Monday, 23 October 2017

95 THESES - So What?

One of the multitudinous uses to which people put the internet is to remind us of significant anniversaries - births, deaths, battles, treaties, etc., etc. Fine - but that word 'significant' does need unpacking. It might reflect the passion of the person who posts it. So, for example, someone emotionally engaged with the tragic life of Anne Boleyn might want to flag up 19 May every year so that we don't forget her death. Someone else - a devotee of Richard III or the Tudor regime - might want us to reflect on 22 August, when (in 1485) the Battle of Bosworth change England's royal dynasty. A campaigner for press freedom might want us never to forget that 1 January marks the birth of The Times newspaper (1785). We can all use dates as pegs on which to hang our own pet historical subjects. What no serious history buff would do, I hope, is to claim that all the anniversaries we mark are equally significant. One factor that influences our assessment of significance is the extent to which the events we choose to mark in the calendar resonate with our own contemporary culture. One anniversary almost upon us is Reformation 500. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther openly declared his opposition to certain doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. Well, how yawn-provoking is that? Who nowadays, in our secular age, cares a jot about Luther's protest against indulgences - assuming that he/she even knows what indulgences were?

Well, my argument for remembering 31 October 1517 arises immediately from that last sentence: the very fact that we are free to believe or not believe derives directly from Luther's challenge. Or to be more precise it stems from his identifying of a scepticism that was widespread but which no-one else had the courage (or effrontery) to express. Europe, in both its political and religious aspects, was government by autocrats working through hierarchies of power. In practical, everyday terms there was little difference between the rulers of church and state. The pope through his supporting cast of cardinals, bishops and abbots laid down Christendom's moral and theological rules and maintained ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. The Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's kings, princes and nobles controlled the civic lives of their subjects. By and large, it paid for the spiritual and temporal authorities to work in tandem. Cardinals' hats were distributed to members of prominent families. Kings negotiated such issues as the right to appoint bishops. All men in positions of authority shared a common fear - rebellion. 

When established powerful elites maintain themselves by controlling people's minds and crushing dissidents, they can get away with it for so long. In the late medieval period the Catholic machine dealt pretty effectively with Waldensians, Hussites, Wycliffites and other heretical groups who presumed to challenge official doctrine. Ordinary folk tempted to question the Church's lexis or praxis were held in check, not only by the temporal power of the papal hierarchy, but by its spiritual authority: step out of line and you would pay, in the next world, a horrible price for your presumption. But, ultimately, totalitarian regimes collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

In Rome corruption had become an art form. The man wearing the shoes of the fisherman presided over a regime marked by territorial ambition and the pursuit of power and wealth, which employed intrigue, simony, nepotism, bribery, war and murder as its modi operandi. But you didn't have to go to Italy to be aware of the mismatch between the message of the Christian gospel and the lives of many who were supposed to represent it. The forthright Yorkshire shearman who asserted that he would not confess to a priest his seduction of a fair woman, 'for the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her in the same manner', struck a common chord with many. Scepticism and cynicism were rife at all levels of society by the turn of the 16th century, from the outspoken villager, to the writers of such exposés as The Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant) and In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus), to genuinely concerned churchmen like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, who castigated his fellow clergy for being 'drowned in the delights of this world'. Yet, few men dared to challenge the pope and his minions as long as they were believed to hold the keys of heaven and hell.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther proclaimed, 'They don't'. His 95 Theses yanked the rug from under Catholic penitential ritual. He exposed the system of 'indulgences' for the money-making fraud that it was. Gullible people, he pointed out, could not improve their chances of reaching heaven by buying certificates offering reduction of the time their souls must spend in purgatory. What God had on offer, he declared, was free forgiveness to those who expressed their love for him by real repentance - i.e. a change of heart. He was soon backing this up with a new German translation of the Bible. Within a decade other vernacular versions of the Christian basic text were available all over Europe. Now people could read for themselves what the Church had on offer and decide whether or not to buy into it.

If freedom of choice in such a vital matter as eternal destiny was available, why might not such liberty be exercised in relation to lesser decisions in the mere here-and-now? The door was open, admittedly only ajar but open nevertheless, for the exercise of freedom in other areas of life - politics, social relationships, art, literature, morality. Martin Luther didn't invent individualism but, on 31 October 1517 it may be said to have come of age. That's why, whether we are 'religious' or not, this date is worth celebrating.
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Sunday, 1 October 2017


       If God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his
      holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write?
                                                                      -  Marie Dentière

It would be difficult to overemphasize the transformative impact of the Bible on sixteenth century European society and, in particular, on the place of women in that society. Invention became the mother of necessity. The movable-type printing press was a conveyor belt rolling out books by the wagon load. Books made reading, once a skill learned by the privileged few, available to the many. Demand encouraged the development of standardised vernacular languages. Men could see in print the words they were accustomed to speaking. It seemed like magic. But even more wondrous were the worlds now opened up to the imagination - romantic legends, tales of chivalry, chronicles, theological treatises, descriptions of newly-visited lands, bestiaries, almanacs, guides to practical husbandry, but, above all, the Bible. Incidents and personalities that had hitherto only been available to most people through occasional sermons, the visits of strolling players and the polychromed images in paint or glass in their churches now became parts of a connected and magnificent narrative - a world-changing narrative. One of the challenges the Bible presented was that of reconsidering the position of women in society. As newly-educated wives and mothers explored the Church's foundation document for themselves they encountered Ruth and Esther and Mary Magdalene. They discovered the important roles played in the Gospel story by members of their own sex. They read the words of St Paul: 'There is now neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.' And they questioned why a male-dominated hierarchy had kept this information from them. Some of them flouted convention by taking on new roles. I'll be telling the stories of some of these pioneers in the next few posts.

1.  The Writers

                            Fools that we are! to fear the civil law,
                           Popes and kings and city councils,
                           Torture, gibbets and prison fetters.
                           Through such fear we really commit treason.
                           Let us raise our eyes to our (divine) election.
                           We will no longer fear the condemnation
                           That man can pronounce against us ...
                           Believing that man has no power
                           Save that which is allotted him by (God's) will.

This is one of many poems to come from one of the most original minds of the sixteenth century. It's remarkable for several reasons. It was written by a queen. It expressed opinions officially condemned as heretical. And it was published. That last point is the most mould-breaking of all. Women did not presume to have books printed and circulated in their own name. They lacked the wisdom, the scholarship, the imagination for their works to appear beside men's on the bookstalls - everyone knew that. Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not Margaret of Angoulême (1492-1549), sister to Francis I of France and wife to Henry II of Navarre. She presided over the most cultured salon in Renaissance Europe north of the Alps. She gathered around her several of the finest writers and thinkers of the day including François Rabelais, the poet Clément Marot and the Bible translator Jacques Lefêvre d’Étaples. Margaret's own literary output was varied. As well as numerous poems, she wrote a book of risqué stories in the style of the Decameron and a spiritual autobiography The Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Margaret would not have got away with such audacity if she had not been the sister of one of the most powerful men in Europe.

Her initiative opened the way for other women who believed they had something to share with the world. In England Catherine Parr (1513-1548), sixth wife of Henry VIII, not renowned for allowing his womenfolk a meaningful degree of independence, read Margaret's moving apologia and ventured into print herself.  Her published works were the first by an English woman writing under her own name. She wrote psalm commentaries and collections of prayers before she, too, issued a personal confessional - Lamentations of a Sinner

It would be an exaggeration to say that these royal ladies opened the floodgates for female literary endeavour but they certainly encouraged other pioneers. The contemporary Italian noblewoman, and friend of Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) did not hesitate to lambaste male leaders of church and state in her poems:

                  When the breath of God that moves above the tide
                  Fans the embers of my smouldering state
                  And the winds of God begin to dissipate
                  The foetid stench of the church, his bride,
                  Then the swaggering knight prepares to ride.
                  The war begins.

Of more humble origin was Marie Dentière (c.1495-c.1561) who came from humbler origins. Two facts make her of special interest: she enjoyed the patronage of Margaret of Navarre and she was a follower of the teaching of John Calvin, whom we do not normally think of as pro-feminist. Marie ventured fearlessly into the realm of political religious controversy. In pamphlets defending Calvin and his origination of the church in Geneva she argued, en passant, for her right to air her opinions and to claim for this right some impressive forebears: 

            What preacheress has done more than the Samaritan woman, 
            who was not ashamed to present Jesus and his word, confessing
            it openly before the world ... Or is anyone other than Mary 
            Magdalene ...  able to boast of having had the first revelation
            of the great mystery of Jesus' resurrection.

And was it a man or woman, she demanded, who had betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities? Fighting talk.

Next time:                          Women in Power