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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

“The Life of Thomas More”, by Peter Ackroyd

464 pages, Nan A. Talese, ISBN-13: 978-0385477093

Peter Ackroyd’s goals in The Life of Thomas More were to present a non-anachronistic depiction of More, and through this portrait, to give readers a sense of the late Medieval world destroyed by the Reformation and the emergence of nation-states. Ackroyd presents More as a man exemplifying the late Medieval ethos: deeply religious, highly intelligent, and well educated, More existed with a profound sense of human fallibility and saw all aspects of his world as manifestations of a divine order. The world as the body of Christ – a metaphor to which Ackroyd returns repeatedly – is a recurring theme, as the temporal world is transient and a necessary preparation for the eternal and in a crucial sense, less real than the eternal world of Christian teachings. This world is bound by custom and inherited legal and religious traditions, hierarchical and paternalistic in its structure of authority, and deeply enmeshed in rituals that mirror the structure of divine authority.

More was not, however, a reactionary, except when the radicalism of the Lutherans pushed him to stringent and violent acts needed to defend the integrity of his perception of the Christian world. A prominent member of the Northern European Humanist movement, More was dedicated to the recovery of a renovated faith based on a new reading of the Patristic fathers, attention to classical (particularly Greek) neoplatonic authors, and disdain for complex scholastic theology. He and his fellow Humanists hoped for reformation of the Church without abandoning the unity of Christendom, the apparatus of ritual and hierarchy that defined so much of their lives, and the primacy of papal authority. Ackroyd’s efforts to present More and the late medieval ethos are very successful, and readers will be introduced to what is, in fact, a foreign world but one which is an ancestor of our contemporary society. Ackroyd’s efforts at depicting the loss of the world of More include not only the content but the structure of the book.

One rather awkward decision made by Ackroyd was to quote More verbatim, complete with his medieval spelling habits. While interpreting these lines requires a little effort that effort helps to appreciate More’s style for, as Ackroyd points out, style was not simply a matter of presentation for More and his contemporaries; it had a significant moral dimension. While chronologically arranged, this biography is not strictly a narrative of More’s life. Each chapter is presented as an almost self-contained vignette or episode from More’s life, a deliberate effort on Ackroyd’s part to mimic aspects of medieval ritual and theater. This is another and I think successful effort on the part of Ackroyd to present the late Medieval world. Ackroyd argues that not only that More was dedicated to the importance of ritual and theater but that it formed a very important part of More’s character and perhaps self-image. Ackroyd’s construction of this book is then a doubly artful device to mirror both the world of late medieval England and More himself.

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