Monday, January 13, 2020

Tudors and Italianate Lords

The mediæval lord had been, by comparison, a coarse fellow; he had merely lived in the largest kind of farm-house after the fashion of the largest kind of farmer. He drank wine when he could, but he was quite ready to drink ale; and science had not yet smoothed his paths with petrol. At a time later than this, one of the greatest ladies of England writes to her husband that she cannot come to him because her carriage horses are pulling the plough. In the true Middle Ages the greatest men were even more rudely hampered, but in the time of Henry VIII. the transformation was beginning. In the next generation a phrase was common which is one of the keys of the time, and is very much the key to these more ambitious territorial schemes. This or that great lord was said to be "Italianate." It meant subtler shapes of beauty, delicate and ductile glass, gold and silver not treated as barbaric stones but rather as stems and wreaths of molten metal, mirrors, cards and such trinkets bearing a load of beauty; it meant the perfection of trifles. It was not, as in popular Gothic craftsmanship, the almost unconscious touch of art upon all necessary things: rather it was the pouring of the whole soul of passionately conscious art especially into unnecessary things. Luxury was made alive with a soul. We must remember this real thirst for beauty; for it is an explanation—and an excuse.  --GK Chesterton, History of England.  (By "territorial schemes" he means such things as the enclosure of the commons & the dissolution of the monasteries.)

One thing that makes Chesterton's history so readable, for better and for worse, is that he actually cares. He's on one side or the other, in any historical conflict that he discusses. He's not (usually) unfair or tendentious, but -- for instance -- he sees the advent of the Tudors as the ruin of much of what was good in medieval England, 

A lot of history I read when I was younger studiously avoided taking sides, and I think it was the poorer for it. Oh, eventually you figured out whose side the authors were on, but it was thought unseemly for them to actually say it out loud. The narrative problem is insuperable: if the writer doesn't appear to care who won, then why should the reader? Why are we reading history at all?

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