Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Emotional obscurity

We all love edited collections of essays, festschriften, conference proceedings and so forth – I have edited enough of them myself to be deeply implicated in the form. But things do have a way of vanishing into them. An outstanding essay can easily disappear without trace into a miscellaneous essay collection. No services like ZETOC exist to bring them to general attention (if anyone knows of any, please tell me!).

Case in point: I’ve just (don’t ask how) stumbled across this volume, a festschrift for a systematic theologian and literary critic who is clearly very distinguished but of whom I have never heard. It is simply not the sort of thing I’d ever bother looking at in the normal course of events.

But lurking in it, on pp. 218-242, is an essay by the incomparable Ashley Null, whose combination of historical subtlety, theological passion and a bloodhound nose for manuscripts is unmatched. When I see that name, my expectations are high, but his piece – titled ‘Comfortable Words: Thomas Cranmer’s Gospel Falconry’ – still surprised me.

What Ashley does here is to connect Cranmer’s theology, and especially its liturgical expression in the Book of Common Prayer, with the history of the emotions, using the way humanist rhetoric sought to engage the affections as a bridge. He makes a very powerful case that Cranmer used Erasmian rhetorical tools to convey the emotional power of his doctrines through his liturgy. And indeed Ashley himself, through the recurring image of the minister as falconer (am I only imagining an unspoken rebuke to Yeats?), pulls off something of the same trick himself.

So, first, if you are at all interested in English Reformation theology and liturgy, in humanist rhetoric, or in the history of the emotions, I recommend this piece.
Second, what makes this particularly enjoyable for me is that I am not sure that Ashley quite realises what he has achieved here. The history of emotions is quite the thing at the moment, and I am at present sufficiently enthralled by it that I am inclined to think that the history of religion, and quite possibly all cultural history of any kind, in the end comes down to this. Ashley’s piece powerfully supports my prejudice, but it is written without any reference to the history-of-emotions industry or to that vein of scholarship. He has been, as is his wont, mining his own seam, and while it has led him unwittingly to a crowded place, on the evidence of this piece he has at least as much to teach those of us who are already there as we have to teach him.

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