Monday, 7 December 2015

In sheep's clothing

Reading a splendid article forthcoming in JEH on the Anglo-Saxon origins of the office of Lord Chancellor, I discover that the office likely derives from the office of the keeper of the royal reliquary. And that one of the first holders of this office, under King Alfred the Great, was called ... Werwulf.

No wonder his successors like to sit on a woolsack.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Reasons to be cheerful II: Oldham by-election

So, Dr Pangloss is pressed into service once again for the Oldham West and Royton by-election, where a contest between two unpalatable parties saw my own pressed into a bad fourth place. But it's not as bad as it looks! Here's why.

1. UKIP's flush remains busted. The collapse of Britain's most authentically nasty party continues. Rather wonderfully, they decided to blame their defeat on poll fraud and on a scarcely-disguised implication that it was those unwelcome Asians voting against them in droves. A good rule of politics, I think, is that when you are defeated, a mixture of sour grapes with racial slurs is not going to broaden your appeal. I look forward to watching their continued evaporation with enjoyment, and hope the unpleasant sludge left over at the end doesn't smell too bad.

2. None of this means that the Corbyn leadership of Labour is a success. It is not, simply in competence terms: regardless of ideology, there is no indication that the current leadership is up to the formidable challenge of running a major political party. BUT it might just put paid to the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption amongst what used to be the Labour mainstream that the whole thing is just a nightmare that they will soon wake up from: that if they can simply find a way of defenestrating Corbyn then it will all go back to normal, or that the party membership will pretty soon realise what a ghastly mistake it has made and will humbly do what the PLP advises.

What is still yet to appear (at least to my eyes) is any sign in the Labour establishment of a real willingness to harness and work with the energy and anger that created the wave that flung Mr Corbyn up the beach. It doesn't need to mean 1970s Islington socialism. What it does need to mean is a serious and credible attempt to change Britain's political culture, a culture which was embodied in the hapless Messrs. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall and which could not have been rejected louder or clearer by the wider party. My hope is that somewhere on the Labour benches lurks someone who combines some genuine moral standing or at least apparent personal integrity; pragmatic realism and creativity about policy which is capable of pinching good ideas from other parties; an ability to challenge some of the many doctrines which the British political consensus says are unquestionable but which majorities of voters say they oppose; and an ability to make the consensus appear crazy, rather than themselves.

If anyone knows of such a person, perhaps give them a nudge?

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.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The spirit of '76

One of the problems I've been wrestling with in writing my current chapter is the disappearance of a vocally Christian Left in American politics since the 1970s, which I think is symptomatic of a whole series of wider issues. In the process, I came across this poster, from the great moment of the American evangelical left, the Carter campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency off the back of the evangelical vote.

A little ironic in retrospect, I give you. But: that is actually funny, isn't it? And deliberately, slightly self-parodically funny. The Obama campaign in 2008 could have used a little of that kind of humour. So my question: where did the funny go in American politics? The religious Right isn't given to self-mockery, though the broader Right is certainly capable of top-notch satire. And the Left tends towards earnest and rather dreary righteousness.

I am afraid that my hunch is that, although I really like that poster, it is a sign that things were already going wrong for this constituency. It is the sort of thing produced by people who not only know that they can look a little bit ridiculous but, crucially, who even look a little bit ridiculous to themselves. It's clever, sharp and nuanced, but that's not the kind of thing that ever got anyone up on a barricade.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

More from Vancouver

I thought I was done blogging the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but the session on Early Modern Women's Writing in the punishment slot (8:30am on Sunday) was too good not to notice: I think probably the all-round best panel I attended.

I'm accustomed to expecting great things from Kate Narveson, who didn't disappoint, in her account of how several early seventeenth-century women produced Bible collages which constructed a very particular view of God - emphasising his comforts, care and (it seemed to me - Kate didn't put it this way) his maternal qualities. In doing so they clearly constructed the God they wanted, needed or had encountered, but did so on the irrefutable grounds of the bare scriptural text.

Paula McQuade, whose book on catechisms is stuck in editorial limbo but must surely emerge soon, was also as humane and insightfue and as ever. He sense that the act of catechesis could be and often was a profoundly intimate moment in family life, and in particular between mothers and children, is worth holding on to. As she points out, the stereotype of catechesis as a repressive and disciplinary process simply is not supported by any significant evidence from the earlier period, even if some Victorians felt that way.

Victoria Burke's work is newer to me, but she was talking about a text I thought I knew, namely Elizabeth Isham's autobiography from the 1630s. What she revealed, however, was the extent to which Isham is, quietly and unfussily, making herself into a scholar in this text: not just referencing an enormous amount of reading, but processing it critically and testing her emerging views against various authorities and against Scripture. She began by suggesting that Isham's work is intellectual rather than conventionally devotional, which is clearly the case, but she ended up demonstrating something rather more important: that this was devotion by the means of intellectual labour. It's quite a trick.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

SCSC Vancouver

The Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Vancouver has been as fun as ever this year, even through the mental fog of an eight-hour time change. 

There have been highlights from some of the usual suspects. Natalie Mears pointed out that, irrefutably, that the spate of adoring monuments to Queen Elizabeth I in early seventeenth-century London parish churches weren't attempts to send subtle messages to James I - not when there were far better and cheaper ways of sending messages to him than by building monuments which he would never see.

Jon Reimer revealed his newly discovered copy of a book by my old friend Thomas Becon, which proves that Becon really did feel bad about having recanted his evangelical faith in 1543. And Nick Thompson is not only tackling Stephen Gardiner's ding-dong over clerical celibacy with Martin Bucer, but pointed out along the way that Gardiner was labelled 'Anglican' by his hosts in Louvain. Well, sort of, anyway.

But the real treat at a conference is the chance to hear the people you don't yet know, and in this category the one I am most excited about is Harriet Lyon, a second-year doctoral student in Cambridge, who gave us a first glimpse of her work on the way the dissolution of the monasteries was remembered. I've been droning on about the importance of the dissolution for years, and so I'm naturally pleased to see someone tackling this: but she's also doing it with real creativity, thinking about how it's managed in historical writing and how the economic impact of it is processed in the generations that followed. It's genuinely innovative work and I'm excited to see where she takes it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The happy Klan

Reading about 20th-century American Protestantism, I come across an excellent and disturbing book about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which emphasises the organisation's commitment to Protestantism as a core value.

I had always thought of the Klan as kind of conservative and reactionary. Apparently I had underestimated their ambition. They seem to have thought of themselves as optimistic, forward-looking and even in a sense progressive, allied as they were with the great progressive cause of the day (Prohibition) and opposed as they were to retrogressive forces such as Catholicism (priestcraft and intolerance) and to racially inferior groups (Jews and African-Americans) who would drag America backwards. They were also keen on intra-Protestant ecumenism. Onwards, to a paradise of united Protestant racial purity!

And they thought they were winning. This macabre image doesn't just show a Klansman sitting on the dead body of American Catholicism, which he has defeated. He is, incongruously, visibly happy and optimistic about it. Who knew you could get a smile out of one of those hoods?

But apparently I have been misreading the hoods themselves. In the original, 1860s Klan the white robes were said to symbolise the vengeful ghosts of the Confederate war dead. In the new, cheerful, forward-looking Klan of the Twenties, a brighter and more edifying alternative was preferred. These were, the Klan now declared, the white robes of the righteous, as in the book of Revelation, symbolising purity of conscience as well as, they hardly needed to add, skin colour. And we were told that the hoods were not in fact to conceal murderous cowards, but so that humble Christians might not be seen to take the credit for the Klan's godly works, but instead anonymously give the glory to God. As the Exalted Cyclops of Texas (I am not kidding) wrote in 1923:
Who can look upon a multitude of white robed Klansmen without thinking of the equality and unselfishness of that throng of white robed saints in the Glory Land?

Who indeed. How could anyone possibly think of anything else?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Turning ontological

One of my preoccupations is the difficulty of how the discipline of history – in its modern, quasi-scientific, secular garb – can engage seriously with profoundly different worldviews. Given my own interests, I am thinking in particular of how history can deal with the religious faith of past societies and individuals, and do so without condescension or dismissiveness. But the point applies more widely. I tried to address some of these issues in the introduction to my most recent book, although the best extended consideration of it that I know remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Hearing Things.

So when I see an article in the new American Historical Review,* in which the ancient historian Greg Anderson argues for an ‘ontological turn’ in which we take the reality of what he calls other historical ‘lifeworlds’ seriously, I ought to be delighted. And in many ways I am. I am certainly very stimulated by it (as you can tell). Much of what he says seems like obviously good sense, especially if, like me, you tend to think that all history is in the end history of mentalities. And, indeed, if his description of some of the crudely anachronistic histories of ancient Athens is fair, I am kind of shocked that respectable scholars are still doing that sort of thing.

So why does the whole thing leave me feeling a bit queasy?

Anderson is rightly critical of history-writing which takes what he calls a ‘God’s-eye, “etic” (outsider)’ view of the past, urging us instead to inhabit those past worldviews. But he does not directly address the problem which seems to me fundamental here, namely that historians do not inhabit the past. We inhabit the present. And this is not a liability. Very good historians can sometimes inhabit both past and present, stretching their minds to multiple worlds. But the point of doing history is not to inhabit the past for its own sake, but to understand it from the perspective of the present, to make it intelligible to the present, and to use all the resources we have (necessarily, present resources) to interrogate it. Historians are, at best, the conduits between ages. We need to have a foot in each one.

Failing to recognise that we ourselves are and must be rooted in a particular historical moment, pretending that we and we alone can transcend our historical particularity and inhabit other worlds – that seems to me the ultimate ‘etic’ viewpoint.

Instead, should we not recognise that our present and its knowledge can bring real value to reading past societies? Take, for example, an event in ancient Athenian history which Anderson does not mention, the plague of 430 BCE. It seems to me historically sensible to use modern ideas such as germ theory in order to analyse that event, even though they were not part of the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’. Sometimes we just know stuff they didn’t. And naturally, they knew stuff that we don’t. The point of a historical conversation with the past is surely that both we and they are allowed to bring insights to the table.

I am also a little troubled by the sealed, stable ‘lifeworlds’ that he implies, a bit like native reservations, in which exotic peoples can be admired in their pristine habitats. It is not simply that modern ideas can sometimes be powerful analytical tools for examining past societies, but also that past societies themselves were not stable. I kept expecting Anderson to talk about my old friends Herodotus and Thucydides, whose views on this particular question seem to me relevant. Herodotus, famously, used divine agency as an explanatory tool in his Histories. A generation later Thucydides, very deliberately, refused to do so. Without getting into who was right, that suggests that the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’ was pretty plural and unstable. Perhaps the truisms Anderson lists – gods, land, demos and household – were not so universally held. In particular, perhaps the women, slaves and other voiceless peoples of ancient Athens did not accept them.

I think Anderson would respond that this is part of his point: that lifeworlds are contingent and fluid, and that this extends to our own. But this troubles me too. I mean, he is right, obviously. But one of the plainest features of this essay is its distaste for modernity. His description of the modern post-Enlightenment lifeworld – materialist, secular, anthropocentric and individualist – reeks of disapproval. Fair enough, you might say, although I am not sure quite which variety of collectivism and supernatural agency he would like us to adopt instead. But his final line, that an ontological turn in history may lead us ‘to imagine less exploitative, more equitable, more sustainable lifeworlds of the future’, gives the game away. That’s not a historical project, it’s a political one (and is profoundly presentist, ransacking the past for what it can give us). Historically, studying the past can reveal to us how deeply contingent, and indeed weird, our own society is: although I think he overdoes the present’s absolute exceptionalism, a little narcissistically. Whether that makes us want to critique the present, or, alternatively, to consider how lucky we all are nowadays, is a political matter. A perfectly legitimate one, but if you’ve a constructive critique of modernity to make, let’s have it openly stated, not assumed and framed as history.


*Greg Anderson, ‘Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:The Case for an Ontological Turn’ in American Historical Review 120/3 (2015): 787-810. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The 'Tyndale' Erasmus MS: update

Earlier this year I wrote about the discovery of what appears to be a manuscript of Tyndale's translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion. Now comes the very welcome news that the British Library has managed to raise the funds necessary to keep it. Thank you to whoever the donor was. And anyone who wants to look at the thing for themselves simply needs to go to the BL, request Additional MS 89149, and form an orderly queue.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

JEH: A very British apocalyptic suicide cult

The new Journal of Ecclesiastical History (vol. 66 no. 4: Oct. 2015) has the usual range of treats, and as usual I will arbitrarily pick out those that appeal to me. The most memorable single line is from Jeremy Morris’ splendid treatment of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics who went on tours of continental Europe, and whose religion was profoundly shaped by them. The previous neglect of this subject is a grave comment on the insularity of so much English scholarship. Jeremy rightly could not resist, however, pointing out that even some nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics shared that insularity. W. F. Hook, the energetic, creative vicar of Leeds and later dean of Chichester, had this to say of his one trip to France:
I am heartily sick of Paris; hate France, and think Frenchmen the most detestable of human beings. In three weeks I hope to be in dear old England, and never shall I wish again to quit her shores.
It’s only a shame we couldn’t get that one into print in time for the Waterloo anniversary earlier in the year.

            That’s very British, but it’s not a suicide cult. For that we have to turn to, for me, the most revelatory article in the issue, Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s wonderful piece on the British Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the 1960s. It’s well-known that in the 1960s, the SCM turned towards political radicalism and imploded, going from dominance of the student Christian scene to near-collapse and subsequent irrelevance in only a few years. The usual explanation is that it was trying to hitch itself to the bandwagon of 1960s political activism in an attempt to stay relevant in a secularising age, and in the process got sucked under the bandwagon’s wheels. My interest was piqued. I was a member of the rump SCM group in St Andrews in 1993-4, a group which, though tiny, was high-powered (its alumni include an SNP MP, indeed one elected before the mammoth 2015 intake – hello, Eilidh). They were a lovely group of people, who made my own liberal-evangelical convictions seem terribly staid.
            Brewitt-Taylor’s piece shows that the SCM’s collapse was not a hapless accident but almost wholly self-inflicted. It was taken over by what can only be described as an apocalyptic cult. These radicals, inspired by Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’, believed that God was at work in the secular world and its transformations, and that Christians should therefore abandon all the outward trappings of Christianity and throw themselves into socio-political activism. Like any classic Christian apocalyptic movement, they overread events in the world around them, mis-reading (as we can now say from a safe distance) subtle shifts and ambiguous movements as absolute changes of cosmic significance. The drift of students away from Christianity meant that it was ‘totally irrelevant’ in a world that had ‘no room for religion’. Likewise, they saw signs of the kingdom of God in the rise of revolutionary movements across the world, from student demos to Algeria and Vietnam – and even, though they really should have known better after 1956 and especially 1968, in the Warsaw Pact countries.
            The result was a movement which openly disparaged traditionally Christian activities and advocated revolution. Naturally, most of its Christian members (especially its female majority, who like many women at the time recognised that they weren’t invited to 1960s-style revolutions) simply left. Those who hung on were often uncertain what they should actually do to usher in this postmillenial kingdom. As they subsided into a series of consciousness-raising workshops, the movement sank out of sight.
            The tragedy of this – for that is how I read it – is that the leadership knew what they were doing. They expected to lose much of their membership and their income: these were prophetic, self-sacrificial acts, laying down their institutional life for the sake of the Kingdom. As with most suicide cults, however, the dramatic act of self-immolation didn’t produce the desired results. At least this time, instead of ending in a literal bloodbath, it ended in a commune in a draughty Gloucestershire manor house which wound up for lack of funds in 1977.

            The SCM was many good things: bold, inspired, prophetic, honest, willing to read the signs of the times, determined to lead change rather than being dragged along behind it. Only one problem: it was wrong. Its error, as Brewitt-Taylor bluntly puts it, was ‘contextualising limited religious decline as part of God’s plan to abolish organised religion’.  It’s been the defensive, conservative, counter-counter-cultural forms of Christianity that have survived, this far at least – not least in the student world. We all know that, in reality, hares can run faster than tortoises. But a tortoise is better at coping with crossfire and less likely to dash off a cliff.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Anglican Reich

Guess which two Christian movements in modern history I am thinking of?

Both have names which identify them with a particular nationality. Both aspire to be truly national churches, despite large parts of their respective nations rejecting those claims. Both cling to the notion of legal establishment, even though the state has no great affection for them. As a result, you will search long and hard in the liturgies, hymn-books and formularies of either movement before you find any critical (let alone prophetic) distance from their national governments: both are suffused with the assumption that the state is an unproblematic force for good, and both make a particular point of praying for the head of state.

Moreover, both, in the interests of pursuing national religious unity, have been willing to abandon doctrinal precision, and indeed to make a virtue of their comprehensiveness and their refusal to impose confessional tests. Indeed, many ministers in both groups are avowedly impatient with inherited rules restricting (for example) whom they might baptise, marry or otherwise provide with the church’s services, and under what circumstances – to the point of boldly defying regulations in the name of national inclusion. They are ready to see their external critics as fundamentalists or foot-dragging legalists, out of step with modernity. Indeed, both stir up opposition from conservative Protestants by attempting reconciliation or alignment with Catholicism, even though Catholics generally rebuff their advances. But for all this inclusiveness, these are movements which stick very strictly to their own internal rules, in particular to rules about precisely who can and who cannot be recognised as a valid minister. And, it should be said, that neither movement is conspicuous by its success in winning large numbers of converts.

Yes, you’re right. My two movements are Anglicanism; and the German Christian movement of the Nazi era.

I have been reading about the German Christians*, and had expected to be horrified by their  crazed racism and perverse distortions of core Christian ideas. Which I am. But I am also discomfited by the parallels above. The German Christians provided active moral cover for appalling crimes, without which – to be conservative – many, many thousand fewer people would have been murdered. And yet … they said, and believed, that they were just churches which trying to keep pace with the times, to work with the national mood and to remain relevant in a fast-changing society. It was the classic liberal theological enterprise.

Now the Nazi-era Confessing Church, supposedly the anti-Nazi church, was in practice not much better: often just as anti-semitic, simply more insistent on its theological traditions, sometimes mulishly so. But that did at least give it something solid to hold onto.

Is the comparison with Anglicanism fair? No. Does it mean anything? Not much – the Nazi era was, mercifully, truly exceptional, and attempts to read off general lessons from it are usually polemical and opportunistic. But I will say this much. It does remind us that liberal theological methods do not by any means necessarily imply liberal politics (in either the European or the American sense). And it reminds us that, when liberal theologians are led to question or jettison parts of their tradition, it is a good idea always to remain in dialogue with that tradition, and to listen even to shrill and hectoring voices coming from it. Naturally Christians want to move from spiritual milk to meat and to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ. But just sometimes, when you let go of Nurse, you really do find something worse.

*Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: the German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Batman fallacy

This is a historians’ problem which has bugged me for some time, but I’ve never had a name for it. Now I do, courtesy of my ten-year-old son.

‘You loved Batman as a boy,’ he declared confidently to me over the weekend. His evidence: a photo of me which hangs in our hallway, aged about eight, wearing a Batman T-shirt.

Now I happen to know that that’s not the case. I vividly remember my enthusiasms at that age: Star Wars was peaking, the now-forgotten Micronauts were putting in a respectable showing and Lego was just beginning to register. Superheroes of any kind: meh. I was willing to wear the T-shirt. (Or do I only believe I remember these things? - We all know contemporary documents, like the photo, are more reliable than later recollections …)

But it was a perfectly sensible hypothesis for him to make based on the very limited and fragmentary evidence he had to draw on. And historians do this all the time. All we have are a few fragments, chance survivals. The temptation to assume that they are keys to understanding everything is very strong. We can formulate hypotheses from them which are both plausible and legitimate. At least they seem legitimate.

Since Karl Popper we’ve measured the legitimacy of a hypothesis by whether it is falsifiable. If not – if there is no test which could be devised which could in principle prove it wrong – then it is not a scientific hypothesis, but something else. That works fine in the experimental sciences. But in observational sciences like history (or, say, palaeontology), there is a grey area. Some hypotheses – lots of hypotheses in fact – are falsifiable in principle, but not in practice. That is, you can imagine the evidence which might allow us to test it. But we don’t have it, we know we don’t have it, and we are pretty sure we’re never going to have it. In which case, what you have is not really a hypothesis. It is a speculation, or a generalisation. It is, in fact, a sand-sculpture: perhaps very attractive, but not something you'd be wise to build on, or indeed something that's likely still to be there once the tide has come in.

Now historians need to speculate, we all do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not the Batman fallacy. The Batman fallacy is when we imagine that because a speculation is compatible with all the evidence we have it is therefore likely or even proven. In short, we forget how much we do not know.

It is hard to emphasise this enough. For most of the human past, we know almost nothing. Even for my own period, the 16th and 17th centuries, huge swathes of ordinary life are simply mysterious to us. For earlier or less well-documented periods the problem increases exponentially. We tend to skate over or conceal this ignorance: books stating baldly that we know nothing and that there is no evidence are short and do not sell well. Textbooks particularly, which are required to give an overview, do so by giving an illusion of knowledge. Students tend only slowly to realise that their own persistent ignorance about the past is not a mark of their own stupidity, but the historian’s condition.

No scholarly field that I know is more vulnerable to this problem than Biblical study. There a body of evidence which is both tiny and enormously unbalanced meets a huge enterprise of focused scholarly attention. Genuinely new evidence does appear, but it is pretty rare. So the danger of overinterpretation is everpresent. Naturally scholars make plausible and often ingenious guesses about the authorship, redaction history, contexts, social meanings, cultural assumptions and so forth surrounding the Biblical texts. Which is wonderful. The danger is that they start to believe that these hypotheses are established and proven. There are, in fact, very few hypotheses for which we have enough evidence for us to be able to establish them. Most of the Bible's historical context is simply lost to us, and if there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that any substantial new evidence about it would contain surprises.

Genuinely substantial evidence is of course unlikely. So in the meantime we read the texts and make the best of what we have. But we need to remember that we are doing the equivalent of deducing a boy’s life and enthusiasms from a single snapshot.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Transatlantic referencing

I need to stop blogging about academic recruitment processes, but one last time. This is provoked by a question from my friend Martin Dotterweich: when American academics are writing references for candidates applying for British universities, what should they do? Here's my guesses, based on the many processes I've been involved in over the past three years.

I think what makes a good reference for a British academic post isn't very different from the American standard, at least judging by the many American letters of reference I've seen for candidates. One persistent problem, of course, is inflation. Reference-writing culture generally has become so soaked in hype that you are forced to layer on ever more superlatives to avoid it looking as if you are damning a candidate with faint praise. As a result, you are always courting the opposite danger, of praising someone in such ridiculously overblown terms that what you say will be dismissed as incredible. My sense is that British norms are a little less hyped up than American ones are. If you can just occasionally mute your praise of the candidate, to indicate that you are being measured and thoughtful, then it is more likely to render the rest of what you say credible and less likely to look like a career-ending doubt than might be the case in an American setting.

That said, of course, a single sentence of actually negative comment, or indeed of barbed or studiedly ambiguous phrase, can of course be enough to sink a candidate. So can writing a reference which is very short or very bland. (Around two pages is the norm.)

Naturally, the best thing to do, where possible, is to cite actual evidence proving your case: comments from examiners, student evaluations, or whatever. Much of this may appear in the candidate's CV, but tell us anyway, partly because we can always miss stuff buried in a long CV.

On matters of substance, different British institutions look for different things. For some posts and some institutions, research will be more important than teaching; in others, vice versa. Naturally someone who is excellent in both fields is what we all want. But things which might particularly tickle a British appointments panel would include:

1. On research: is this person productive? Our system, sadly, has little place for the brilliant scholar who produces one superb book every 15 years. We need a regular stream of high-quality articles and monographs, meaning, normally, a book every six years or so. We want to see evidence that someone can churn the stuff out.

2. Can they attract external funding for their research? Our system increasingly emphasises grant-hunting. Appointments panels like scholars who have a record of doing this, and / or who can be shown to be energetic and creative in attempting to do this.

3. Can their research have 'impact'? Without getting too deep into the horrific entrails of the UK government's system of research funding: if the candidate's research has the potential, one day, to make some kind of tangible, beneficial change to the world outside the academy, we like that. Writing books that lots of people like to read is not, in itself, tangible, beneficial change, though it can be a start. Actually changing the ways ordinary people, or churches, or charities, or governments, think or behave - and doing it through the originality of your research: that's what counts. If people have actually done this, great. But what we're really interested in is their potential to do this. So if there is a story that can be woven here, do so.

4. Will they be a magnet for doctoral students? The PhD economy works very differently in the UK from the USA: many doctoral students are self-funded, and universities generally want to try to attract as many as they can. So someone who has the potential to bring a large flock of them in, especially ones from outside Europe who pay a higher rate, will set the cash-registers ringing.

5. On teaching: especially for junior scholars, they may have lots of teaching on their CV, but how much independent experience do they have? This is often difficult to discern, especially for panellists who've not worked in the USA and don't know the system. What we like is someone who has experience of designing and delivering entire courses on their own initiative; and someone who has experience of supervising student research projects. It would be useful to emphasise anything of that kind that you can.

6. Do they like students? Not all academics do. But even those who don't will often respond warmly to the young and naïve who still do. There are academics whose research is their life and whose teaching is their chore. Better to give the impression that this person will not be like that.

7. Collegiality. Is this someone who will muck in? If they are handed a tedious but important administrative job, will they do it cheerfully and effectively? Will they be patient committee-fodder? Tell us with a straight face that the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Off with my head

So, bloodied but still standing after three years as an academic head of department … what have I learned? Well, plenty about my colleagues’ many heroic virtues and a few jaw-dropping failings, but let’s not get into that. Some initial thoughts on what makes for success and / or survival as a head of department. I didn’t do all of these things, certainly not all the time, but to the extent that I didn’t, I should have done.

  1. Relationships. The whole thing is about getting to know the people you are working with, their strengths, their weaknesses, who is good at what, who needs protecting from themselves, who manifestly doesn’t. If you have a good set of working relationships with people who trust you, most other things will be OK.
  2. Relationships with junior academic colleagues, probationers, postdocs, and even senior staff who are new to the university or, even more so, to the UK. Give these people a lot of time and attention. I tried, but I often didn’t do enough. Especially if the wheels are not obviously coming off, and especially if they are the kind of colleagues who don’t want to make a fuss or assert their importance, they won’t necessarily thrust themselves onto your attention. Don’t let them slip too far down the priority list: to stop niggles and crises of confidence turning into real problems, to help them decide on priorities and directions, and – of course – to nurture the relationships on which, again, the whole thing depends.
  3. Relationships with your senior team. Most academics are, from the HoD’s point of view, problem-solvers or problem-creators. Actually, most of us are both, in different spheres or at different times. But if you can get people in the key management roles – the ones which require initiative and / or quick and creative responses to problems – who are solvers, then your life will be immeasurably easier. Not simply because, when a problem does blow up, such a person will come to you with the problem in one hand and a suggested solution in the other. But also because these are the kinds of people most likely to stop problems blowing up in the first place, and to be able to work well with you and the rest of the team when they do. (You know who you are: thank you.)
  4. Relationships with the whole academic staff. No-one likes long meetings, but sometimes you will need to allow a particularly contentious subject to have lengthy discussions. Your dual aims – which may be incompatible – are (a) to get the right result and (b) to keep the whole department together. If they are in tension, it may well be that you are wrong about what the right result it. If at all possible, avoid making important decisions by vote. A losing minority can become an aggrieved faction very quickly, and not many victories are worth that.
  5. Relationships with the administration. It is worth learning who in the support departments of the University is actually a helpful and constructive person who can answer questions and head off problems. Those are the people to talk to, and to stay on the good side of, regardless of formal job responsibilities.
  6. Relationships with students. You don’t get to see students very often any more, because you don’t teach much. But they will periodically come to you with problems and you can communicate with them, whether through mass mailings, through welcomes at induction or similar events, or through participation in open days. The substance of what you say in these settings does matter, but the mood and atmosphere matters more. You have the chance to help set the tone. And if you treat individual students who have problems patiently and well, word gets round. For the same reason, participating in the Staff-Student Committee is one of your most important regular fixtures.
  7. Relationships with departmental administrative staff. Perhaps the most important of all, and not simply because this is perhaps the single most vulnerable point of your entire structure. These people make your life liveable, and work phenomenally hard to do so. At least mine did. Do whatever you can to make them happy. In particular, defend them from other academic colleagues by any means necessary.
  8. Being mean to people. Just occasionally, this is your job. You need to say no to apparently sensible requests for reasons which you are not free to explain. You need to require people to do things, or stop them from doing things, for reasons which to them appear trivial, incoherent or vindictive. You need to turn down highly qualified individuals for jobs, a small but noticeable proportion of whom will proceed to vindicate your decision by reacting aggressively or awkwardly. By the end of your term of office, you will have made decisions which will have gravely offended, alienated or wounded one or more colleagues. Or, indeed, you will have made mistakes which do this inadvertently. It is no fun at all, but it goes with the territory. Indeed, part of your role is to be the scapegoat, and to soak up people’s resentment. Often better they end up angry with you than with their whole department or university. (Again, you know who you are. I am sorry.)
  9. Sin-eating – as a shrewd fellow-HoD puts it. People will want to come and talk to you. Often with problems that can be tackled, but sometimes they simply need to moan or lament. There is a limit to how much time you can give to this, but it is worth giving some. The slightly rarer, but delightful, flip side is colleagues and students who come to you to tell you how utterly wonderful someone else is.
  10. Email … A large part of your job consists of fielding emails of all kinds. This will chew up at least an hour or two of each day, sometimes a whole day. Just expect that. The only way I found to manage this is simply to stay on top of it, and use my inbox as a to-do list: to the point of sending myself reminder emails about things. About twice a year, I managed to empty my inbox entirely. The achievement is both like and unlike climbing a mountain: like because of the magnitude of the effort involved and the sudden openness of the on-screen vista, and unlike, because when the moment comes, you are still sitting at your desk and a certain purposeless emptiness creeps over you. You keep checking forlornly to see if you have any more emails.
  11. The ‘delay delivery’ function on your email programme is genuinely useful. It can be used to send yourself reminders about something that you know needs to be done, but not yet. It can be used when you get emailed a question to which you know the answer immediately, but when you want to give the impression that you have thought about it for more than 30 seconds. It can also be used to play games with working hours. The correct way to do this is to support colleagues in maintaining a good work-life balance and family-friendly working hours, by ensuring that, if you happen to be emailing them out of hours, you delay delivery until a more civilised time. The incorrect way (I have been tempted to do this, but I don’t recall ever actually giving in) is to delay delivery until the middle of the night one night, so as to intimidate your colleagues by making them think that you never sleep.
  12. Do not check your email on holiday. At all, ever. If you can, don’t check it at the weekend or after you have stopped for the evening. Nothing else can clog up your head or make your stress levels spike so effectively.
  13. Pointless meetings. Much of what you are asked to do is apparently pointless. It is worth digging into these events a little more. Sometimes you are asked to do things because people fear you will be offended if you are not. Sometimes you are asked to do things because they want a symbolic gesture of support from your department, which is conveyed by your physical presence. Sometimes you need to be at something because, even though most of what happens there is irrelevant, there is an outside chance that someone will do something unintentionally stupid and it is your job to stop them. Find out if you can beforehand, and take some work with you.
  14. Pointless activities. You will also be ‘asked’ to perform administrative tasks which appear pointless. So will other members of your department. It is often worth attempting to defy these. Support departments are often poor at considering the time burden they place on academic departments. And since support departments sometimes take hierarchy seriously (academics virtually never do), a stern email from a HoD refusing to do something can sometimes prompt a retreat. Or sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do the pointless thing.
  15. You will often be treated as if you are the department. It is a little weird. You will be blamed for things that are in no way your fault, and you will be bathed in unearned glory. Let the former wash over you and take full credit for the latter.
  16. Stress and workload – your own, that is. If you are like me, you will discover that you are bad at noticing when you are stressed, until you find work problems invading your dreams or the like. This is a long race. Pace yourself.
  17. And … the last six months are the easiest. And the last two months easier still. You’re already half-way out the door, you’re a lame duck, and if you want you can amuse yourself by grasping a last few nettles so as to clear some ground for your successor. (Goodbye, photos in seminar room B!)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

JEH: 'If "nun", write 'none'"

The July issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History has been out for a couple of weeks now. Thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, it’s a bumper – no less than eight articles, something for everyone, but in particular a lot for those interested in the early modern English world, from England itself to Ireland and Bermuda.

As always, they’re all wonderful, but as always I’ll arbitrarily pick one to celebrate: the shortest article of them all, and the kind of wonderfully precise, surgical devastation that I have always envied but never managed to produce.

We all know about Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s divorce … what more could there possibly be to say about it? Well, John F. Hadwin has found something, and we won’t ever be able to tell the story in quite the same way again. When the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio arrived in England to try the case in 1528, he suggested that one solution would be if Katherine of Aragon decided to become a nun. She absolutely refused, but it’s become a regular part of the story – even picked up by Hilary Mantel – to observe that, if she’d been less unbudgeable on this point, the whole thing could have been solved very simply.

Well, turns out that’s not the case. Hadwin lays out clearly and effectively that a proposal to dissolve the marriage this way, while not actually legally impossible, was certainly more dubious than the straightforward route to an annulment that Henry and his allies were already pursuing. And if it had happened, it would not have given his new marriage anything like the clear legitimacy which he sought, nor would it have satisfied his, by now sincere, conviction that his marriage was sinful.
It may, even, have been a ruse by Campeggio to lure Henry into accepting the legitimacy of the pope’s dispensing power … though Hadwin doesn’t press that, and the evidence I think makes it no more than possible.
Still, if, like me, you’ve ever confidently said or written that the whole thing could have been solved if Katherine had only agreed to become a nun: no, it couldn’t have been. In the end, the king’s marriage was either legitimate or it wasn’t, and someone had to lose. Hats off to Hadwin for demonstrating this so lucidly and succinctly.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Historic formularies

Fresh from a great workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon celebrating the 30th anniversary of the late, lamented Pat Collinson’s lecture on so-called ‘iconophobia’ in Reformation England. Briefly, we all agreed that he was wrong, but that few of us could ever hope to be so interestingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong.

                Lovely contributions from a range of people – Helen Pierce on popular print and AngelaMcShane on a rich but virtually unknown seam of Puritan ballads stood out – but the oneI’m going to single out was from a young Swiss scholar named Antoinina Bevan Zlatar, who’s working on Milton but who spoke today about a Star Chamber case from 1632, in which one Henry Sherfield was tried for destroying a stained glass window containing several depictions of God the Father.

                The outcome was predictable enough – good order and decency trumped any Calvinist scruples about idolatry. William Laud, then bishop of London, was one of the judges, and commented that removing images from churches was ‘distasteful’ (Antoinina managed to convey his fastidious disdain wonderfully well).

                What struck me was the comment of another judge, Richard Neile, the archbishop of York and another ceremonial enthusiast. He considered the awkward fact that the Edwardian Homilies – an authoritative text for the early Stuart church – bluntly condemned images of this kind. Neile’s answer was to relativise them:

As for those divine Homilies … set forth in king Edward’s days, … we know the times did not bear them: nor are they to be taken or understood, as not to allow any manner of pictures or images (though it may seem so) of Christ upon the Cross; but it is like the forbearing of food for a time. … I say that for the crucifix, there may be a very good use made of it.

The image of food is beautifully provocative: linking the attacks on ‘popish’ images  to a ‘popish’ devotional practice which Puritans like Sherfield had made their own, and at the same time implying that images were an essential part of a normal Christian life, only abandoned for a while until England had recovered from an intemperate late-medieval bout of binge-idolatry.

Nowadays Anglican ministers have to do no more than nod towards the Church of England’s ‘historic formularies’ – the Prayer Book and Ordinal, the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles – leading some to mutter that this is indefensible relativism. Which perhaps it is. But it’s been going on for a long time.

Updated 7 July

Friday, 19 June 2015

Stars and bars behind bars?

An honest question, provoked by two news items from the US, one horrible and the other curious.

It's been widely reported that the alleged gunman from the Charleston church massacre had a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his car. At the same time, a closely-fought Supreme Court decision has held that the state of Texas may (as it wishes) refuse to issue licence plates with the Confederate flag on them, without infringing free speech.

Now I get that the Confederate flag is a very powerful symbol: it symbolises racism and white supremacy, but because it also symbolises more respectable causes - Southern identity, a certain wilful romanticism, affection for Gone with the Wind - it serves as a much more palatable wrapper for racism and white supremacy than, say, a swastika or the letters KKK would. For that reason, it's harder to marginalise and easier to defend, and therefore, a better vehicle for the racists and white-supremacists who want to use it. Hence the repeated disputes over it. Truly, I think I get that.

Here's what I don't get: that flag is also, very specifically, the symbol of the most serious armed rebellion the USA has ever faced, a rebellion which threatened the country's existence more gravely than any external threat since the War of Independence, and which incidentally cost the lives of more than half a million American citizens.

Now, OK, that was a while ago. But why isn't the display of that flag within the USA simply an act of treason?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Journal of Ecclesiastical History: vol. 66/2

Volume 66/2, the April 2015 number of JEH, has been out for a few weeks now, so I am sure you’ve all already read it. But for the laggards,  my I-hope-regular editor’s service underlining personal highlights.

Apologies as ever to those not mentioned: picking out individuals is unjust, but not doing so is dull, and that’s worse. So I’ve no space to talk about other highlights, such as Nazi church architecture, or the wonderfully entrepreneurial eighteenth-century English cleric John Trusler – who made a fine living publishing sermons which were printed to look handwritten, so that time-pressed clergy could take them into the pulpit and still look as if they were penning their own improving thoughts.
The eye-opener for me is Stewart J. Brown’s article, ‘W. T. Stead and the Civic Church, 1886-1895: the vision behind “If Christ Came to Chicago!”’, on the British journalist, social activist and idiosyncratic religious liberal, W. T. Stead. After a conversion experience in 1885, in which he heard a ‘distinct and clear’ voice calling him to ‘be no longer a Christian, be a Christ’, Stead began pushing for what he called a Civic Church. This would be an inter-faith public betterment and civic renewal project whose only membership qualification would be love for humanity. This is what he meant by ‘being a Christ’.
He was most famous for the 1894 pamphlet If Christ Came to Chicago, in which that shockingly modern and godless city was used to imagine just such a spiritual-social renewal, and which sold over 300,000 copies on both sides of the Atlantic. In it he wrote:

How we believe in Christ ... is shown not by what we say about Him, not by the temples which we build in His honour, nor by the hymns which we sing in His praise, but by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.

That’s a lovely polemical manoeuvre: to begin with a classic Protestant attack on formalism and hypocrisy, and then slip that radically novel idea of what it means to be a Christian into the end, almost beneath the radar.
It didn’t work, of course. Other social reformers disliked both the implicit totalitarianism of his vision and the religious terms in which it was still couched. And church establishments naturally, and correctly, concluded that this had virtually abandoned Christianity as normally understood. One liberal Presbyterian replied with a pamphlet titled ‘If Chicago came to Christ’.
So what? It means that the wonderfully idealistic, tragically self-defeating 1960s notion of ‘religionless Christianity’ was already at work a lifetime earlier, and suggests, again, how difficult it was and remains for the liberal Protestant project to stay anchored. But of course, Stead’s opponents look as unappealing and sectarian as he himself looks impractical and ideological. Protestantism has been trying to steer a way through that one for at least a century and a half now. Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Coalition jaundice

Now that the scale of the damage done on Thursday is sinking in, some less cheery reflections. The emerging consensus seems to be that the Lib Dems' decision to enter the coalition in 2010 was inherently suicidal - an act which Tories are calling noble, as they swipe the seats, and Labour are calling a betrayal, as they swipe some (but only a very few) of the votes. And the emerging lesson is: no small party should ever again enter a coalition.

I don't buy it. Partly because it wasn't a 'decision' in 2010 - the arithmetic made the decision to pursue a coalition inevitable, especially once the Tories had publicly offered it. But also because I think what destroyed the Lib Dems wasn't the coalition as such, but a series of specific mistakes made before and during it.

Easy to say now, of course, but I'm a historian and so am allowed to show 20/20 hindsight. The mistakes were, I think:

1. The biggie, the absolute king of them all: that recklessly stupid pledge on tuition fees before the 2010 election. It is one thing to say you are against them, but this pledge was ramped up higher than any I can ever remember, at least before the Labour pledge-gravestone of last week. It was very specific. Individual MPs and candidates individually swore that they would definitely vote against attempts to raise tuition fees. There were no let-out clauses or weasel words. The point is not so much that the reversal on that particular policy was unpopular. It was that it set the whole framework through which the country then saw the Lib Dems: they had apparently thrown away their single clearest pledge for a chance of power, or, hardly less damagingly, they were so feeble they couldn't defend their one key principle when their new Tory owners said no. I can see why they did it. For decades the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties had been in the habit of making airy pledges which they had little risk of having to implement, and this one was undoubtedly popular. But the damage it did and will, for a while, continue to do is unspeakable. Don't make unbreakable promises unless you are really willing to refuse to enter government rather than break them.

2. The determination to show that coalition could work. Again very understandable in 2010, but the Lib Dems felt it was peculiarly incumbent on them to demonstrate this. Hence, especially at the start, not pushing too hard on key issues. Like, for example, tuition fees. And therefore looking as if their main purpose was to keep the Tories in power.

3. Linked to this: my guess is that Nick Clegg's decision not to take on a government department was a mistake. Deputy PM is an invisible role, and too easily becomes seen as spokesman for / lapdog of the entire Tory-led government, rather than a distinct voice within it. If he'd been Home Secretary he'd have had a very bumpy ride - Home Secretaries always do - but he'd have had the chance to impress and would in any case have actually been doing things, and, amongst it all, would have been being attacked by Tories for much of what he was doing. Which would have helped.

4. A bad shopping list in 2010. I don't mean that what the Lib Dems actually did in coalition was bad. The tax-allowance thing was a brilliant wheeze, though the enthusiasm with which the Tories have nicked the idea is a little disheartening. The 'pupil premium', prioritising mental health, ending detention of underage migrants ... all excellent stuff. But all a bit second-order. The big-ticket items were voting reform and Lords reform, and both of them failed, in both cases essentially because only a minority favoured them and that wasn't enough. So they were left with nothing. Lesson: have at least one really big, clearly visible thing that will be an unmistakable contribution, and that doesn't depend on the outcome of a referendum.

5. No shopping list in 2015. Actually, I rather liked the 'give the Tories a heart or give Labour a head' angle, but it's a bit vague. What, specifically, would a government in coalition with the Lib Dems have had to do that it would otherwise not have had to do? The risk is that you are basically asking people to vote for a dose of centrist Establishment good sense, and that's quite a hard sell.

If they'd done all that ... well, they could plausibly have kept a hold of a many as half of the people who voted for them in 2010. And that would still have looked like a disaster and we'd be asking what went wrong.

Which also makes me think: it could, actually, have been worse. In first-past-the-post systems, especially with multiple parties, parties have been almost or wholly exterminated before (bye-bye, Canada's Progressive Conservatives in 1993). Eight MPs is obviously very bad but, hey, it's eight MPs. And the Scots Lib Dems held up much better against the SNP onslaught than Labour did, generally fighting their seats to a much closer finish. Perhaps the question is: given the experience of the last five years, how have we clung on to life at all?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reasons to be cheerful

As a paid-up Liberal Democrat, I am a little in need of these after the massacre in the UK general election last night. But as a paid-up Panglossian, I can find some.

1.       Nigel Farage failed to win his seat, and UKIP only won one.

2.       George Galloway lost his seat.

3.       The British National Party secured less than two thousand votes across the whole country.

4.       On all three of those counts: the far right remains as marginal in British politics as it ever has been. This is very, very good news and could easily have been different. It shows that the Tories are still fulfilling their historical purpose of squeezing out right-wing populism.

5.       Apparently the British political system isn’t broken after all. We seem to be back to something like two-party politics (in England and Wales, anyway), not the multi-party melange of recent commentary, and we are evidently still capable of translating a decent lead in votes into a workable governing majority.

6.       Therefore: the political prize remains the centre ground. With only a little luck, a post-Miliband and post-Balls Labour will now elect a leadership which is willing to make a serious bid for that centre ground, and no more 35% strategies.

7.       In which case, the new government will need to keep fighting for that same centre, and will not feel the need to pander to the right-wing threat. So, for example, we can reasonably hope that, like last time, the Chancellor will not cut at the rate he feels the need to claim that he will.

8.       The SNP result … ok, as a unionist I need to work this one a little harder for a good news angle, but here goes. First, this is undoubtedly the SNP’s high-water mark: only one way to go from here. Second, the scale of the result is such that the Tories do seem so far to be taking seriously the crisis of legitimacy that this gives them north of the Border. Conceivably they will do something courageous about it.

9.       The EU referendum which is now coming: again this is a bit scary. But: (a) It would probably have to happen sooner or later anyway. (b) With UKIP a busted flush, it looks a bit more winnable than yesterday. Maybe this is the time to do it.

10.   And whatever the result of the referendum, it will finish UKIP, who would be as undone by a ‘out’ vote as by an ‘in’ one.

11.   And liberalism? Well, I suppose the likeliest path is that in a post-UKIP world the Lib Dems rebuild as a party of protest once again, which is a little depressing – especially as it turns out so many ex-Lib Dem voters have gone to UKIP. Alternatively, the Tories are tugged in a Borisite-modernising direction and become the old Liberal party in all but name, and Labour embrace the centre and become the SDP in all but name. But perhaps now my sleep-deprivation is catching up with me.

PS. One more ... Now we have a government which, unlike its predecessor, doesn't have a built-in House of Lords majority. It will, therefore, be harder for them to get away with doing stupid stuff.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Against Noah

Who could dislike the Noah story (leaving aside the merciless genocide aspect for a moment)? Every child is brought up on it, toys and books galore reference it, it's a reference-point so widely shared as to be endlessly retold, whether in affectionate and moving earnest (as in Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey's lovely The Log of the Ark, now sadly out of print) or in satirical parody (as in Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). Even the Darren Aronofsky movie Noah was much, much better than we had any right to expect, and had the nerve to include the drunken, naked Noah bit at the end, though mercifully it never pretended to be anything more than hokum.

Well, sparked by his being in the lectionary today, here's my beef with Noah, and indeed with Adam and Eve, his only rivals for Sunday school and children's Bible stardom. When children are introduced to the Bible, it is to a remarkable extent through these two stories, possibly merely because they both have lots of animals in them. 

Then children grow up a little bit, and, especially if they really are interested in animals and the natural world, they discover that these stories are not literally true. So naturally, they conclude that the rest of what they are told in Sunday school  is probably also made up.

I'm not actually making a point about evolution or the historicity of the Noah story. True, I do strongly disagree with the Biblical-literalist approach here, but that's beside the point. If you are a literal, young-earth six-day creationist, you should also avoid teaching these stories too much to small children,  because they will quickly discover that they are, shall we say, controversial. To give anyone the impression that these stories are the fundamentals of the faith is, almost literally, to put a stumbling-block in children's paths.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Tyndale code

It's not often that the English Reformation manages a bona fide news story, and admittedly this one isn't a front-page lead, but it's exciting enough in its own way.

A manuscript has surfaced, from an as yet undisclosed source, of an English translation of Erasmus' devotional manual the Enchiridion militis christiani ('Handbook of a Christian Soldier'). The book's significant enough in its own right: this was probably the most influential devotional text of the early sixteenth century, a bestseller amongst Protestants and Catholics alike.

What makes it more tantalising, as the publicity around the export ban claims, is that we know that the Biblical translator William Tyndale made an English translation of the Enchiridion early in his career, in the early 1520s. But no authenticated copy of that translation has ever been found.

The only previously known English translation of the Enchiridion was published in 1533 and 1534 (slightly variant versions). The translator is anonymous. So it has long been tempting to put two and two together and guess that this was Tyndale's work (no English printer would have dared put that name on a book at that date). But there's very little evidence to support it. Anne O'Donnell's scrupulously careful edition of the 1533-4 text for the Early English Text Society, published in 1981, marshalls an impressive array of circumstancial evidence to test whether there was any link, and - despite clearly hoping that she'd find one - didn't come up with much. In particular, there is not much common ground between the translations of Biblical material in the 1533/34 Enchiridions and in Tyndale's own Biblical translations. (His Biblical work was done after the putative Enchiridion translation, so that's not a decisive argument, but it's indicative.) So since then, the Tyndale Enchiridion has seemed like a dead end.

This new manuscript doesn't solve the mystery by any means. But it certainly reopens it. The full text hasn't been published yet, just the first page:
Now when we compare that to the same section of the 1533 translation, we can see it's almost but not quite identical. Far too similar to be a coincidence, but the differences aren't simple copying errors. The insertion of 'of' in the first line might be, but in lines 4-5, for example, where this text has 'thow myghtest atteyn knowlege mete for a trew Cristen man', the 1533-4 text has 'thou myghtest attayne a vertuous mynde, accordyng to a true chrysten man'.

So what's going on? Well, hard to say until we've got the whole text published, and until the codicologists have had a proper stab at dating the thing. But it would be perfectly plausible for this to be an earlier version of the text later revised and printed in 1533/4. And since Tyndale remains the only known early translator of the Enchiridion ... well, on the face of it there is certainly something going on here, some new wrinkle in the textual history of the English translation, and it is entirely possible that Tyndale is somewhere in the mix.

If anyone has £242,500 burning a hole in their pockets and would like to buy it, that would be nice.

UPDATE: I'm told by Andrew Hope, who's examined the actual MS, that it's dated to 1523. And he reminds me that the source which describes Tyndale's production of the translation - in, pretty much, that year - also tells us that multiple fair copies were produced, in an attempt to seek patronage. (He also tells me the MS came from the duke of Northumberland's library, but since we don't know how it got there that doesn't help very much with provenance.) It starts to look genuinely plausible that this is the real thing.