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Lawyer wins his crown

24 October 2011

But no hero-worship of More here, says Euan Cameron


The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More
George M. Logan
Cambridge University Press £55 (hbk), £18.99 (pbk)
(978-0-521-88862-2 hbk)
(978-0-521-71687-1 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £49.50, £17.10

THE series Cambridge Companions to Religion introduces modern debates and dialogues about themes or figures in religious history through multi-author compilations. This volume on Thomas More (1478-1535) presents its subject in two main sections. A series of chapters cover each stage of his life; those are followed by literary and intellectual analysis of certain key works, each from different periods of his career.

More rose as a successful lawyer through the professional ranks of London society in the early 1500s. He acquired a taste for elegant humanist Latin literature, shared liberally with (especially) his daughter Margaret. He wrote Utopia, a bewildering jeu-d’esprit about an imaginary island of people living philosophically in a rationally regulated society, which gave English its byword for an artificially imagined perfect community.

When the Reformation broke over Europe, More emerged as not just a conscientious Catholic, but a zealous defender of orthodoxy and active persecutor of heretics. Almost uniquely for a Catholic layman, More was licensed to read heretical literature to refute it. He wrote vast and infinitely tedious polemics against William Tyndale, the brilliant early Lutheran Reformer. He participated in a handful of heresy trials. He then refused to swear to Henry VIII’s title as Supreme Head of the Church. The king who had stretched “treasonable words” could not abide treasonable silence: More was condemned on probably perjured evidence. He was canonised in 1935.

The first part of the Companion, on More’s life, poses few problems except for slight overlap between early chapters on his education (Caroline Barron), his humanist scholarship (James McConica), and his rhetoric (Elizabeth McCutcheon). Cathy Curtis’s lucid chapter on More’s public life rather pulls its punches over whether More was a factional infighter or an aloof, principled individualist. Richard Rex contributes a skilfully apologetic review of More’s part in persecuting heretics. More upheld the law as it stood, and defended social order as well as right faith. His behaviour was not psychopathy or mental disease. Peter Marshall’s discussion of the last years offers a perfect model of balance.

In the second part, contributors learnedly discuss Utopia (Dominic Baker-Smith), Richard the Third (George M. Logan), A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (Eamon Duffy), A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (Andrew W. Taylor), and De Tristitia Christi (Katherine Gardner Rogers).

Baker-Smith’s chapter on Utopia walks the reader through the text. It emphasises that the text is a dialogue: Utopia draws on a well-established classical tradition of irony and ambiguity; so one ought not to seek anxiously for one single definitive “meaning”. Logan’s piece on the life of Richard III shows how More laid the grounds for Shakespeare’s notoriously negative portrait.

Duffy describes the outcomes of the English Reformation as “testimony to prescience of the political masterpiece in which [More] had predicted [it]”. Duffy does not confront what could be seen as ecclesiological naïvety on More’s part, his assumption that the Church must simply equate to the “common known multitude”. Many educated theologians would have allowed that the relationship between visible and ideal Churches was problematic — but not More. His lay Catholicism allowed him to be absolute and certain where a trained mind might have been more cautious.

The chapters on More’s later works show how these had a public voice, too. In the single somewhat diffuse chapter on “afterlives” in the third part, Anne Lake Prescott draws interesting lines of descent from More’s work. Interestingly, she shows how little he was appreciated by pre-Oxford Movement An­glicans.

Overall, this work gives a sympathetic and generally readable introduction to the world of More scholarship. Its best features consist in what it avoids. It avoids the hagiography and hero-worship of More’s enthusiastic devotees; it also distances itself from the condescending psychohistory of some of his detractors. And it shows that More had a sense of humour.

Dr Euan Cameron is Academic Dean and Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

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