Mad monks and the order of the tin ear
The Middle Ages have had a lot of bad publicity lately. Take, for instance, Wolf Hall, the BBC miniseries adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, which appeared on Australian screens in 2015. Here the spirit of the Middle Ages is embodied in Thomas More, played with fastidious spite by Anton Lesser. In Mantel’s take on Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church, More the urbane humanist is replaced by More the obdurate Catholic, whose protection of the Church’s authority ‘stretching back for a thousand years’ is shown to be pious, sadistic and political—a triangulation that has become received shorthand for medieval. Even More’s most defining quality, his conscience, is shown to be shot through with intransigence and a perverse pleasure in martyrdom. Far from being the Man for All Seasons, he has become the Man of the Past, superseded by his nemesis Thomas Cromwell, played with roguish appeal by Mark Rylance. The Machiavelli-reading Cromwell is Mantel’s figure of modernity. Self-made, cosmopolitan, pragmatic and sceptical (indeed almost secular), he is less ‘hammer of the monasteries’ than jackhammer to the entire creaking edifice of the pre-modern.