Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Despatches from New Orleans

The Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in New Orleans, was as fun and stimulating as ever. The expected highlights included a terrific panel on scepticism featuring Peter Marshall, Alex Walsham and Phil Soergel. But the real fun is always to hear cutting-edge stuff from more junior people, so here’s my personal selection.

Amy Blakeway from Cambridge, who is positioning herself to be the bad girl of sixteenth-century Scottish history, did a lovely piece on the administrative structure of Scottish government in the 1530s. Stay with me. It’s partly that she can prove that King James V had a sort of official council when we didn’t know that before, and that’s just quite an impressive thing to discover. But it matters because Scottish institutions were wonderfully ad hoc and pragmatic, and it’s nice to see one swimming into existence in that way. James used it, apparently, to deal with the fact that he was always on the move, but he needed some sort of permanent executive in Edinburgh. And, as a bonus, he also used it the way bureaucracies are always used: to fob off unwelcome visitors. English correspondents who were trying subtly to denigrate James by implying that Henry VIII was his overlord got directed into a bureaucratic slow lane that seems to have been created specially for the purpose.

Brad Pardue, from the College of the Ozarks, gave a paper in a lamentably poorly attended session on the 1539 Great Bible title page, one of the best-known images in Tudor history:

I thought there was nothing more to be said about this (unless someone should discover something specific about how, when and by who it was created). But Brad, amongst other things, pointed out something which is obvious once he said it. Look again at the bottom third, the common people gratefully receiving the king’s gift of God’s word:

No books! Not even the preacher has one! The Word does go to the lay elite as well as to the bishops, but it stops there. It’s not just that the common people are only supposed to learn one thing from the Word, namely, long live the king. Just to ensure they get the message, they aren’t allowed actually to see it. In 1543 Henry VIII restricted the common people’s access to the Bible by law, to great outrage: but look, back in 1539 he as good as told them he was going to!

But for me, the paper of the conference was from Jon Reimer, also from Cambridge: a PhD student working on an old friend of mine, the bestselling and shamelessly self-publicising Protestant polemicist Thomas Becon. I thought I had ‘done’ Becon’s early works. Jon, however, has used the dedications in those books as the basis of some really detailed, impressively careful detective work, and managed to conjure up a whole network of Kentish aristocrats who were supporting Becon – even if some of them, especially the older generation, didn’t seem actually to agree with him very much. He’s taken a broad-brush picture that we used to have and given us some gorgeously specific detail, and in the process opened up a whole network of printers, gentry and preachers working together in a messy, pragmatic way. This is dirty-fingers history the way it ought to be done: I can’t wait to see the PhD.

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