What are you supposed to do when you’re reading the gripping history book Our Island Story, by H E Marshall, to your children and you stumble into a bit that is fervently anti-Catholic? These passages crop up with monotonous regularity. For example, in the section dealing with Edward the Confessor, Marshall sneers at King Edward’s medieval piety, observing that “he thought more about building churches and buying relics or bones of holy men, long since dead, than of strengthening his castles and trying to make the lives of his people peaceful and happy”. All the priests are “rich” and all the monks “wicked”. Generally the picture is of the Middle Ages as backward and unenlightened. (But how backward can a culture have been that produced buildings of the lightness and beauty of our great cathedrals?)
That is how English history used to be told. They were the received assumptions – at least, until the current generation of historians known as the revisionists came along, most prominently Eamon Duffy, but also Jack Scarisbrick, Richard Rex and Peter Marshall.
Anti-Catholicism persists in historians’ circles, as the reaction to the revisionists demonstrates. As Duffy has written, the work of these mostly Catholic scholars is wrongly characterised in some quarters as the “grinding of papistical axes”.
Yet no one batted an eyelid when, previously, nearly all histories of the Reformation were written by Protestants. There is a list as long as your arm of them, including John Foxe in the 16th century, Gilbert Burnet in the 17th, James Froude in the 19th and, in the 20th, Sir Keith Thomas, A G Dickens, G G Coulton, A F Pollard and the Methodist Luther scholar Gordon Rupp.
There were few English Catholic historians back then. One of the first was Fr John Lingard in the early 19th century, whose History of England presents the Reformation as a disaster. Then there was the ecclesiastical historian Mgr Philip Hughes in the 1950s. One notable Catholic historian of the Tudor period was the Benedictine Cardinal Francis Gasquet, author of Henry VIII and the Monasteries (1888). He, Duffy explains, was subjected to “bear-baiting” by the virulently anti-Catholic Cambridge medievalist Dr Coulton, who said “inaccuracy grew on him like a crust”.
Coulton had a point. As Duffy says, Gasquet was “a great Benedictine historian”, but he was “both a bad workman and not entirely scrupulous about what he said”. In 1956, the monastic historian Dom David Knowles devoted his Creighton Lecture at the University of London to a defence of Gasquet’s history writing, in which he was entertainingly frank about its weaknesses. “Gasquet’s inaccuracies in his early books were many, but they could be numbered. But from circa 1900 Gasquet’s pages crawl with errors and slips… Towards the end of his life, indeed, Gasquet’s capacity for carelessness amounted almost to genius.”
Knowles’s point was that Gasquet’s research into the medieval monasteries, for all its faults, had laid the groundwork for future historians. “In Gasquet’s case,” says Knowles, “the triumphal car had a good start, but Vengeance came limping after in the person of George Gordon Coulton.”
Christopher Brooke, in his History of the University of Cambridge, says Gasquet’s fierce assailant was “compounded of genuine learning and extreme prejudice” and “though personally kind and friendly to many individual Catholics, he hated the Roman Catholic Church with remorseless hatred”.
Without doubt, today’s revisionist historiography has acted as a necessary corrective to the dominant Protestant mode. And when reading Our Island Story, all I need to do is bowdlerise as I go along – skip or rewrite on the hoof when I come across an anti-papist belch about building churches and relics and all that murky medieval stuff. You can see how easily, if you were to give children a steady diet of this material unadulterated, an attitude of mind towards Catholicism would become ingrained. But it is very much a Victorian or Edwardian view that was carried over to the 20th century. Most importantly, it is wrong.
Now, thanks to the 21st-century revisionists, our children can learn a far more balanced and accurate history than their parents and grandparents ever did.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)