THE Reformation - dontcha just hate it? The older I get, the
more convinced I become that in throwing out the bath water of
late-medieval doctrinal error, untold babies of basic Christian
living were similarly jettisoned.
Strong evidence to support my position was entertainingly
adduced by Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas Special
(BBC2, Tuesday of last week). Here we saw an everyday story of
countryfolk towards the end of Henry VII's reign, where the
teachings and rituals of the Church permeated every aspect of their
lives. Yet these were not a priest-ridden people, desperate to
throw off the shackles of Rome: they appeared to find the practice
of their faith challenging and nurturing.
Of course, this is a somewhat optimistic portrayal: no one died
of the plague or starvation; no magnate harried the village,
burning crops and slaughtering livestock. But the idea that
medieval life held any pleasures at all for relatively ordinary
people; that their food and drink could be tasty and nutritious;
that their monastic overlords were not rapacious hypocrites but
partners providing learning, charity, and art is so
counter-cultural that I am happy to put aside my irritation with
the over-enthusiastic presenters and wish them "God speed".
An earlier interface between the everyday and the sacred was
explored in Sacred Wonders of Britain (BBC2, Monday of
last week). The presenter, Neil Oliver, started his narrative in
13,000 BC, at Creswell Crags, whose palaeolithic cave art is our
island's earliest site-specific record of religious activity, the
depictions of their prey surely offering some animistic engagement
with the creatures themselves, conjuring their spirits out of the
stone to ensure a favourable hunt.
Neolithic long barrows are now thought to be memorials to great
halls previously erected on the site: places of ritual congregation
and feasting that later become the dwelling places of the ancestors
-rather like, as he said, church hall and church combined.
Oliver is seeking to discover what confers a spiritual presence
that survives long after the long since faded. I am sceptical about
all this - I think we are too goodat finding "spiritual presence"
in the kind of places where we have been primed to expect it. But,
overall, this series has made an admirable start.
For most people, it is only a short step from the spiritual to
the spooky, and The Thirteenth Tale (BBC2, Monday of last
week) was about as classy a tale of mystery, hauntings, and sudden
death as we are likely to see for some time.
Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman gave brilliant performances:
two writers, one dying of cancer, feeling that the time has finally
come to tell her own story; the other, engaged as reluctant
amanuensis, uncertain how much she wanted to be drawn into someone
The themes of truth and fiction were explored with masterly
atmosphere and depth - until the plot twist near the end, after
which it fell to pieces. The final effect was one of clotted
congestion rather then the disturbing, open-ended question with
which all the best ghost stories should leave us.