I was reading Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors, which by necessity has a heavy emphasis upon the religious turmoil in 16th century England. I say “by necessity” because the reign of the Tudors coincided – was directly connected to – the English Reformation. Henry needed a male heir, and so he eventually forced the matter (he did wait quite a few years, however, before he married Anne Boleyn, hoping the Pope would grant a dissolution of his first marriage).
Religious affairs in England – influenced by Luther’s Reformation in Germany – inevitably became entangled with dynastic concerns and political affairs. And a lot of deaths. Ackroyd notes that 308 people were executed during Henry’s reign for violation of the Treason Act of 1534; 300 Protestant martyrs were killed during Mary’s much briefer reign; and 200 Catholics (including 123 priests) died during Elizabeth’s reign.
And then Ackroyd says this: “The historian here often pauses to deliver a lament on human bigotry, but the temptation should be resisted. It is not possible to judge the behavior of one century by the values of another” (emphasis added).
What a quaint idea, I thought. What a refreshingly quaint idea. In that one short statement, Ackroyd lays waste to one of the dominant themes afflicting universities in particular and society in general in the 21st century.
He’s not saying that something like the Holocaust shouldn’t be judged by today’s values; it was judged by the values of the 1940s and every decade afterward, and rightfully so. But he is saying that we in our 21st century smugness think we are so much more knowledgeable, so much more tolerant, and so much more intelligent that those who lived in centuries past.
My response to that sentiment is this: Consider the leading candidates in this year’s election for President of the United States, in both major parties, and then tell me how much more knowledgeable, tolerant and intelligent we are. Or better still, follow a disagreement on Twitter – any disagreement.
No, Ackroyd is right. We may have more information at our fingertips, but access to information does not equate to knowledge, and it certainly doesn’t equate to wisdom.
We should read read history with a good measure of humility. The human condition has not changed much over the centuries, if it has changed at all.
Illustration: The depiction of the burning of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the stake in Oxford, England in 1556, during the reign of Queen Mary; from the Book of Martyrs by John Foxe (1563).
Related: My review of Tudors.