Can only Protestants celebrate the Reformation?

Should anyone celebrate the Reformation?

In recent blogs, I have commented on other revolutions that happened, or almost happened, at this time of year: the Russian Revolution and the Gunpowder Plot. I have mentioned that the 31st October 2017 was the fifth centenary of the Reformation. OK it did not happen all on one day. But that is the day when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (propositions, really) to the door of his parish church at Wittenburg in Saxony (now part of Germany). That set the ball rolling. It was the beginning of Protestantism and centuries of conflict between denominations. Surely, you have to take a one-sided view of history to celebrate that? Weren’t people better off when they were all members of the same church?

A preacher proclaiming the Reformation.
A preacher proclaiming the Reformation.
All Protestants should celebrate the Reformation

Not just extremists. Until the Reformation, you had to at least pretend to believe what the Church, i.e. the Pope, told you to. Yes, I know there were debates within the Church, but the papal authorities decided how far you could go before being burned as a heretic. They did not permit alternative approaches to any aspect of religion. None of our Protestant or non-denominational churches would have existed. The Church would have suppressed views within the Church that were not mainstream.

Humanists should celebrate the Reformation

I know Protestant governments, including the British, often oppressed dissident views. However, once the reformers broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly, they did not replace it with a Protestant monopoly. The idea of pluralism was there. If people could read the Bible for themselves, because it was in everyday English (or German or whatever) they could form their own views as to what it meant. This had implications beyond religion. It opened up the possibility of thinking for yourself generally.

Faith and doubt must coexist
Faith and doubt must coexist
Democrats should celebrate the Reformation

The mediaeval world was hierarchical. The structure of the Church was similar to that of Society: the Pope at the top, then the bishops, next the priests, lastly the laity. Just like the King at the top, then the nobility, next the gentry, lastly the peasants. Those in authority liked it that way. Breaking the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had implications for the secular hierarchy. In the short term it put more power into the hands of kings. Henry  VIII comes to mind. But in the long run it worked in the opposite direction. If church leaders were answerable to their congregations and not just to God, then kings had no divine right either. It is not a coincidence that puritans, parliamentarians, egalitarians and the middle classes were all on the same side in the English Civil War, against royalists, catholics and the aristocracy.

Roman Catholics should celebrate the Reformation!

This probably sounds a bit odd, but think about it. There were a lot of people in 1517 who wanted to see the Church reformed. They knew the World was changing and the Middle Ages couldn’t go on for ever. However, the system was just too slow and cumbersome to respond. Popes couldn’t get much done. Even the ones who wanted to. The Reformation changed that. It gave impetus to the Catholic Reformation, also called the Counter-Reformation. The process has continued. Thank God for the Second Vatican Council. And for Pope John Paul (I and II). It still continues.

Apply the counterfactual history approach to the Reformation

What? I mean, ask yourself what the World and the Church would be like if Luther had kept quiet.

  • Could we still be in the Middle Ages?
  • Would kings have clashed with the Church and imposed reform or just undermined it?
  • Would there have been more revolutions?

I think you will find lots of reasons to celebrate the Reformation, whoever you are.

Twitter has changed but do I want to write longer tweets?

What’s Twitter changed?

Everyone seems to have a view about the recent change in Twitter’s limit on the number of characters you can use from 140 to 280. Up to now, I have just accepted the 140 rule and worked within it. Now I need to think whether I want to write longer tweets. I have written before about the kinds of words people think I should use and not use, when writing my books. More recently I have written about the kind of language people expect.   Is any of that relevant to my tweets? Or my blogs?

A quill pen - the forerunner of Twitter
A quill pen – the forerunner of Twitter
What is Twitter for?

I use Twitter in a different way from my blog, and my writing is different again in my books. I hope you have noticed, but I also hope something constant is there in everything I write. Writers call it their voice.

I consider different media to be appropriate for different types of messages, just as there are different types of conversation in the real world.

  • If I see someone I know in the street when one of us is going somewhere and we don’t want to stop, I might say ‘hello’ or ‘all right?’ or just wave, or I might make a quick comment on the weather or something that doesn’t require a reply. That’s like a 140 character tweet.
  • If we want a longer chat, we’ll stop for a few minutes. That’s like an e-mail.
  • If we want a more in-depth discussion, we’ll go into a cafe, or if it’s a nice day sit on a bench, and talk things over. That’s like a blog.
  • If we want to go into something in real depth, we might have a proper business meeting, or get together for an evening. That’s like the start of a book.

What will longer tweets do for me except allow me to be more verbose?

Before Twitter we wrote as much as we wanted, like this monk
Before Twitter we wrote as much as we wanted, like this monk
Is Twitter trying to address one of today’s social problems?

Some people say that the Internet has contributed to intolerance and polarisation of views. One reason for that may be the anonymity it provides, making it easier to say offensive things than when meeting face to face, on the phone or writing letters. Internet trolls have a lot in common with anonymous phonecallers or poison-pen writers.

It has also been said that the need for brevity on Twitter discourages expressing yourself in a balanced way, explaining ideas fully, showing you appreciate the other side of the argument. It makes for soundbites. Glib opinions. Oversimplification. Taking sides.

Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is never pure and seldom simple.”

Will people be more polite and thoughtful when using 289 characters than they were when confined to 140? Will ideas be better examined? Time will tell. Let’s wish them luck.

Should we celebrate the Russian Revolution?

Is this the season of revolutions?

I have recently written something about that failed revolution, the Gunpowder Plot.  I will say something more about it soon. There are at least two more revolutions to commemorate at this time of year. I mean, the end of October. Sorry I’m a bit late! You might think of the Reformation as a revolution in many ways. Its 500th anniversary was on the 31st October this year, in case you missed it, as I did. I will write about that before long. Better late than never, I hope.

What about the other revolution?

Yes. I’m talking about the October Revolution, when the Communists took over Russia in 1917 by “storming” the Winter Palace. Communists still regard this as a great achievement. There are others who see it as a disaster. Before expressing a view on that, I must point out that the fall of the Winter Palace was far less dramatic than you might believe. It was not well defended and it fell with little bloodshed when a handful of Lenin’s supporters broke in. Fake news is not new. The real bloodbaths came later.

Am I booing or cheering for the Russian Revolution?

For a long time, I thought the anti-communist rhetoric poured out by a lot of British and American politicians was a bit unfair. They tended to compare the Soviet Union with western democracies. They rightly pointed out that the standard of living was higher in the West than in the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe and Russia. That was after they stopped going on about democracy and human rights, but usually before opposing the Human Rights Act as “political correctness gone mad”.

A speaker promoting revolution?
A speaker promoting revolution?
What was unfair about that comparison?

In 1917 Russia was not a liberal democracy. Neither was it a capitalist country. It was a feudal autocracy. The tsars ruled through the nobility, who were implacably opposed to any move towards democracy or equality. As for the economy, it was similar to Britain in the Middle Ages only less efficient. Therefore, the vast majority of Russians probably were better off as a result of the Revolution. At least in material terms. As for democracy and human rights: most of them really did have “nothing to lose but their chains”.

How many revolutions did they have?

The thing I overlooked for a long time was that the October Revolution was the second one in Russia in 1917!   The earlier one had removed the Tsar and had been relatively bloodless. It had resulted in a moderate socialist government led by Alexander Kerensky. He had tried to lead the country towards a political and economic system similar to those of most West European countries. We will never know if it would have succeeded. That government, not the tsarist one, fell as a result of the October Revolution.

Which Russian Revolution will you celebrate?

Who thought the executions of Guy Fawkes’ comrades were not horrific?

Executions cause controversy – shock!

The executions enacted in the first episode of the new BBC series Gunpowder have attracted a good deal of adverse criticism. This comes despite warnings that the episode contained scenes that some people would find upsetting. They were too realistic and shocking. In case you don’t know, they showed a man being hanged, drawn and quartered and a woman being crushed under a door on which the executioner laid a series of heavy weights.

Were executions like that in those days?

Yes! The usual punishment for various crimes, including treason, was hanging, drawing and quartering. However, if you were an aristocrat you would be entitled to a beheading, or ‘decapitation’, as they now say. The punishment of being pressed under a door applied to those who refused to enter a plea and thus could not be tried. For centuries, both types of execution had been in use: they were not innovations in the reign of King James I. They really were horrific. They were meant to be.

Why did we use such forms of execution?

People at the time probably regarded hanging, drawing and quartering as a deterrent and an appropriate response to the seriousness of the crime.  Pressing under a door took effect slowly. That way the victim had a chance to opt to enter a plea at any stage and submit to a trial. Those in charge would then stop the proceedings.

Why invite such an execution rather than go to trial?

If you were found guilty of certain crimes, including treason,  the Crown would confiscate all your property. Your family might then have no source of income. In those days, there was no social security. You relied on your accumulated wealth or the generosity of friends and family. If you did not plead, you could not be tried. Therefore, your relatives would inherit your property, as if you had died in any other way. If you were a wealthy person with a lot of dependents, you would probably opt for a trial only if you were pretty confident you would be found Not Guilty.

Were the executions relevant to the story?

Yes! It is easy to condemn the plotters, but we need to see their actions in context. That is what this series is about. It shows Catesby as a hothead from the start, but these executions were the last straw for him. We had to see the full horror to understand his reaction. You may not condone his actions, but you might empathise better. If we just heard someone announce the executions, we would not have been able to relate to Catesby to the same extent. You might still say that two wrongs do not make a right. That’s your choice.

I commented on the relevance of Guy Fawkes to Highwaypersons previously.

I may write again about Gunpowder, before 5th November.

 

 

How can a historical novel ever be a bestseller?

How to write a historical bestseller?

People say that a key feature of a bestseller is that it must be written in short sentences in modern colloquial English. (Unless you are writing in French or something, I suppose.) Of course, you want your readers to be able to read it without having to open a dictionary every few minutes. However, in the case of historical novels, can they not sound too modern? I raised this in an article I wrote some time ago about the language in Highwaypersons and previously I asked about the kind of words I am allowed to use, but I feel I need to think again, if I ever hope to write a bestseller.

A historical novelist writing an early bestseller
A historical novelist writing an early bestseller
What about a modern bestseller?

I am also concerned that, even choosing novels set in the present, some readers might like to get away from modern colloquial English. They might want to feel authors are preserving at least some of the language. Not pickling in aspic, but not so modernising as to lose all sense of our linguistic heritage. (There’s a couple of posh words, for a start!)

A quill pen: the tool of the bestseller writer of the past
A quill pen: the tool of the bestseller writer of the past
How conservative am I?

I want to see progress in many aspects of life. Innovation is good, where it actually makes life better for people. Reform is overdue in many institutions. But I do not want to lose touch with our past, whether in architecture, traditions or our language.

Have I read a modern bestseller?

People used to tell me to read a lot, because that would improve my writing, and perhaps even my speech. Is that advice out-dated now? Fortunately, I have read the occasional modern bestseller that was well-written as well as having a good story, so all is not lost. Yet!

I would love to hear what you think. 

Must we repeat the mistakes of the past?

Repeat performance.

One comment I have received for my post can we learn lessons from history is that we should but we never do. We keep repeating our mistakes. I remember the words of  David Steele, at the time the leader of the Liberal Party, speaking about Mrs Thatcher’s dealings with Northern Ireland. David, himself a Scot, said:

the trouble with the English is that they never remember, and the trouble with the Irish is that they never forget‘.

He was, sadly, right, at least in that context. We repeated the mistakes of the past for another decade.

A Scot reminded us of past mistakes
The saltire of Scotland, St Andrew’s cross
Whose side am I on?

I know the Monmouth motto, ‘utrique fidelis’ meaning ‘loyal to both‘, refers to England and Wales, but I would like it to apply to England and Ireland too. Does loving the one mean being disloyal to the other?

Monmouth was loyal to both
The Former Arms of the City of Monmouth
Back to the mistakes of the 1930’s ?

I am concerned that today a lot of countries are making the mistakes made in the 1930’s again, austerity and nationalism being the most obvious.  Has nobody heard of J M Keynes? And as to nationalism, in the present age, I would have thought international cooperation was more, not less, essential than in the 1930’s.

How do you look at it?

Even if Brexit is inevitable, conducting the negotiations via the tabloids, seeing every warning or criticism from the EU as a threat and treating it as a win-lose situation, rather than aiming for a win-win, cannot be good for anyone in the long run.

Even if better control of immigration is necessary, let us avoid blaming immigrants for all our problems.

This is a time when we really need to learn the lessons of history and not repeat its mistakes.

Review of Ranters’ Wharf – by Rosemary Noble

Here are my thoughts on Ranters Wharf, which I have recently read. I hope some of you will find them interesting. For the first time, I learned what ‘ranters’ were, as I will explain later.

What is it about?

This is an unusual book, a mixture of fact and fiction, which tells the story of one man and his son, in a semi-biographical form, covering the period from the late Eighteenth to the mid Nineteenth Century. It is set mainly in the Lincolnshire Wolds and the town of Grimsby, places seldom visited by novelists. The book looks at the economic, social, religious and political challenges of the period through the eyes of the main characters. They experience external and internal conflicts as they try to reconcile personal ambition, family loyalty, Christian faith and political activism. They do not find easy answers.

What is Ranters Wharf like?

This is not a book for readers who like their history to be romantic and comforting. Poverty and social injustice, in both town and countryside, are always in the background, when not in the foreground. The period detail is fascinating, but without over long descriptions or intrusive pedantry. The historical notes at the end helped sift fact from fiction, but this is no history textbook: the characters and situations are real and engaging,  even the minor characters. Some of the incidents are quite moving.

What did I not like about it?

Inevitably, as being true to history, the story tended to be rather depressing. Perhaps the author could have created a little more ‘light and shade’, without losing the book’s sense of reality. A little more humour would also have helped.

I found it a bit slow to develop a theme. For several chapters at the beginning, I was looking for the plot. It began to take shape only when the main character encountered the Primitive Methodists, a group of which I knew little before reading this book.

Who were the ranters?

People used to call certain kinds of preachers ‘ranters’, because they were people who ranted, i.e. shouted their views. It was a derogatory term. The author appears to have had some personal experience of lively nonconformist Christianity. The book reminds us that not all preachers in those days were either naïve or hypocrites, and that not all expressions of the Christian faith have opposed social and political change.

Is this preacher a ranter?
Is this preacher a ranter?
What about the way it was written?

The language and style seemed appropriate for the period: easily readable, but not irritatingly modern.

What is my general opinion of Ranters’ Wharf?

Overall, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking. A good antidote to the Merrie England type of historical novel.

Some of the most unlikely events are actually drawn from real life. You couldn’t make them up.

Can we learn lessons from history?

What could we learn from Donald Trump?

I recently said that I agreed with Donald Trump (!) that we should not try to rewrite history but study it and learn from it. I went on to say that history teaches us of the dangers of extremism and racism.

Do I need to illustrate that?

I have seen an interesting and moving account of the Partition of India, presented very sensitively by Anita Rani. It showed the terrible effects of mob violence based on religious divisions. It seems to have been mostly spontaneous, unlike the planned genocide conducted by the Nazis just a few years before, but the results were similar. At least a million deaths.

What about the present?

My previous blog,Beautiful statues? Must we be slaves to the past? Could Trump be right? was prompted by the violence in Charlottesville, but many nationalists in Europe and some of our own Brexiters have been exploiting intolerance. It is all too similar to the way things began in the 1930’s. Then there’s ISIS. If Islamic extremism is evil, as we (almost) all agree, let us not react against it with its mirror image. That is what everyone seems to have done in India in 1947. Fortunately, not quite everyone. There were some beautiful examples of courage on all sides: helping victims and trying to bring people together. Learn from them!

Will India learn?

The present government in India seems determined to encourage Hindu nationalism at the expense of all that country’s minorities.

Listen to Mr Gandhi, or even (in this respect) Donald Trump, or just look at history and learn before it’s too late.

Learn the lesson or follow a demagogue?
Is this a demagogue or a warning from history?

Beautiful statues? Must we be slaves to the past? Could Trump be right?

How controversial can statues be?

The terrible events in Charlottesville seem to have originated in a decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee: to some a Confederate and local hero, whilst to others a symbol of white supremacy and the defence of slavery. In many places in the USA, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed recently as they are offensive to many people and considered as reminders of a painful period in American history – some say actually symbols of racism. The same is true of the Confederate flag, ‘the Stars and Bars’.

In Britain we have had a similar argument over a statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes, a controversial figure in his own time and still today. An imperialist, blamed for, and certainly involved in, the British take-over of much of Southern Africa. There has also been a move to rename the Colston Hall in Bristol, as Mr Colston, although in many ways a philanthropist, made most of his money out of the slave trade, possibly being unaware of the real horrors of that trade.

What about statues of Robert E Lee?

It is ironic that Lee in particular should be the centre of so much of this controversy. He was not personally in favour of slavery, or of secession. That is why it was not so ridiculous that Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. He said he refused it because his first loyalty was to his ‘country’ – meaning Virginia.

Lee wrote in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

Most of us today would find a lot of that unacceptable, but it is far from the most robust defence of slavery or white supremacy I have ever read. Lee is not a good choice to be the personification of racism.

What about Donald Trump? In what way could he be right? About statues at least?

(A concept many people find hard to imagine!)

He said ‘we should not try to rewrite history but learn from it‘. If you reject everything else he ever said, as you might, you should think about this. Of course, the lessons of history tell us to beware of extremism, to reject white supremacy, and to respect human rights. I love history. Let’s not rewrite it. But let’s not be slaves to it. Rather, let’s look hard at it and learn. I wrote about the lessons of history in my blog “Would Brexiters or Remainers have preferred the Eighteenth Century?”   You may see its relevance now.

What about my writing? Does slavery come into it?

In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, which I hope to publish soon, Billy and Bethan have several encounters with the slave trade, of which they initially know hardly anything. Their reaction to what they learn has a big impact on them and on the story. You may find some surprises, as they do.

Forget statues, what about the present?

I am concerned we can get too obsessed with the statues and symbols of the past and forget the very present evil of racism. Then there’s slavery. It still goes on. At least the British authorities are now aware of it and taking action. Let’s put an end to it. And let’s act against discrimination, show respect for all people. TODAY.

Don't be two-faced about racialism - it's not all about statues
Don’t be two-faced about racialism – it’s not all about statues

So why did horses never favour rebellious peasants?

I have previously written about one reason for the failure of peasants’ revolts of all kinds down the ages. It was the use of cavalry by the ruling classes. See So why did horses never favour the peasants.  In that blog, I raised the question of why the peasants never fought fire with fire, using borrowed or stolen horses.

This is my theory.

When horses were the main form of transport, many people probably rode from one village to the next. Few would have needed to learn anything at all advanced. Most beginners find it is relatively easy to ride a horse at a walk, although a trot can be quite uncomfortable until you get used to it. A canter is often easier – until the horse stops or turns!

People would have found a real difference between basic riding and the more advanced stuff, if they rode in a battle, even in a skirmish. Sharp turns at speed are difficult. In everyday situations, you would probably be going in straight lines, or something like, most of the time. In battle, manoeverability is usually everything.

It was the way horses moved!

The reason horses were so unhelpful to the peasants is a result of their way of moving. At a trot, a horse moves diagonally opposite feet together: left fore and right hind, and vice versa. At a canter, one diagonal pair breaks up, making a three-time rhythm: lead foreleg, diagonal pair, other hindleg. On a circle or a bend the animal will keep its balance best if its lead foreleg is the one on the inside of the circle. To ride a figure of eight, you should change the lead, and hence the pattern of the other legs, in the middle. This may sound a bit sophisticated, but wild horses often change leads when cantering round bends or zig-zags, although many have a favourite lead, like being right or left handed.

In the past, most people might not have fully understood all this, but you can get the practice right without understanding the theory. Any professional cavalryman would know how and when to ride a change of lead. A peasant would not.

How important is this?

If you try to make a horse do a sharp turn on the wrong lead, there are several ways it might respond:

  • ignore the stupid instruction
  • make a very wide, gradual turn
  • drop down to a trot (this can be most unseating if you are not expecting it)
  • try to change leads and stumble or even fall (I have known this to happen)
  • do a neat change (if it is an experienced, agile horse)

You can guess that you would not like any but the last option. You could find even the last a bit unseating if you were not prepared. If you are wearing any sort of armour and carrying weapons you are top heavy and more likely to fall off or cause the horse to stumble. In battle, any mistakes can be fatal. You do not want to be fumbling.

I believe this explains, at least in part, why a handful of trained cavalrymen could usually defeat a lot of revolting peasants. Don’t blame the horses!

A Horse's Shoe - horses were unlucky for some
Horseshoe – horses were unlucky for some!