Nothing new under the sun

From Bring Up The Bodies, the second book about the life of Thomas Cromwell by author Hillary Mantel:

“In March [1536], Parliament knocks back his [Thomas Cromwell's] new poor law.  It was too much for the Commons to digest that rich men might have some duty to the poor. If you get fat, as some men do who profit from the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off their land, the laborers without labor, the sowers without a field. England needs roads, forts, harbors, bridges.  Men need work.  It’s a shame seeing them begging their bread, when honest labor could keep the realm secure.  Can we not put them together, the hands and the tasks?

But Parliament cannot see how it is the State’s job to create work.  Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order?  To everything there is a season- a time to starve and a time to thieve.  If rain falls six months solid and rots the grain in the fields, there must be Providence in it.  God knows his trade. It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising to suggest that they should pay an income tax only to put bread in the mouths of the work shy. And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality, well, are there not hangmen enough?

The King himself comes to the Commons to argue for the law.  He wants to be Henry the Beloved, a father to his people, a shepherd to his flock. But the Commons sit stoney faced on their benches and stare him out. The wreckage of the measure is comprehensive. “It is ended up as an Act for the Whipping of Beggars”, Richard Rich says.  “It is more against the poor than for them.”

And with the newest proposal by Republican Representative Steve Pearce to test the pee of the unemployed for illegal drugs, the whipping of beggars never goes out of style.

Paul Krugman argues that there is some kind of psychological need to impose austerity, a moral imperative of sorts.  More likely, the wealthy have found a convenient way to convince politicians to project the blame for spilling the milk onto the table itself.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  This is the way of the powerful.  They do not want to worry about the lives of others.  That’s what makes power so appealing.  So, knowing that, our problem is not how we convince the powerful to think beneficently and empathetically towards other people.  Power makes them immune from such supplications.  Our problem is to convince ordinary people that there is power in sheer numbers.  The media has been very good at promoting learned helplessness.  That’s where they excel.  What we need is a movement that counteracts that message.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The nature of the state and corruption according to Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Hilary Mantel has written two Booker Prize winning books about the life of Thomas Cromwell. The first, Wolf Hall, introduces us to Cromwell’s humble origins and shows how he rises to power as a protege of Cardinal Wolsey.  The second, Bring Up the Bodies, tells us all about his role in the sudden coup that topples Anne Boleyn.  I preferred the first book, although both books are very good.  It’s just that the first book makes Cromwell more human while the second is much less introspective so we have to do a lot more guessing about what was going on in his mind.  I find his motivations where Anne is concerned to be somewhat at odds with the personality traits laid out in the first book.  There’s a lack of continuity there.  Except when it comes to the matter of the state.

Cromwell was the architect of the state, bringing medieval England into the age of commerce, regulation, standards, finance.  His goal was to eliminate the crisis that tore the country to pieces during the War of the Roses when insanity and rivalry kept contenders to the throne fighting each other for decades.

So, when I listened to this podcast interview of Hilary Mantel, I was pleased to find that I had identified the crucial scene of the second book.  It was a bit like getting the essay question right in English class.  (Hint: it takes place when Henry VIII is unhorsed and is taken to a tournament tent unconscious and not breathing.  What happens there tells you everything you need to know about how this story is going to end.)

But there was another bit of information that Mantel relates in this podcast that I found curious.  She says that in Henry VIII’s reign, the state functionaries supported themselves.  That is, they had to pay for their own staffs and activities.  For Thomas Cromwell who decided to create a state bureaucracy virtually from scratch, this meant he was spending his own money to pay for his clerks and minor officials.  Some of this money he was getting from the sinecures and land he was given by the king.  But it wasn’t enough to pay everyone he needed to pay to get things done.  So, he arranged financial deals for courtiers and he took a lot of bribes.  The elite aristocracy looked the other way until they wanted him gone when his state began intruding on their hereditary rights.

For some weird reason, I immediately thought of Warren Buffet’s idea to strip Congress people and Senators of their salaries and pensions…

Anyway, if you’re into that sort of thing, you might like this podcast of Hilary Mantel.  You can listen to it here.  I’m not quite sure that she’s right about what Anne Boleyn might have done with her male admirers.  By all accounts, she maintained her innocence right until the end, which was supposed to be unusual for condemned prisoners who were about to meet their maker in the 1500’s.  I’m inclined to think that her nerves got the better of her and her anxiety attacks were hard to live with.  Plus, she and Cromwell became enemies in the end and Henry just wanted her gone.  In any case, cutting her head off seemed a little extreme.  Anne would have been smart enough to take the deal had she been offered one.  Instead, 6 innocent people died.  Hilary Mantel never quite satisfies my curiosity about why that had to be.

Circa regna tonat.

The Dissolution

Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire Wolds

In the mid 1530’s, King Henry VIII of England authorized Thomas Cromwell to shut up the monasteries in that country under the guise of consolidation.  A methodical review of all of the monasteries, complete with inventory, was conducted.  Most of the smaller, poorer monasteries were closed, the monks and nuns forced to seek shelter at the bigger monasteries.  At the bigger monasteries, a different kind of pogrom took place.  Some of the abbotts and abbesses were able to negotiate small pensions to ease their way and that of some of their charges in the world.  The monasteries and convents were stripped of their wealth and sent to Henry’s treasury where he rewarded his retainers to ensure their loyalty.  The monasteries themselves were broken apart, the libraries made into bonfires and the tenants dispersed.

Those who resisted, like the Bishop of Glastonbury, were treated to “black propaganda”.  They were accused of the most heinous offences of pedophilia, sexual licentiousness and the like.  And while there were instances of immorality, sloth and greed at some of the richer abbeys, it wasn’t true of all.  The Bishop of Glastonbury did not survive his encounter with Henry’s men.  He was charged a traitor to the crown and was drawn, quartered and his parts nailed to the gates.

Nuns fared particularly poorly.  Henry forbade them from marrying unless they were coerced to take their vows before the age of 20.  Some nuns did eventually marry but were persecuted for it in some areas of the north.  The convents themselves were places of education for anyone who could spare the time from their daily chores to learn.  They were particularly important to women because there was virtually nowhere else in England where women could learn languages other than English or be acquainted with the classics or discuss Aristotle.  It is said that after the dissolution, education for women did not recover its former capacity for two centuries.

Oddly enough, Anne Boleyn, who was the instigator of the reform movement in the first place, tried to intercede for a number of convents that applied to her for help.  She had limited success.  She also came into conflict with Cromwell who performed his duty to enhance the power of the state under Henry.  Anne was appalled that the proceeds of the dissolution were going into the hands of the already rich and powerful.  She challenged Cromwell and Henry to turn the monasteries into colleges and to distribute the money to the taxpayers who had footed the bill for the monasteries for centuries.  She had her chaplain sermonize to Henry about it from the pulpit.  He was not amused.

It was this conflict that finally cost her her head.  Maybe Henry could have given her a couple more years to produce an heir.  Maybe he could have worked out a deal with Emperor Charles V to recognize his marriage to Anne while restoring his daughter Mary to the succession.  But he couldn’t tolerate Anne’s bleeding heart liberalism getting in the way of enriching his treasury.  Cromwell saw her as a threat to his authority and set her up.  Henry signed off on the plan.  To the Tower she went.

History and human nature have ways of repeating themselves.  Those of us who get too comfortable are in for a nasty shock when the rules holding the social compact together get relaxed.  There will always be people who look after themselves and cement their place in the hierarchy using violence, intimidation and propaganda to satisfy their greed for power and wealth.  It has happened since time immemorial and will happen wherever the general public lets down its guard or is lead astray by clever salesmen.  Whatever wealth there is goes to the sociopathic robber barons with the blessing of the state.  Tenants are evicted.  People die in old age in poverty.  No system of government is immune.

A system tends towards disorder without constant vigilance.

For more on the subject of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, listen to the In Our Times podcast.

For more on the Dissolution of America, read There Will Be Blood by Paul Krugman.

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