Editor's Choice October 2005

Another World

What to read this month

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." When reviewing history books I find myself quoting L. P. Hartley's observation with annoying frequency, hoping that it will serve as an injunction to writers and a reminder to readers. History and historical biography have never been more popular, but many of the titles that appeal to educated general readers lack complexity and intellectual verve. The main reason for this is discomfort with the foreignness of the past among both the producers and the consumers of history books. Too many authors of recent popular works about the Founders, for instance, are obviously not at home in the eighteenth century. Their grasp of its religion, attitudes, mores, manners, and intellectual climate is unsure, and they lack command of the ideological, political, sectional, and social differences that divided the early republic. To me, their protagonists come off as guys in powdered wigs. But a still greater problem with reflexively approaching history in terms of the present is that it often leads to praising or condemning the past rather than comprehending it. Take the issue of the Founders and slavery. Readers and popular authors usually adopt one of two opposite but erroneous postures. Either they apply twenty-first-century standards and castigate the slave-owning Founders as racists and hypocrites, or—worse—they see those Founders as modern liberals who just happened to own slaves. Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson subscribed to a system built on unlimited violence and were willing to order that men and women be beaten or maimed to ensure that they served their masters' will.That these men were, in Jefferson's words, "nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny" may or may not mean they were evil (a question really beyond the purview of the historian), but it certainly means that their psychology and outlook were in essential ways deeply alien to our own. Sophisticated history neither comforts readers nor seeks to arouse their righteous indignation. Rather, it reveals to them other ways of looking at and understanding the world and the human condition; it vexes them and stirs them from their complacency—be it moral, temporal, or psychological. Here are a new and two recently reissued history books, on very different subjects, that do just that.

The Stripping of the Altars, by Eamon Duffy (Yale). The winners define the past. For 400 years the British popular and scholarly minds, possessed by Protestant and Whiggish triumphalism, believed that superstition, a disengaged laity, a corrupt priesthood, and pagan accretions had enervated the late-medieval English Church—and thus ripened it for reformation, a process embraced by the people. This vigorous and eloquent book, a work of daring revision and a masterpiece of the historical imagination, utterly transformed that thinking in 1992, when it was first published (this just-released second edition incorporates some scholarly qualifications, but Duffy's interpretation in its essential aspects stands). At once meticulous and lush, The Stripping of the Altars patiently and systematically recovers the lost world of medieval English Catholicism. Brilliantly examining the abundant art-historical evidence along with an array of documents from liturgical books to wills, Duffy, a historian at Cambridge, constructs an elaborate portrait of ordinary people's rich and vital religious life, characterized by the web of festivals, rituals, and images that bound their society together. He focuses not on doctrine and institutions but instead on the externals of religion (sacraments and ceremonies, altars, processions, lights, and images), conveying how liturgy—"that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture"—shaped believers' "perception of the world and their place in it." By taking this alien world seriously, on its own terms, he reveals to modern readers the power and pull of its distinctive religious culture. But while the first two thirds of this book is a deeply textured work of historical anthropology, the last third is a gripping narrative history, as Duffy traces the way the English Reformation (a process supported by a tiny minority, and deeply if ineffectively opposed by a population cowed by the new and crushing force of the monarchy) eradicated a thousand years of tradition and ritual. (He rightly emphasizes the psychological and spiritual impact of Henry VIII's and Elizabeth I's lavish devastation of the physical culture of the late-medieval Church—a point Margaret Aston made memorably in her England's Iconoclasts, but which Duffy vividly brings home with his discerning and disturbing photographs of whitewashed frescoes and smashed and defaced statues, stained glass, shrines, and altars.) Duffy's most significant contribution by far is to elucidate the fragility of even deeply rooted ways of life: he convincingly demonstrates that for better or worse, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past"—a past that over merely three generations became a distant world, impossible for them to look back on as their own. A wholly compelling book (it was a best seller in the UK), this will appeal to any reader who wants to enter and understand another world (and isn't that why we read in the first place?). After you finish it, Shakespeare's haunting line from Sonnet 73, about the destruction of the monasteries—"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang"(which, astonishingly, Duffy resists quoting)—will resonate as never before.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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