the grand tradition of an Orwellian-dystopian nightmare.  But like Cory Doctorow writes—and Newsweek, surprisingly, echoes—technology is neutral, objective, and it does our bidding.  Like the printing press, the Internet has democratized information to a greater extent than ever (ever) before; it’s our technology, and if we can learn to control it, maybe that 19th-century confidence can overwhelm the cynicism.

Just mess around with Python for a couple hours.  It’s painless; I promise.