Taking on the Reformation

One of the comforts, for a pundit out of tune with the choir, is to think “history will absolve me.” The whole world, or most of it, may appear to subscribe to various propositions, which the pundit believes to be buncombe. They may take things for true which he knows can’t be so, and only appear so through constant repetition.

But in his heart he thinks, “some day the truth will out.” He thinks, “a time will come.” And when the history of his times comes to be written, all the glib and confident assurances of the present will have evaporated. And the good, honest men who were so reviled, will be exonerated; and the bad, deceitful men shown for what they were; and the voices that were crying in the wilderness will be heard. “But of course I might not live to see it.”

I have come to think this is a false comfort; to doubt that “the truth will always out” in the theatre of this world. I know that it will in a few obvious cases, because there are lies so fragile the slightest breeze will compress them. But even among these, some will pass the test of time, either because all those who knew the truth were killed; or because the lie is preserved in the stillness of a vault, under guard from vested interests.

So much for small details. In the main, not little lies, but big ones, tend to be sustained from one century to another. They are, usually, the “myths” that sustain the state, or which remain convenient to the ruling party, even as its views “evolve” from one position to another.

Here I am thinking, today, of the myths engendered by the Protestant Reformation, now nearly half a millennium ago. Across northern Europe, and in North America, the very legitimacy of the state, and of the secular social order, depends upon certain received notions from the history of those times. Indeed, across the rest of Europe, the power of the state came to depend indirectly on the same myths: for it was secular power that arose to defend the Catholic Church, against secular power that arose to attack it; and both pillaged. “Statism” itself is at the heart of the whole project of modern history: the erection of kingdoms very much of this world.

And statism requires that a reality that was bewildering should be simplified. It requires some idealistic explanation for what in fact occurred: the sudden “nationalization” or appropriation of vast church properties to pay the debts and then hugely enrich and empower such monarchs as Henry VIII of England.

It requires that wars for booty be presented as “religious wars.” It requires that the worldliest motives be presented as spiritual, and spiritual profundity dismissed as superstition. It requires the myth of a totally corrupt Church, overthrown by shining idealists. It requires that we assign the motive of altruism to men who turned the monks out of their monasteries, and used the stone to build their own country estates.

It requires the myth of popular support, and in the English case, at the root of our own constitutional order, we must pretend that the Reformation advanced by popular demand. It requires that we ignore (except to footnote) the Pilgrimage of Grace, and many other spontaneous popular revolts, in defence of the “old religion” that had given meaning and custom to people’s lives. It requires that we assign the motive of “rationalism” to quickly drafted new “articles of religion,” crawling with internal contradictions.

And finally, it requires that we worship a god, called progress, which has stalked through all the intervening centuries, making hecatombs in its wake—while appropriating to its own prestige every technical advance that would have happened anyway. For without this plausible idea that there is “a way forward, and no way back,” the State could never have secured its power.

For monarchs and statesmen must not go nude—they must be “dressed in a little authority”—and without some dainty fabric of right, to wrap around their might, the winter wind would scorch them.

The victors write history, and will continue to do so, as long as this world shall be.

Yet there are some “historians of lost causes.” Among the best books I read this year, was Eamon Duffy’s account of the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558), entitled, Fires of Faith. It retells the history of England’s most execrated monarch ( “Bloody Mary” she is called). And together with such previous works as The Stripping of the Altars, it provides a glorious corrective to what “everyone knows” about the English Reformation.

For hundreds of years later, what “everyone knows” is wrong.

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