In July 1519 the rackety Franconian knight, poet laureate and satirist Ulrich von Hutten received a long letter from Erasmus of Rotterdam, still at that time his friend. What sort of man, he had asked Erasmus, was this kindred poetic spirit Thomas More, fellow-condemner of court life and author of the diverting Utopia, as well as admirably an admirer of Hutten’s own satire on monkish blankness and obscurantism, Letters from Nonentities (Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum)? Erasmus’s reply did for More what he had already done for some and was still to do for others of his English friends: it presented him to the learned Europe of his day. Erasmus’s share in the fashioning of his contemporaries’ – and of our – picture of the Henrician Renaissance is incalculably large. Mountjoy, his patron, might write to summon him to England, where the heavens were smiling and the earth jumping for joy, but it was Erasmus who made sure that Mountjoy’s letter was published, so that the world should know, not only that England was golden with the accession of Henry VIII, but also that Erasmus had been summoned. His lofty earlier debates on the Agony in the Garden and Cain and Abel with his friend John Colet would have remained unknown – Colet was not one to rush into print – if Erasmus had not written them up and got them into circulation. If Colet’s new St Paul’s School was known abroad, it was Erasmus’s doing. Even Jean Vitrier, coming to England specially to meet Colet because of his moral earnestness and piety, had been told about Colet by Erasmus. Without all this, and without the moving assessment of his benefactor that Erasmus wrote in 1521, Colet’s reputation would have been almost entirely local.
More’s situation was, and is, different, though he too owes much to Erasmus. For one thing, Colet had already been dead two years when Erasmus wrote about him, and only one of his works – his Latin ‘reform’ sermon to Convocation in 1512 – would have been accessible to European readers. Erasmus was erecting a memorial. More was already in mid-career, well-known in polite circles from his diplomatic missions, from his Latin epigrams, his Latin translations of Lucian of Samosata, and, in particular, from his Utopia. Even so, it had been Erasmus who had given him letters to friends such as Peter Giles, dedicatee of Utopia, in Antwerp and it was Erasmus who saw to the publication of Lucian, the epigrams and Utopia, bustling about to secure commendatory letters and so enhance them. Erasmus also coined and disseminated the description ‘a man for all seasons’ for More, in the prefatory letter to The Praise of Folly (1511), which is addressed to More. A good part of More’s fame, too, was the result of his intervention on the side of Erasmus in the Latin debates which followed the Folly and especially concerned themselves with Erasmus’s new Greek Testament and his Latin translation of 1516, which had been judged offensive to faith and to morals.
By the date of the letter to Hutten Erasmus and More had not seen each other for a couple of years, and More had become a serving Humanist. Rather to Erasmus’s disappointment, he had taken the first step on the road to the highest secular office in England under the King’s, and to a death in 1535 which resounded throughout Catholic Europe far more loudly than would Erasmus’s a year later. Even More’s death Erasmus helped to further fame, with another celebrated letter.
Erasmus’s More, at a year or two over forty, is healthy and presentable, if a little clumsy in movement, as open and pleasant in address as in nature. His tastes are as simple as his Utopians’; he is unpompous, unfussy about dress, eats and drinks little, and none of that sweet. Curious about all the manifestations of Nature, he prefers to the mindless pastimes of men such as cards and dice the innocent pleasures and recreations that are enjoyed by his Utopians: wit, paradox, satire, intelligence. His mind is independent, his generosity great. Though much attracted to the ancient authors, he had to give up the life of study for the illiberal profession of the law. Hankering after the religious life, he had to realise that his vocation was not a true one, and, again taking the second best, he married – preferring wedded restraint to religious celibacy. He became the model paterfamilias, ruling his family gently but firmly, teaching them all to love virtue and learning. Everybody’s advocate and a model judge, he is a splendid public servant, at home and abroad. Colet used to call him England’s only genius. As clever as he is good, More is a living refutation of the belief that true Christians are to be found only in monasteries.
Erasmus’s More, pictured as dragged to Henry’s court and moving unwillingly from the world of study and writing to the world of politics and affairs, is a Utopian literary construct. It is now clear that More was not averse to advancement: he was a realist and he had a young family, as well as others, to support. A little earlier than the time that Erasmus was writing, he had already put into words the Tudor image of a villainous Richard III. Though this was not printed either in English or in Latin until after his death, the work may once have been intended as an aid to the consolidation of the dynasty into whose service he had entered. Here was one kind of political activity, besides the day-to-day work of a City legal official and member of the King’s Council. Within a couple of years he was to be plunged into another – religious controversy. Politics and religion, in that age, neither can or should be separated, but the religious element – since it often offers aspects that are repellent to modern liberal notions and to modern literary tastes, and involves ideas and their history – has been less popular with English historians and critics. R.W. Chambers, for instance, author of what is still the best general book on More, gets over the religious-controversial works in a few pages.
If modern scholars can thus avoid the matter, More could not. He was soon scurrying along behind his king to tidy up the royal refutation of Luther, the Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, and so to help Henry win the Papal title of Defender of the Faith. Two years later, in 1523, he was himself thwacking away at Luther, retorting upon Luther’s retort to Henry. Erasmus warned him, and those who had arranged the public burning of Luther’s books in 1521, that there was no short way to pluck Luther’s protest from men’s minds. That could only be done when men reformed themselves to do their duty to God, to neighbour and to self. More’s arguments, heavily salted with abuse after the manner of the time, are couched in Latin, so as to contain the dispute among those who could read that language:
‘Quid respondet frater, pater, potator?’ What answer from this crapulous father friar, dead drunk, senseless, stupefied? When he comes to, will he manage to spew up a riposte? He has been helped by his cronies, who have collected obscenities from carters and drivers, insolence from servants, lewdnesses from porters, jeers from spongers, come-ons from whores, indecencies from ponces, filth from bath-house-keepers, obscenities from shithouse walls. The gleanings from months of search – railing, brawling, scurrility, indecency, obscurity, dirt, muck, sewage, shit – are recycled through the sewer of Luther’s heart and mind ...
So here is another More, repetitiously and abusively defending unam sanctam against heresy in Germany. Then German heresy comes into England with turkeys, hops and beer, to join its disruptive force to that of compatible native Lollardy.
In 1526 More, as magistrate, descended on the German merchant colony of the Steelyard in London to warn them against disseminating beliefs that set aside the sacrament of order and the authority of the Church and its ‘old holy doctors’ – an authority which ought to have a validity equal to that of Scripture. In 1528, as a prominent Catholic layman acting at the behest of his friend and bishop, Cuthbert Tunstal, he turned to refute the English disciples of Luther, William Tyndale chief among them. In this interest More produced nearly a million words in half a dozen years, for half of which he was Lord Chancellor. By the end of 1533, when he gave over writing of this kind, the effort had helped to bring him close to despair. There had been some successes, but more failures. He had been able to pray his son-in-law, William Roper, back to orthodoxy, or so Roper tells us. He could have no such success with his king, with Thomas Cromwell, with Tyndale and with many others. While he was in power, he strove to win such young men as John Frith to the faith again by argument, or bring others to see the error of their ways after (illegal) detention and interrogation in his house. If he failed, then they were ‘well and worthily burned ... as I ween never wretch more worthy’. Better, in More’s view, that one body should suffer thus than that many souls should be corrupted. It was the vice of heresy that he hated, says More, not the persons of heretics. Whatever it was, he hated it with an abiding hatred and there is no evidence that he was less uncompromising than his contemporaries in authority. Quite the contrary. There is at least the strong presumption that others would have had to suffer for their opinions had they not prudently removed themselves from reach. William Tyndale, for one, was not in Antwerp for the sea air. Moreover, More held all the cards. It is true that not many men and women were burned at this time – nothing to set beside the nearly three hundred, by one calculation, who suffered under Mary. Quantitative judgments do not apply, however. These are men that die, not flowers.
Modern critics of More’s actions, from J.A. Froude onwards, have made much of his heresy-hunting. His defenders have also had much to say. Much of the argument is beside the point. More, between 1521 and 1532, was performing with vigour and acerbity, though not – I believe – with enjoyment or with cruelty, his legal duty as the servant of his king, together with his spiritual duty to the Church universal. Some stories of his atrocities were withdrawn even by John Foxe, in the later editions of his Book of Martyrs. Erasmus is on record as believing that no one was executed for heresy in England while More was Chancellor. Though the view accords with his Humanist panegyric of More to Hutten, it is false. When he wrote this, Erasmus had long received More’s own self-assessment: the epitaph he composed for himself after he had resigned the Chancellorship. In it, he reviews his career, making great play with the Peace of Cambrai, of 1529 – the graveyard of his predecessor Wolsey’s hopes, but for More a pledge of peace in a Christendom divided by war. He goes on:
When he had thus gone through his course of offices or honours, that neither that gracious prince could disallow his doings, nor was he odious to the nobility, nor unpleasant to the people, but yet to thieves, murderers and heretics grievous ... [he] began in his own conceit to wax old. He therefore, irk and weary of worldly business, giving up his promotions, obtained at last by the incomparable benefit of his most gentle prince ... that thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired, that he might have some years of his life free, in which he little and little withdrawing himself from the business of this life, might continually remember the immortality of the life to come.
The epitaph sets the stage for the profoundly moving story of More’s final years. The ‘Tower works’ and, not least, the marginal annotations in More’s printed Psalter and Hours, now at Yale, are the index of a mind in dread of neglect of obligation as of weakness before temptation, and so of damnation. The epitaph is, however, the only explicit self-portrait of More that we have. That triplicity that he chooses to specify as the objects of his enmity – thieves, murderers and heretics – seems, like the controversial writings, to present us with a More very different from the More of Erasmus. What went wrong? Male menopause? Sex, so long repressed, having its say at last? Both views have been canvassed. Unlike some of my fellow-labourers at the coal-face of the Yale edition (of which the most recent and excellent product is the Dialogue concerning Heresies) I cannot see the transition from failed monk, via Humanist lawyer, to religious controversialist and examiner, not to say hunter, of heretics, as anything other than a change in degree so great as to be almost a change in character. In the later More, there is a hardness, a ferocity, which is the direct result of the drawing of the lines with Luther about 1521. More could never have been thought of as the Soft Man, but his transformation into the hardest of Hard Men is profound and far-reaching. When salvation and damnation were the issue, as they were now, and not scholastic obscurantism or silly superstition, More, so far from being a man for all seasons, is a man of deepest midwinter.
In the last resort, if ‘Erasmus my darling’ transgressed too far, he would be darling no longer. You might in youth propose to yourself Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Phoenix of the wits, as the model of the pious layman – though less attracted by his speculations than was Colet. You might translate Lucian, the witty mocker of forms in religion as in all else. You might, at court, publicly defend before Henry and Katherine of Aragon the daring of Erasmus’s new translation of the New Testament, having long ago aligned yourself with Colet and with Erasmus in the search for the true meaning of the Greek. A propos, you might deal out to monks, friars and retardataire clergy of all ranks an acute, detailed, erudite thrashing – discreetly, in Latin. When it came to words of doctrine, however, and public dissemination, and danger to the tradition and authority of the Church, it was a different matter. Erasmus might use congregatio for ‘church’, but when Luther followed Erasmus in German and Tyndale followed Luther in English, or when Tyndale called priests by the name of ‘seniors’, it was another story. To prefer the traditional verbum (‘word’) to Erasmus’s sermo (‘discourse’) at the opening of St John’s Gospel was superstition in 1519; to prefer ‘congregation’ to ‘Church’ or ‘senior’ to ‘priest’ in 1529 was to subvert the sacerdotal system of the Church, just as it had been for Luther to reduce the seven sacraments to two, and so to destroy Christendom.
More’s final years, to which belong the imprisonment in the Tower, and the works he wrote there – to which one must add Utopia – constitute More’s undoubted title to be, to quote J.A. Guy, one of the very few who have enlarged the boundaries of the human spirit. To most people, those last years fashion yet another More. Which More shall we choose? Jasper Ridley’s is yet another: not merely a fanatic, but the sort of sneaking, unmanly fellow who uses two pseudonyms for the same book against Luther. (For that matter he also pretended that his Dialogue of Comfort had been written by a Hungarian in Latin, translated from Latin into French and then from French into English.) He plays cruel and tasteless tricks on his womenfolk, and flogs a heretic or two in the intervals of flogging himself. His instability and bigotry and his administrative and political sense and achievement stand in unfavourable contrast with Wolsey’s clemency and adroitness. Wolsey was certainly a remarkable man, a genius even, an administrative innovator and a statesman. More was neither of the last two, but neither was he an unstable bigot. To help prove that he was, the dust-jacket retails a couple of the horror stories that even Foxe found incredible. Ridley’s is a pell-mell, ding-dong, horse-and-foot, helter-skelter, right-and-left, blood-and-’ounds, prosecuting-counsel sort of book – at least where More is concerned. Some of its formulations – of the nature of Humanism, for example, or the corruption of the entire early Tudor clergy – would be good for a guffaw at any examiners’ meeting. This is not to say that a strong and interesting anti-More case, even a case for the word ‘fanatic’, is not there for the making. As made here, it is simplistic and weakened by overstatement.
Alistair Fox’s book is altogether different: reader-friendly, patient, sympathetic but not uncritical, one of the best things, in fact, to come out of More studies in the last fifty years. Fox draws on an extensive and profound knowledge both of everything that More wrote and of the earlier English authors that he used. A particularly impressive incidental benefit is the documentation of More’s debt to Chaucer.
Pleasure comes from the modesty and tranquillity of the writing, which gives full effect to his assured mastery of the fine detail both of More’s life and work and of modern scholarship. Fox begins from C.S. Lewis’s premise that what is actually expressed in More’s work is not the Humanist and the saint, but a third More. Emphasis on the Humanist is apt to produce an anachronism; emphasis on the saint – available in copious quantities, from William Roper, Nicholas Harpsfield and Thomas Stapleton in the 16th century to E.E. Reynolds and the pages of Moreana in the 20th – a plaster image. More the Humanist and More the saint are thus convenient and unsatisfying fictions. More’s Humanism was tempered, in fact, by a basic Augustinian pessimism; his sanctity obscures, from many modern eyes, his political activism. Much of the difficulty in seeing the real Thomas More comes from those unread polemical writings. Prolix, tedious, exhaustive and exhausting, as Fox says, and repellent too, one might add, they are vital to an understanding of the man, for their arguments, and their grimness – and even for their jokes. Was the real Thomas More a bundle of antitheses, swinging from over-reaction to over-reaction, from contradiction to contradiction, denying to Englishmen in the 1520s and early 1530s the religious toleration he had embodied in 1516 in his picture of the commonwealth that is Nowhere?
Fox sees constants in More’s life and thought which allow him to argue for a response to life of which the circumstances of his death were the natural outcome. One constant is that More was a compulsive writer. Though always in this respect a moonlighter, as the preface to Utopia makes clear, he was clearly unhappy on any day on which he had written nothing. From the dismal doggerel of the early English poems to the translation of the Life of Pico, the Lucian, the Latin epigrams, witty or grossly flattering, the ‘Humanist’ letters of the 1510s, Richard III, the works of controversy, to the final meditations in the Tower, More wrote unceasingly.
Just about the mid-point of his career, around 1522, overwhelmed with business, he began a characteristic little work, never finished, very much an exercise within a convention, which represents very well the brooding, doubtful, fearful Augustinian element in his make-up. The Four Last Things thinks of the human condition:
if ye took the matter aright, the place a prison, yourself a prisoner condemned to death, from which ye cannot escape, ye would reckon this gear [worldly honour] as worshipful as if a gentleman thief, when he should go to Tyburn, would leave for a memorial the arms of his ancestors painted on a post in Newgate ... Men would bear themselves not much higher in their hearts for any rule or authority that they bear in this world, which they may well perceive to be indeed no better but ... one so put in trust with the gaoler that he is half an under-gaoler over his fellows, till the sheriff and the cart come for him.
Bleakness here need not disguise the fact that there was pity in More, especially for the poor and disadvantaged, when duty allowed. There was also as little sympathy for the self as for the hardened transgressor. From the beginning, it seems that More found his life and the times in which it had to be lived, in Fox’s words, ‘tribulatory and perturbing’.
Throughout he sought a synthesis for his life in a correct interpretation of the providential scheme and of every detail in it. Probably intended for the priesthood, he gave up an Oxford training for the law in London, and, an early brief experiment with the Carthusians likewise coming to nothing, he abandoned abnegation for the active life and for marriage. Utopia embodies a record of his search in more than one sense, not merely in the Dialogue of Counsel in Book I – whether to serve one’s prince or oneself – but also in the account of the commonwealth in Book II, which can be seen, as Dermot Fenlon once brilliantly showed, as an exploration of how far monastic organisation might be a valid basis for social organisation in general. It was an attempt to work out a way of uniting court and cloister, to reconcile a basically Augustinian view of life with the more optimistic tenets of Christian Humanism. The dilemma was not peculiar to More any more than was the ancient paradox of the negative through which he chose to present the society that never was. If you ask where you can find this commonwealth ruled by reason, without laws and lawyers, without regard to the bane of all societies, meum and tuum, the answer is Nowhere.
Equilibrium was difficult, as Fox points out, even before the full impact of Luther – as witness the Four Last Things. Religious controversy, with its concomitant ‘misorder and abusion’, put an end to it for ever. More’s language in the controversial works is an index of galloping frustration and beleaguerment. By 1533, if not by the time he wrote his epitaph, he was clear that, in temporal terms, he had failed. The failure, Fox suggests, had enlarged his comprehension of his world view and confirmed him in his belief of its truth. He had acted the role that he conceived was required of him by God – hence the familiar assertion that he was God’s servant before the King’s. It is in this consistent self-scrutiny, lifelong, tormented, but also outward-looking, in this attempt to discover the nature of the divine providence by which he believed the world must be ruled, the grand design of God and the precise nature of his part in it, that Fox sees More’s dominant intellectual and spiritual preoccupation. More was seeking not merely to make himself clear to himself, but to illuminate the larger view, from a standpoint at once personal and comprehensively dutiful.
Individuum est ineffabile. This is certainly a partial view of More and Fox never claims that it is definitive. His book succeeds in getting inside More’s skin to an extent that no other recent student of the man and his work has managed.
More could account for the permit granted to Luther by Providence to strike at the sacramental and sacerdotal system of the Church only by seeing Luther as the flail of the Lord, God’s instrument to punish a world whose sins were about to bring it under the rule of Antichrist. His understanding of Luther, even where – as in the writings of 1521-2 – he knew him at first hand, was partial and partisan. At a certain level, he was well-equipped to deal with him. His theological and ecclesiastical knowledge was substantial for a layman, bolstered as it was by reading in the Fathers, especially his favourite Augustine, and Cyprian, a doughty defender of the Church, and perhaps by aid from Fisher. He was also familiar with heretical doctrine from being present at interrogations. Later, he knew the work of Tyndale, Luther’s great English mouthpiece. In controversy, he was not as scrupulous in presenting the opposite case as some, myself included, have thought. Much of his later knowledge of Luther’s ideas came from the compendia of Lutheran errors digested under heads by the Catholic champions of Germany. Germans and Englishmen twitted their opponents with the free publicity thus given to their own ideas, but such books were useful to More. He knew at least two of their authors personally: Johann Eck, and the prolific Johann Dobneck, whose Humanist name was Cochlaeus (Snaily). Cochlaeus began to publish in 1521; in 1525 he acquired merit by detecting Tyndale in the act of printing his English New Testament at Cologne and forcing him into flight. In 1529 he attacked Seven-Headed Luther anew as a monster of error – a counterblast to Protestant propaganda showing the Roman Church as the Whore of Babylon, or the dragon of Revelation, or both. More certainly read this book, which aims to show Luther spewing progressively worse and more self-contradictory heresy out of each of his seven mouths.
The contributors to Peter Newman Brooks’s quincentenary tribute are gathered from America and the Continent as well as from England, to add their joint weight to that of the Cambridge Divinity School and the Oxford Press. The book is a modern commentary on Cochlaeus’s in reverse, presenting Luther’s multitudinousness in a positive way. It is as much historiographical as historical in intention: the fortuna of Luther at the hands of his interpreters gets much space. To the seven essays dealing with the seven aspects of Luther in Cochlaeus’s woodcut are added pieces on Luther’s German Bible, on Cochlaeus as controversialist, on Luther in his letters (more squeamish about visual propaganda than about verbal), on Luther’s apocalyptic thought as figured by his three candidates for Antichrist: Pope, Devil and Turk. The last of these had just won the battle of Mohacs and stood at the gates of Budapest and therefore of Europe – a figure with whom More, too, would later make play in the Dialogue of Comfort.
The first seven essays take us crescendo round the seven heads of Cochlaeus’s monster, attempting to redress the balance for each avatar: the Doctor, Doktoratsbewusstsein and doctrine; Martinus the friar, the heretic with his doctrine of faith; Lutherus as Junker Georg – his concept of civil and religious authority; Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, from whose sermons a mass of error can be extracted; Suermerus, bees buzzing from his curls, representing such sectaries as Karlstadt and Müntzer (if he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all, you still could not trust him, said Luther); the Visitor, church controller and bureaucrat; and Barrabas, the strident, truculent activist, despoiler of the Church.
John King’s copiously documented and appendixed survey is concerned with a time when More and Luther and their trouble were dead and changed utterly, and the Church of England by law established was coming into its own. The no man’s land between the latter end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Elizabeth’s has been rather neglected by the literature men – rightly, most of them claim. It must be admitted that to call someone the best poet between Surrey and Gascoigne is not so much greater a compliment than Jim Dixon’s ‘worst play since Gammer Gurton’s Needle’. If we talk of antecedents, all the same – and even if we believe ourselves to be talking only of Spenser and Milton – we must not neglect a time when a liturgy was being developed and a version of the Bible evolved that would echo in the minds and ears of generations down, almost, to our own day. It was a period, as King shows, when the foundations of a Protestant plain style were being laid in Biblical translation, including Psalmody, in the Homilies and in Cranmer’s incomparable cadences, when moral edification was the norm, and the false foundation of the Bishop of Rome was still further subverted by true doctrine expressed in, say, the plays of John Bale, the Protestant hagiography of John Foxe, the printing activities of John Day, the patronage of Protector Somerset and of Edward VI and the proliferation of vernacular satire – some of it, like the first printing of Piers Plowman made in 1550 by Robert Crowley, and other artisan, plain-Piers complaint, brought out of Lollard-tainted obscurity. King makes a solid rather than a lively read. He is best on Crowley and William Baldwin, perhaps – their activities in the book trade, and their satirical aspects. Baldwin’s immensely popular divers leçons tract, the Treatise of Moral Philosophy, gets less attention. He is also better on vernacular England alone than on Continental and Humanist influences, and this means that he fails occasionally to make the most of things – the Nobody tradition of religious satire, for example. This is a triumph-of-the-English-language book. It needs to be remembered how much was written and published in England and by Englishmen in Latin in those days, and how far Latin (and Greek) influenced words and patterns of words. Bale himself, chronicling the achievement of English writers, did so in Latin, even translating English titles, to the occasional frustration of modern students.
King’s thirst for detail takes him into areas where one is especially grateful for his help: his picture of Somerset as man and as patron is much fuller, sharper and more accurate than anything we have had so far. Aware of the play of ideas in his chosen time, he nevertheless deals with them in a literary way. It sometimes seems that one has stumbled on a game of topos-bingo: when deathbed utterances come up, the caller shouts ‘Ars moriendi convention!’ and we mark our cards – even when, as in the case of poor Edward VI, a pious ejaculation is being made in pure Cranmer. Ascham, Cheke and Thomas Smith get less attention than ‘wily Winchester’, their conservative antagonist Stephen Gardiner, the flail of the Lord, with toenails like the claws of ravening beasts, according to Foxe. This is perhaps as it should be, since more has been written elsewhere about the Cambridge triumvirate. Now and again, one is fussed by minutiae: in King’s reading of Holbein’s great title-page for Coverdale’s Bible of 1535, for instance, Resurrection passes for Incarnation, and both Christ’s charge to the apostles and Pentecost for Christ preaching merely. Still, there is much to be thankful for in this painstaking study.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.