1500s History: Down with the Foreigners!

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English History in the 1500s was not so different than it is now; we face many of the same issues plaguing the court of Henry VIII.

In May 1517, there was a large contingent of French and Italian immigrants in London. They were situated near the city’s financial district and providing many services for the court. They were of such number that male Londoners were having difficulty obtaining positions or finding honest work, and started resenting the court’s “preference” for “foreigners.” This stirred up old resentments against the French, and was taken advantage of by various “politicking” individuals with strong anti-foreigner biases, who blamed the resident French and Italian immigrants for stealing jobs from the English, and suggested that the “sweating sickness,” an unknown recurring lethal plague in the period, originated with the foreigners.

In the weeks leading up to May Day, assaults and crimes against foreigners broke out in the city, with escalating levels of violence. Cardinal Wolsey, who was “running” England for the fun-loving King Henry, got wind of planned violence on the holiday and suggested a curfew. May Day was traditionally a time of bonfires and late-night celebrations; as the curfew was enforced, resentment turned into resistance that became a mob that surged through London, heading for the financial district. The mob was briefly halted by (not yet Sir) Thomas More, who was the under-sheriff of London, but his attempts to calm them down and send them home were thwarted by the Europeans in the surrounding houses throwing stones down from the upper windows and shouting insults. The mob pushed past More and laid waste to the district, breaking down doors, throwing wares and furniture into the street, and stealing whatever they could find. One of Henry’s (foreign) secretaries barely escaped with his life.

Once made aware of the situation, Henry ordered martial law imposed in London; by the time his soldiers arrived at dawn, the mob had dissipated, but 400 rioters were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, most of them fourteen years of age. Due to the potential political ramifications of foreigners not feeling safe in London, and the effect it might have on foreign trade, their actions were judged high treason, with the penalty of death. Those men responsible for preaching violence were quickly, publically, and brutally executed, but Cardinal Wolsey and the king’s wife, Katharine of Aragon, obtained pardons for the rest in a dramatic public appeal before King Henry.

It is likely that Henry never intended to execute the 400 young rioters, but by making a public example of a few, his pardon of them at the behest of his tearful Spanish wife was seen as an act of great mercy, and won him back the loyalty of London, shaken through the court’s perceived favoritism of immigrants in a severe economic downturn. In searching for a scapegoat, it was easier to point fingers at foreigners than to deal with the deeper social problems of the period. Class warfare, political sleight of hand, and shifting the blame was common in London, with the added misfortune of no middle class. You were either very rich and a nobleman, or very poor and a working man. Some of the nobles were without lands and incomes from estates; but the wages of a working man were so low and the education and required income of the nobleman so high, that the employer could not afford the nobleman and the nobleman could not live on the wages of his employer, so there was no chance of an honest man earning an honest wage, nor of a poor man bettering his education in the hope of a greater one.

Thomas More pondered in his book Utopia whether a society without a middle class, with encouraged poverty and social unrest, and a government so corrupt and complex in its laws that it turns honest men dishonest, is fundamentally amoral. He wondered if we first “make thieves and then punish them.” Perhaps that question is as relevant today as it was in the days of yore. ♥

Femnista Writers Round-Table Discussion

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I meant to do this sooner, but my life got crazy last week. Better late than never, right?

It was suggested to me that I foster discussion among my writers (and readers too, if any care to participate in Intelligent Discussions or General Silliness or Brain Fart Absurdities). Thus, all contributors (and fans, and general audiences, and green aliens, and purple sloths) are welcome to contribute to the comments of this post and interact. (Perish the thought!)

This Month’s Discussion Question: “What’s something neat you came across in your writing or research this month that you didn’t use?

Mine: sluffing aside CTM, which stands on its own two feet, my article about becoming like the God you serve stemmed from multiple theological discussions over breakfast with the parents, as well as having spent the last nine months studying Medieval Religious History. By choice. For fun. Insanity runs in my family (it practically gallops!). And background information for a novel, but that’s beside the point. I thought about carrying the idea further, and then decided no… that’s far enough. For now. I do think, however, there is some truth in it. The “something neat” I came across in my research would fill several term papers. I’ll spare you. I’ll throw out this instead — you have not laughed until you’ve read Thomas More, Erasmus, and Martin Luther bickering.

If you want to share thoughts on your article, or comment on someone else’s, please speak up. Engage. Make friends, even. That’s the Stuff of Life.

Excellent Read

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This came through my blogroll last night. It is well worth reading.

Recently, I’ve been engaged in heavy conversations with multiple people about art’s role in Christianity — or rather, its lack thereof, within Christian circles. Along with it, I’ve noticed, comes a tendency within such stories to go the way of intellectual laziness. Establishing straw men arguments to tear down to vindicate a shallow perspective is the height of intellectual laziness. Watching the original film, I felt ashamed of its narrow focus. None of the atheists in my life are closed-minded, judgmental, or “angry at God,” because how can you be secretly angry at Someone who, in their mind, does not exist?

C. S. Lewis stated in one of his books that God is no fonder of intellectual laziness than any other kind. Christian films (and books, and music, and art) are only deep and profound when deep and profound truths permeate them. When Sunday School answers fade, and Reality takes its place. When hard questions do not always have answers, much less simplistic ones. The most engaging art is not an evangelism tool, it is an exploration of a deep connection to essential truths, with a willingness not to preach, merely to breathe.

There is a reason The Lord of the Rings will carry on for generations. Its messages are in its depths, not in its words. The greatest novels, the ones that stir our heart, the best films, are not propaganda but art containing truth. As artists, aspire to that kind of art — art for its own sake, that glorifies God through reflecting Him, that shines not on the pages but between the lines because you are so full of Him that your worldview bleeds into the spine, rather than inserting Him awkwardly into its texts. He made you in His image… to create.

Alexei Karenin: Divine Love Vs. Religion

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Watching Anna Karenina (the 2000 miniseries) is always a mistake. I get caught up in over-thinking Anna’s husband and ponder nothing else for days. I could run in all directions with it, but I’ll cut you a break and choose one.

Nothing kills godliness more than religion. One is a transforming heart experience that brings love; the other, a distant set of moral rules that often leads to fear, shunning, shame, and pride. One only need compare Christ’s treatment of sinners to the Victorian attitude toward sin to see how distant a “religious” society is from godliness.

Karenin endures the humiliation and grief of his wife’s infidelity, only to reach a point where he wants to inflict punishment on her by subjecting her to a public divorce. When begged to reconsider, he retaliates with, “I do not want to forgive her. I hate her.” Fearing she is about to die of childbirth fever, Anna pleads for his forgiveness and reconciliation – and he gives it. That changes everything in an instant. His transformation is so radical that it shames her lover into attempting suicide. He cannot live with himself knowing how much he has wronged Karenin, who was noble enough to shake his hand. Anna, similarly, hates Karenin even more after surviving the fever, because he continues to love her. Both ignore their guilt and run off together, refusing his polite offer of a quiet divorce so they can marry one another. (Anna fears if she agrees, she will never see her son again.) They reject the Selfless Love that could have (literally) saved their relationship. Continue reading

Can We Trust History?

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“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Shakespeare’s Richard The Third

In historical research, you look at events from as many sides as possible, and place eyewitness accounts into context by being aware of the circumstances in which the events took place, and who is recording them. If you do not know the events leading up to the main event, the players or what is at stake, the reasons why it happened remain obscure.

Researching to write a novel about a historical figure led me to a dozen different biographies, all of which painted a large canvas and shed insight into the different interconnecting tales. Unfortunately, information about this or that historical figure was not always available in the book about them, and often turned up as side notes or incidents in other people’s stories. Had I not sought out secondary figures, I may have never learned the truth about the main players. Their biographers did not find it, as their scope was too small. Reading about one told me why another made certain decisions!

Understanding former cultures also requires researching the period; I can tell a biographer who has spent no time doing this, because their conclusions do not take into account how people thought during that particular period. We must also question where the information came from and what agenda formed it. Who said it, and why did they say it? Thus, many facts are no longer facts; they are opinions, passed down as facts.

This approach is frightening, because if you cannot trust a major source, everything built on it is untrue. Unraveling the source undoes years of study, research, college term papers, biographies, documentaries, and professional careers.

Let me give you one example of history thus tainted by “facts” that are not facts: King Richard III. He is known in popular culture as a hump-backed, withered-handed tyrant who likely murdered his nephews for the throne.

Or… did it happen that way?

Let us change the order of events.

With Edward’s death, his brother Richard took the throne as regent for his two underage nephews. They disappeared. Richard died in battle, sacrificing the throne to Henry Tudor. Within a decade, a boy claiming to be one of the Princes tried to claim the English throne. Henry caught and executed him. Another claimant fled abroad. Henry arrested one of his conspirators, Lord Tyrell. Before his death Tyrell confessed to killing the princes for Richard. His sentence was commuted to a less brutal execution. This put an end to any future pretenders claiming to be a lost prince. Sir Thomas More included the confession in his book on Richard, which was a source for Shakespeare’s research when he wrote the play during Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. Making Richard into a misshapen villain painted the Tudors in a positive light as having rescued England from the clutches of a tyrant, further validating their right to rule in a time of political and religious upheaval.

Knowing Tyrell received a less painful death as a result of his confession, can we trust it? It also validated Henry’s kingship (it is moral to seize the throne from a tyrant who would murder his own nephews) in a time of uncertainty, ended future claims of royal blood, and justified the pretender’s death. Thomas More had an interest in pleasing the Tudors, as did Shakespeare.

It is important to carry this over into the modern age as well, where facts are often obscured by personal opinion. Who said it and why? Who benefits from it, and in what way? What is the surrounding context? What are the motives and circumstances? Only then can we start to discern fact from myths, rumors, and lies. ♥