Friday, June 29, 2012

Reformation and Goodbyes

Today was a bittersweet day for many of us, as it was the last day of class and everybody flies home on Saturday. Upon waking up, we all realized that we had two days left to check off things from our London Bucket Lists. So, we went to our last class, and enjoyed a good lecture and discussion on the English Reformation, and then proceeded to hunt down extra luggage, grab Iranian food, spend time with friends, and go to Camden Market (and not spend all the money we had left).

As far as class goes, we were each assigned a different sermon organized and preached by Thomas Cranmer -- the Archbishop of Canterbury under the reign of Henry VIII. These homilies described and outlined the various beliefs that the new Protestant, English parishioners (as well as the priests) needed to know. Some of the doctrines included how people are “saved” by God, an explanation of “true faith”, the importance of obedience to the King as Head of the Church, and the reading and knowledge of Holy Scripture.

These texts are important because they provide insight into the changes of the Reformation. Until revisionist history became a popular trend in interpreting the past, many historians considered the medieval church to be corrupt, and the Reformation occurred with the purpose of breaking away from this supposed corruption of the medieval Catholic Church. However, if anything, this class has demonstrated that these are simply interpretations, and evidence that the medieval church in England was actually a thriving, communal and non-corrupt institution. For example, lay people would donate candles or money to the church, and in doing so, they were practicing the giving of alms. People would pay the church money upon their deathbeds in order to ensure that priests would say prayers for them after they died, in hopes of shortening their time spent in purgatory. Many critics see this as having the wrong intention and buying your way into heaven.

The existence of mystics such as Margery and Julian, as well as the heretical trials that occurred throughout the country, also pointed toward a church that was potentially heretical in the beliefs of its mystics, and was politically power hungry. However, we were constantly asked to challenge this cynical outlook throughout the course. Perhaps Margery and Julian were so overwhelmed by their true faith that they did in fact have visions, or felt the need to have a closer relationship with God. This desire led to their theological concepts and ideologies. It is completely possible that clergymen did not hold the heretical trials because of blood-thirsty men, but instead, for a genuine fear of a corruption of the church, its beliefs and its community.

In any case, the history of anything always has multiple interpretations. Our course examined a period of time in which church history has always been seen in a slightly more negative light, and a time in which great change was about to occur. We read valuable, numerous texts (and original manuscripts!) which enabled us to challenge the previous interpretations, and potentially come up with our own.

Finally, I think it is important to mention all of the FUN we had while we lived in this beautiful city. There were good times, namely: the Jubilee, the nights of clotted cream ice cream (yes, that happened. And it is simultaneously as fantastic, and terrible for you, as it sounds), the early morning tube rides (which make you want to shower immediately after stepping onto the platform but funny in any case), the pubs and pasties, and the many wonderful excursions outside of London. And, of course, there were some bad times, too…like Stonehenge, which luckily did not result in sickness and thus can become a positive experience to remember for a lifetime. Overall, the trip was quite wonderful, and everyone will miss the beautiful city, the experiences and each other.  

(Special thanks to Professor Hornbeck for all the work, guidance, and everything else he has done for the class!)


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heresy Trials and Royal Palaces

We began our final week with one last class excursion to Hampton Court Palace.  This complex outside of London was built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, but became King Henry VIII’s palace in 1529.  The buildings are filled with Tudor and Stuart history for which an abundance of signs, costumed actors, props, and a dramatic audio tour are kindly provided to assist the imagination.  Henry VIII divorced Anne of Cleves and married 2 of his other wives there, Catherine Howard and Kateryn Parr.  His son, Edward, was baptized in the Chapel Royal at the palace.  This gorgeous chapel still holds regular daily services and enforces a strict code of silence.  Interestingly, the Chapel Royal retained many Catholic features and was relatively unaffected by the newly launched Reformation underway just outside.  

Our class today looked at a few of the heresy trial records from Norwich (1428-1431) and Winchester (1511-1513).  The Winchester trials were almost contemporaneous with the building of the palace.  While there is no direct link between the palace and the heresy trials per se, imagination involuntarily kicks in and starts forming a big picture of a world-in-which.  One of the more interesting architectural features of both the palace and the extensive gardens is the enormous number of nooks and hiding places scattered everywhere.  These were certainly designed to facilitate the private and politically sensitive conversations going on endlessly behind the scenes at court.   In secretive meetings like these, heresy was also believed to spread, and simply hosting a known heretic in one’s house could put that person on trial.

After discussing some of the theological contentions and the extent to which a trial record represents real historical circumstances, we began a prosopographical analysis of the text by mapping all the names indicted and linking them according to how they knew each other.  At first, tracing who had the heretical book when someone came to dinner felt a bit like a game of Clue.  Once a root system of heretics began to emerge, however, the method felt more like hunting cells of terrorists.  It was a strange feeling in a history and theology class, but essential work for close reading of these sources.

Why heresy and heretics were so feared is a difficult and troubling question for postmoderns.  Understanding this fear is further complicated by the tarnished image we have of the object of that fear, which survives almost entirely behind the polemics and judicial proceedings against them.  While many people now are receptive to explanations from social control, Eamon Duffy has argued for more pastoral motivations that were deeply concerned with the seriousness of right belief and eternal salvation.  Neither one of these seems entirely adequate, however.  The reduction of history to a string of power struggles is unnecessarily cynical and two-dimensional.  On the other hand, the excessive use of violence by both Church and State in some of these trials is hard to attribute charitable intent.  Maybe tomorrow’s class will bring the answer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trewe Cristen Men and Lollards

In my first extensively historiographical course in college, every time someone made a point about "scientists" or "feminists" or "social radicals," the professor would stop the conversation and ask, "but is that what they would have called themselves? How would they have defined their activities?" I was struck again by the importance of this question of self definition while reading Conner's blog post, in which he discusses experimenting with a pagan identity, and how attending the solstice helped to shape this identity through an experience of community.

In class, we encountered this issue repeatedly over the past week, while struggling with questions like "what is a heretic?" and "what is a Lollard?" "Lollard" itself is a term loaded with problematic associations: outside of its particular historical context, it means very little, but in the middle ages it was often an indistinct pejorative, as we saw in The Book of Margery Kempe. In the primary source documents we've read, none of the "Lollard" writers identify themselves as such; rather, they put the title in the mouths of ecclesiastical authorities: "... men which [bischoppis] clepen Lollardis (Bishop, 19)." Nor, as these documents further reveal, were their belief systems always identical.

Rather than opting to call themselves Lollards or heretics or even Wycliffites, the authors we've been reading self-identify as "pore men" and "trewe cristen men." Their identity is loosely grounded in a conviction in the importance of strict adherence to scripture and the commandments. They order their business, govern their household, and select their associates accordingly.

Unfortunately, the surviving records-- mainly either polemics or heresy trials-- make it easy to misread the movement as entirely grounded in opposition to the church, rather than a belief system with positivist claims. This has furthered a teleological view of these texts and their authors as a movement leading towards inevitable Protestant reformation-- indeed, as a premature reformation. Certainly the "trewe cristen men" were interested in personal reform-- in the care of their souls and the careful ordering of their households and social networks-- but we have yet to encounter, in the texts we've read, any investment in over-arching church overhaul. The "trewe men" place themselves outside of the church, but they don't take a hammer to its statuary or throw rocks through its windows.

In order to work with these texts as they are, and not through the lens of later agendas, we must begin by interrogating the claims that the authors make about themselves in their own historical moment. Now, as then, "Lollard" is a term that must be handled with care.