Monday, April 27, 2015

Wolf Hall (Continued)

In England, a week from today will be the feast of The English Martyrs - celebrating the 40 martyrs canonized by blessed Pope Paul VI in 1973, along with the 85 beatified martyrs of the Reformation and other martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. The imminent proximity of that day inspires further reflection on the current PBS series Wolf Hall, the fourth episode of which aired last night, the episode in which the greatest English martyr of the period, Saint Thomas More, was tried and executed, perhaps the most prominent victim of Henry VII's reign of terror.

A BBC adaptation of a novel of that name, Wolf Hall is a revisionist history that attempts to portray in a more favorable light one of English history's more malignant figures, Thomas Cromwell.  In reality, of course, if Henry VIII was 16th-century England's anticipation of Stalin, then Cromwell was King Henry's Beria! 

It was Cromwell who brutally and violently implemented the 1534 Act of Supremacy, destroying in the process the vibrant religious life and popular piety of pre-Tudor Catholic England - that rich and complex religious system by which, as Eamon Duffy famously observed "men and women structured their experience of the world, and their hopes and aspirations within and beyond it" (The Stripping of the Altars, 1992). As one of the primary agents in this disaster, Cromwell willfully destroyed much of England's religious and cultural heritage, as well as the traditional network of practical provisions for popular devotion and charity. 

"What Henry had done was to delegate his new royal supremacy over English religion to Cromwell. ... Cromwell seemed unstoppable. When he quarrelled with Queen Anne and helped engineer her downfall and execution in 1536 on absurd charges of incest and adultery, he was able to preserve the quiet progress of infiltrating evangelical church reforms into the king's dominions. ... Cromwell administered the dissolution of all monasteries over which the Tudor monarchy had control with remarkable speed and efficiency between  1532 and 1540, thus destroying monastic life throughout England and Wales and in about half of Ireland. ... The king no doubt regarded the dissolutions chiefly as a welcome source of cash, but they had the incidental effect of eliminating much tradition religion. ... [Cromwell} also mounted a determined attack on shrines, and with Cranmer's enthusiastic support he began moving against church furniture and imagery that had sustained the old devotion" (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, Viking, 2004, p. 195).

So what if Wolf Hall presents a somewhat falsified picture of the past? Don't all historical dramas make some things up? Perhaps so, but there is fiction - and then there is fiction. It is one thing to fill in the gaps in what we actually know historically with romantic or other inventions that add to the story in ways that are largely consistent with the actual characters and the overall history. It is quite another thing to alter a story so fundamentally as to whitewash one of history's greatest villains. Henry VIII's marital saga is like JFK's assassination. Almost everyone knows something about it. But someone whose knowledge of the JFK assassination is based only on Oliver Stone's movie will obviously not know what he or she should know about the real - as opposed to a fictionalized - event. Likewise with this well done but tendentious fiction! In an age when what passes for historical knowledge is increasingly derived from entertainment, how historical characters and events are presented on TV is decisive.

But there is also another, even more distressing dimension to Wolf Hall's flattering portrayal of Cromwell (and its notably negative portrayal of Saint Thomas More) at this particular juncture in our history. In an increasingly secular, post-modern West, religion and religion's claims count for less and less and can expect to receive less and less deference in society and from the State. As an individual, Cromwell may have been simply all about the subordination of everything else to his personal ambition. But, as an important player in the historical events of the English Reformation, his historical role was to effect the subordination of religion, religious belief, and religious practice to the absolute claims of an all-powerful State. That is an increasingly potent ideology today in this era of radical social change and the consequent political controversies concerning religious freedom. 

No comments:

Post a Comment