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Is it OK to name universities after Thomas More?

July 6, 2014

holbein

Is it OK to name universities after Thomas More?

480n years ago today in 1535, Thomas More was abbreviated on Tower Hill. Regarded by some as a saint and a martyr and by others as a sadistic bigot, he polarises historical discussion of the Tudor period. For many of us, our introduction to More came with Robert Bolt’s clumsy and wrong play A Man For All Seasons, which became an Oscar winning movie starring Paul Schofield.  Then came Hilary Mantel and the bad guys sort of became good guys and vice versa.  The TV adaptation amplified the argument further.  While Scofield’s More was slim and sympathetic (like Holbein’s), Anton Lesser’s portrayal (Lesser is More ha ha ha), was skeletal and chilling.
Then there is that painting by Hans Holbein. Holbein was light years ahead of anyone else painting in England at the time. Anybody who is painted by Holbein just looks better than anyone who isn’t. Anybody who is painted by Holbein looks more like a modern – looks like a sympathetic creature of flesh and blood – one of our own trapped in two dimensional age of stiff robotic archetypes. Wander through the National Portrait Gallery in London and you will be drawn to More, want to cling to him even.

Holbein and Schofield have done wonders for More. Things just sound right when Paul Schofield says them, which is why I found it rather traumatic to have my vision of a calm and principled man threatened in later life by troubling historical evidence.
It is true that More died for his beliefs. But he also killed people for their beliefs. Although he decided that he could not betray his own conscience, when others decided to that they could not betray their own consciences, he had them tortured and incinerated. His own incarceration and execution was far more merciful than the treatment he meted out when he’d had the chance.

He believed, quite passionately, that it was appropriate and necessary to set fire to people with whom you were in theological disagreement. Now there is some historical debate as to whether or not he tortured people personally and/or whether or not he enjoyed it. It’s been pointed out that plenty of heretics were torched before More became Chancellor, and that it was the standard punishment for heresy across Europe. He was a creature of his age. Which is fine – so long as we can all stop pretending that he was an anachronistically liberal man stuck in a barbaric age. He was an intolerant spirit in an intolerant society.
If there was one thing that More hated it was the spread of literacy. He wanted to torch Tyndale because Tyndale’s bible would (and eventually did) do more to spread literacy than almost anything else could have done. When it came to denouncing Tyndale, More really let himself go – and abandoned any pretence of reasoned argument. “Throw back into your paternity’s shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up” – was one particular turn of phrase that More employed.

I wonder if he kissed his children with that mouth. Of course, Luther spoke much the same way about his opponents. I would never want to claim that More was worse than his contemporaries – only that he was not much better.
So should we be naming universities after him? There are a number. Now if More’s spirit survives and that spirit resembles the spirit that once inhabited his body, then naming universities after him must be a very keen way of torturing that spirit. What we would regard as key defining values of a university – the values defined by the greatest English catholic of the nineteenth-century – Cardinal Newman – were anathema to More. He spent his life fighting the very things that make a university possible. Could it not be argued that to name a university after More is an act of desecration? An act of cruelty? A peculiarly nasty way of spitting in the face of everything that More held dear?

Yet there is a doggedly transcendent quality to More’s final chapter. It helps if your enemy is someone like Henry VIII. The sort of courage and resolution More exhibited at the last might genuinely offer a striking example which, combined with the liquidity of the eyes that Holbein painted – create the possibility of a strange transformation in death whereby the quality of one’s beliefs can effectively negate or invert their content. Perhaps martyrdom can divest beliefs of substance and instead create a kind of character that can be legitimately be made available for the most paradoxical of appropriations. The ultimate victory of style over substance.

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3 Comments
  1. great work! 🙂

  2. What, no mention of Wolf Hall? 😉 Nobody has named a university after Thomas Cromwell, so far as I know, despite Hilary Mantel’s best efforts.

  3. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogged on 380th anniversary of Thomas More getting the chop…

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