By Richard Lofthouse
The Reformation is back. Former LMH student Antonia Southern has just published House Divided: Christianity in England 1526-1829. In so many ways it reminds you what an intensely Oxford event the Reformation in England was and is, and I don’t just mean the martyring of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer on Broad Street. Southern’s footnotes are brimful of current Oxford post-holders such as Diarmaid MacCulloch, who holds the University chair in Church History.
Elsewhere, almost everywhere it seems, Southern’s three-century-long narrative crisscrosses Oxford, and that’s before we even get to Newman and the Tractarian uproar. Consider William Allen for example. Raised in Catholic Lancashire, he was promoted in Oxford under Mary, later resigning his University post and in 1560 heading off to the Low Countries to brush up his Catholicism. Training missionary priests at Douai, he schemed for a missionary invasion of England.
One such priest was Cuthbert Mayne, who had also gone to Oxford, fallen under the influence of Edmund Campion, hence to Douai and back to England as chaplain of Francis Tregian on his estates in Cornwall, and was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1577 in accordance with the Act of 1571. The book is stuffed with such episodes.
Next, we have OUP’s very wonderful The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, edited by Oxonian Peter Marshall, and a comparative bargain at £25 for the hardback. Accessibly written by a stellar cast of leading scholars, its illustrations are meaningful and not merely decorative. There is a wonderful chapter by Carlos Eire of Yale University about John Calvin. It reproduces a satirical diagram against Calvinists, not by Catholics but by Lutherans, reminding us how bitter the battles were among those on the same side of the schism.
The Puritan roots of the settlement of North American are not neglected, and in every other sense the historiography of the Reformation here is updated to become complex, geographically and doctrinally. It’s a huge achievement by Marshall, and by OUP, that cleverly gets the ball rolling ahead of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses — 2017 (incidentally also the quincentenary of the founding of Corpus).
Before heading away from religious strife, it would be odd if I didn’t mention that the current Chancellor of Oxford is the first Catholic to hold the post since Henry VIII quarreled with Rome.
Here’s a palate cleanser in the form of a micro-pamphlet (£1.99) by Mark Forsyth, who we recently featured in the Michaelmas print edition of Oxford Today. It’s called The Unknown Unknown and applies Donald Rumsfeld wisdom to indie bookshops and ‘The Delight of Not Getting What you Wanted’. Fun, fast, thought provoking. He says very readily that the internet is the perfect bookshop. It will pander to any desire you have. But what about the desires you don’t know you have? The internet limits your horizon, says Forsyth. ‘Lord, deliver us from what we already knew we wanted.’ Hence the delight of browsing a suitably curated bookshop.
Two more to go, and a mention. First Stephen Tuck’s The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union (reviewed in depth for Oxford Today by Mahmoud Ally). Tuck is a history prof at Oxford and directs the Research Centre in the Humanities. Here he has produced a wonderful little volume that explores the day fifty years ago that race campaigner Malcolm X came to Oxford, just two months before his assassination early in 1965. What parades as a simple episode unlocks massive, structural themes of slavery and civil rights of the past three hundred years, and their more local reverberations in Oxford. Tuck has a bowl of fire in his hands and knows it. The last illustration is unlikely to leave your mind soon. It is of a black student at Oxford, Brian Kwoba, standing outside the Radcliffe Camera holding up a white board. On it the words: ‘Why are only 0.4% of UK professors Black?’
Rushing on, we have Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge. Both author and subject went to Oxford. The book accompanies a major film that releases this month. The book contains one major bombshell, that Vera’s brother Edward may have allowed himself to be shot in Italy in June 1915, or even committed suicide, to avoid court martial for homosexuality. If you want a bitter taste of Britain, it doesn’t get any more galling than this. The narrative is impeccably told and heart-wrenching to the last.
On the subject of films, there is another just launched, also about an Oxonian, Stephen Hawking. It’s called The Theory of Everything and stars Eddie Redmayne. Only a mention here because it’s already a year old, but Hawking published an autobiography in 2013, called My Brief History,with a chapter on his time at Oxford. Who knew?
Main image: Henry Weekes’ statue of Thomas Cranmer on the Martyrs’ Memorial, © Oxford University Images / Rob Judges. Book jacket © OUP.