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Angle on turbulent priest

21 May 2012

G. R. Evans has her reservations about a rattling good yarn

Making of a martyr: Becket’s murder, as depicted in Cotton MS, Claudius B. II, f.341. An illustration from John Guy’s book. BRITISH LIBRARY/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

Making of a martyr: Becket’s murder, as depicted in Cotton MS, Claudius B. II, f.341. An illustration from John Guy’s book. BRITISH LIBRARY/TH...

HERE is a modern “life” of Thomas Becket, who studied in the “schools” at Paris, entered the ecclesiastical “civil service”, and rose to the episcopate in a familiar career pattern of the 12th century. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he fell out with his royal friend and patron Henry II, and was eventually and famously “martyred” by assassination in Canterbury Cathedral. His martyrdom prompted the writing of a number of contemporary “lives”, which were as much hagiography as political biography or memoir, and sometimes included descriptions of posthumous miracles that he had wrought. The idea was to get him canonised, which would (and did) bring in substantial income for the cathedral from pilgrim-tourists visiting the site of his martyrdom.

It is difficult to know how best to review this book. As a rattling good yarn, with careful if somewhat cosy explanations of the domestic and day-to-day reality of what it was like to live in the 12th century, it deserves high praise. The question is whether that is the most appropriate “new book on Becket” to offer. It may help the newcomer to the story to get the picture. But the picture is complex, and has subtleties that cannot be conveyed in a narrative full of confident certainties of interpretation. This is a Channel 4- documentary sort of book, and any historian who has been asked for expert help in planning such a programme knows how difficult it is to insist on a rendering that does not give way to over-excited emphasis on one aspect of a “story” angled for maximum “media” appeal.

Is this a wasted opportunity? In the 20th and 21st century, a number of attempts have been made to write Becket’s life, or to discuss the furore that the episode prompted, from the more considered point of view of the modern historiographer who has no such agenda. The problem is that we have little or no direct access to Becket’s interior intellectual or spiritual life. “Becket felt,” we read here. Did he? We scarcely know.

We do, however, have plenty of evidence about the tough talking and hard thinking of the intel­lectuals, academics, and canon lawyers who debated the implica­tions of the contemporary battle for supremacy between Church and state of which this episode formed a part. One of the most important attempts to set the whole affair in the context of the constructions that were put on it at the time is Beryl Smalley’s The Becket Conflict and the Schools (1973), which looked with great sophistication at the “role of intellectuals in politics”.

This dimension, or that of controversies over the place of the Church in that European society, where a bishop was also a baron, does not emerge in this account as fully as this author was capable of ensuring that it did.

Writing accessibly is not incompatible with writing stylishly. There are clichés that could have been avoided. Given an idea, all Becket “had to do was to pick it up and run with it”. On occasion, “Thomas decided to hit back.” We read of “Henry’s punishing schedule”. This is a book written by a scholar who has manifestly done his research, but there are neither footnote nor endnote references to the sources that underpin it, only a chapter-by-chapter summary of the texts used and where to find them.

It is to be hoped that readers will, and that anyone seriously interested in this “story retold” will go back the sources.

Dr G. R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

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