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.