Wolf Hall

The book I read on our recent vacation was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This book, big enough to double as a door stop, is set in 1520s and 30s, the time of England’s King Henry VIII– he of the many wives — and tells the story of the English Reformation most particularly through the life of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The book is beautifully written, and so rich in detail about characters, land and cityscapes, daily life and life at the court, and the unfolding events of Henry’s divorce of Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, defying and then breaking with Rome to inaugurate the Church of England, you feel you’ve been taken back in time to be part of it. Mantel effectively¬†establishes a world, a historical fictional world, and well deserves the 2009 Man Booker Prize she won for her efforts.

I was struck by two paradoxical things. One is how large — in their complexity ¬†— the changes that we can later call a Reformation are, and how slowly they happen. We study histories of the church (or other institutions) and give dates for beginnings, usually linked to some piece of paper like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses or ¬†in the case of my little denomination, the Document of Secession, but there is much more going on than that, before and after, personalities intertwined in long and interesting ways, convergences of all sorts, and misses too, which make up what we later name and date in our history books.

(I would have liked a stronger sense, in Wolf Hall, of the religious issues at stake, although they are certainly alluded to often: arguments over the sacraments, vernacular translations of Scripture, spiritual authority, and over on the Continent, religious ferment of all kinds, including those extreme Anabaptists at Muenster. The English Reformation has been described as more political than theological. But perhaps shifts in belief or religious practice are never as purely “contesting for the faith”as we’d like to imagine, but collide and congress within individuals with their varying strengths and weaknesses and needs and agendas. So when we thank God for whatever reformation we’re particularly pleased about, we’ll probably have to recognize and thank for it in forms more human than holy.)

At the same time, I was struck by how small a wheel can make a change. Mantel puts it best herself, in this passage from the book:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtains, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.