Thursday, 28 February 2013

Tito sailed the ocean black


As an old romantic brought up under the shadow of the Moon missions, I can’t but warm to Dennis Tito’s bonkers project to send a middle-aged couple to Mars. Clearly it’s entirely impossible, and if they ever set off they are most unlikely to come home safely. But I hope they don’t let that put them off.

It reminds me of Columbus. The point about Columbus is not that he thought the world was round. (Everyone knew that.) Rather, he was badly wrong about the world’s size. The best astronomers of the age had calculated the world’s total size and got it more or less right. So they knew that reaching Asia from Europe by sailing west was an impossibly long way: as indeed it is. No fifteenth-century ship could have managed an open-water voyage of that length.

The point is, the sceptics who told Columbus his voyage was impossible were right. It was. But what neither he, nor they, nor anyone else expected was that he would bump into another continent en route.

I am not suggesting that the Tito mission will stumble on a previously undiscovered planet. But I am suggesting that when you attempt the impossible, you are courting not only disaster, but also serendipity. When you stray off the reservation, unexpected things happen.

And who knows? They may, just conceivably, pull it off.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Henry VIII, genealogists, Anabaptists and Mormons

Back for a moment to my old stamping ground, Henry VIII's Reformation: for a realisation which seems like it ought to be embarrassingly obvious. I've not noticed anyone spell it out before. So apologies if this is old hat, but tortoise here has only just caught up with it.

One of the oddities of Henry VIII's reign is the appearance of parish registers. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell's second set of royal injunctions required every parish to keep a register of baptisms, marriages and burials: for no very obvious reason. There was some suspicion at the time that he was proposing to tax these things, but there's no evidence that was the case.

But we don't ask too many questions, because the documents themselves are so fantastically useful: they're the basis for English genealogical work (a subject in which 1538 is Year Zero) and for lots of other historical stuff too. So we tend to assume - or at least I have - that this is somehow part of Cromwell's general drive for administrative efficiency and to turn England into a clockwork bureaucratic machine. Quite how these registers would serve that purpose, well, who knows?

Marking a student essay on Swiss Anabaptists yesterday made me realise what's up. 1538 was, amongst other things, the year when Henry VIII's regime was at the height of its panic about Anabaptist infiltration. We know it never happened, but this was only three years after the terrifying and bloody takeover of the city of M√ľnster by apocalyptic Anabaptists, an event which hung over Europe not unlike 9/11.

... And then they require every parish to keep a record of all its baptisms. Well, duh. What better way of flushing out any Anabaptist tendencies, given that Anabaptists are marked by their refusal to baptise infants?

If I'm right, there's a lovely irony to this. The parish registers that resulted have been used by a great many genealogists, but most assiduously and systematically by the Mormons, who as I understand it use them for the practice of posthumous baptism of believers' ancestors, and who as a result have collated and analysed the registers more thoroughly than anyone else. If Henry VIII was shocked by Anabaptists, what would he have made of that?





Friday, 15 February 2013

The Taiwanese exception: or not

In the work I've been doing recently on early Protestant missionaries, one point has consistently emerged: there weren't any. Or hardly any. You can list the ones who were serious about it quickly: Baldaeus in Jaffna, Eliot and Mayhew in New England, Campanius in New Sweden (I was very excited about New Sweden for a while). Once you're into the 18th century, things change: but before then, Protestants just didn't do missionary work.

So I thought. Then I stumbled across the Dutch missionary effort during their time in charge of southern Taiwan (which they called by its Portuguese name, Formosa), from 1627-62. This was on a different scale. It seems largely to have been two dedicated individuals who got it moving, George Candidus and Robert Junius, both of whom set themselves seriously to learn the languages. But they created enough institutional momentum that the effort survived their departure, however haltingly. There was a genuine mission there, with all its problems; and with some real support from the Dutch East India Company and from the church back in the Netherlands, albeit never as much as the missionaries on the ground wanted.

Which is all very interesting, but it does leave all my explanations for the lack of missionaries holed below the waterline. When you read the accounts of the Dutch mission in Formosa carefully assembled (and, mercifully, translated into English) by the Victorian missionary William Campbell, it seems like it was all going well. Despite the stringent tests imposed for baptism, thousands of candidates were being admitted. Large numbers of converts were being employed as schoolmasters, and as such were being made pivotal to the whole conversion effort. The Dutch openly admitted that these indigenous Christians were better at their job than many of the Dutch incomers. Being good Calvinists, the Dutch were also setting up 'consistories', quasi-courts to oversee the morals of the people: they ensured that there was a good indigenous representation on those too, avowedly so that we may accustom them to manage the churches’. In the final years of the Dutch presence, they were actively planning a seminary in order to train indigenous boys as ministers. To involve so many of the native population in church leadership was unparalleled either in the Protestant or the Catholic world.

But then you read more closely, and discordant details keep hitting you. It is not simply the casual reference to the Dutch schoolmaster whose loose living was setting a bad example to the natives, and whom the government therefore had decapitated. The plan for the seminary suggested siting it in a valley enclosed by swift-flowing rivers, to prevent the students who have been taken from their families absconding to return to them, which seems a little less like a university and a little more like a prison camp than is usual at such institutions. The discipline which was imposed across the whole island - whipping or banishment for 'idolatry', for example - shocked the Dutch authorities in Indonesia when they heard about it. And when the Dutch were expelled from the island in 1661-2, by a Chinese adventurer and his army, their converts did not defend them. Quite the opposite: one observer mournfully noted that the native church-elders ‘now speak with much disdain of the true Christian faith which we had endeavoured to plant in their hearts, and are delighted that they have been exempted from attending the schools. Everywhere they have destroyed the books and utensils, and have again introduced the abominable usages and customs of heathenism.’

So it looks like it wasn't really working. It was chiefly a matter of main force, and in the end that wasn't enough. I am still trying to work out whether this makes Taiwan an exception that proves the rule, or simply a unique and bleak story in its own right.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Car park king

I am entirely unable to muster any excitement about the Richard III story. Nor to see why anyone is so keen to have him. I suppose kings don't come on the market very often, so you take what you can get. Even so ...

In fact, the best and most fitting memorial I've seen is this, sent to me by my old friend and student Kerry Carter:


Strictly live ones only.

'Worship and the Parish Church'

... This is Natalie Mears' and my new edited volume, just out. In a very smart burgundy cover.


It is very much a Durham product, as it's turned out: not just edited by two Durham folks, but also including contributions from one former Durham person (Jonathan Willis, now in Birmingham) and one newly arrived one (Hannah Cleugh, just arrived as chaplain at University College).

It's a snip at £65, so don't rush out and buy it. But do notice that cover picture:


Natalie and I spent an age searching for a cover picture for this book. There are hundreds of images of preaching in post-Reformation England, but we wanted a picture of the ordinary Prayer Book service being said. And we simply couldn't find one. This image - from Anthony Sparrow's Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer - was the earliest we could locate. And it dates from 1655, a year when (under Cromwell's Protectorate) Prayer Book worship was, technically, illegal (though the law was widely flouted).

In other words, the form of worship which was legally mandated in England for eighty-five years (1559-1644), and which consumed hours of any conscientious clergyman's life every week, drew so little real attention that no-one bothered to draw an image of it. In the same way, as Pat Collinson observed, manuals for clergy paid literally no attention at all to their responsiblity to lead the Prayer Book service.

So ordinary worship is, in effect, a black hole in our knowledge of Reformation England. The book, we hope, does something to fill it.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Conspiracy, cock-up and colonialism

I've spent a little time over the past few months chasing the peculiar story of Antarctic France. I admit the name appeals, conjuring up as it does an image of penguins in berets. But this was the shortlived (1555-60) French colony on the site of the modern city of Rio de Janeiro, whose name simply reflected the fact that it was south of the Equator.

This is apparently what the surviving fortifications looked like before they were destroyed during a naval revolt in 1898:



It first came to my attention because this was, as far as anyone can tell, the site of the first Protestant worship held, and the first Protestant sermons preached, in the New World. The colonists included a small group of French Calvinists, including two ministers sent from Calvin's Geneva. But it ended badly, with a spectacular falling-out between them and the colony's governor, the sieur de Villegagnon. Three of the Calvinists were executed (that is, thrown off cliffs into the sea with their hands tied behind their backs) and Villegagnon became a vigorous Catholic partisan during the French religious wars. In return, Protestant historiography has made his name mud, as a turncoat who had promised refuge to persecuted reformers and then betrayed them.

That story never made sense to me, and now I discover a much more satisfying account, in a nearly 20-year-old essay by Silvia Shannon.* She argues that Villegagnon knew some fashionable, moderate religious reformers of a bohemian and literary kind, and that he may also have met John Calvin when he was a young lawyer with as-yet-unformed religious views. And then he found himself in charge of this colony peopled mostly by convicts and fortune-hunters, who did not share his vision of a community of honest labour and chastity. So he invited Calvin's friends in Geneva to send him a couple of preachers, who could knock some virtue into the rest.

Trouble was, proper Calvinist ministers were neither moderate nor bohemian. They came intending to forge Antarctic France into a Geneva in the New World, and started winning converts. Villegagnon simply didn't realise what he was getting into. When they challenged his authority, he stopped them from preaching; when they responded by calling a strike, he threw them out; when some of them came back, he killed those who refused to recant.

So everyone felt hard done by. The Calvinists felt that Villegagnon had masqueraded as their friend and then turned on them. Villegagnon felt that the Calvinists had promised virtue and order, but delivered discord, sedition and blasphemy.

This rings very true to me: a classic case of religious opponents simply living in different worlds, and becoming so completely unable to hear one another that the only language left in which they could communicate was violence. When both sides accuse the other of conspiracy ... it's probably a cock-up instead.

*Silvia Shannon, ‘Villegagnon, Polyphemus, and Cain of America: Religion and Polemics in the French New World’ in Michael Wolfe (ed.), Changing Identities in Early Modern France (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 325-344.