The Life of Thomas Moreby Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More is a masterful reconstruction of the life and imagination of one of the most remarkable figures of history. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a renowned statesman; the author of a political fantasy that gave a name to a literary genre and a worldview (Utopia); and, most famously, a Catholic martyr and saint.
Born into the professional classes, Thomas More applied his formidable intellect and well-placed connections to become the most powerful man in England, second only to the king. As much a work of history as a biography, The Life of Thomas More gives an unmatched portrait of the everyday, religious, and intellectual life of the early sixteenth century. In Ackroyd's hands, this renowned "man for all seasons" emerges in the fullness of his complex humanity; we see the unexpected side of his character--such as his preference for bawdy humor--as well as his indisputable moral courage.
--The New Yorker
"Brilliantly conceived....Ackroyd's vividly human More is...imperfect yet inspiring."
"This is the first biography of More to have absorbed the small revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last twenty years....The innovation is that he is able to see More as a particularly sensitive and elegantly playful representative of a vibrant, late medieval Catholic England."
--Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review
"Impressively thorough....This stunning book corrects...mistaken impressions of More."
"A sensitive, well-informed work that will be of value to anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of More's personal history."
--The Wall Street Journal
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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This Dark World
The infant was taken, within a week of its birth, to the precincts of the church; the child of wrath must be reformed into the image of God, 'the servant of the fiend' made into 'a son of joy'. At the church-door the priest asked the midwife if the child were male or female, and then made a sign of the cross on the infant's forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby's mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the devil from its body with a number of prayers, and pronounced baptism as the sole means 'to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration'. The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odour of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself, the priest taking the right hand of the new-born child who had with the salt and saliva been granted the station of a catechumen.
The litanies of the saints were pronounced over the baptismal font; the priest then divided the water with his right hand and cast it in the four directions of the cross. He breathed three rimes upon it and then spilled wax in a cruciform pattern. He divided the holy water with a candle, before returning the taper to the cleric beside him. Oil and chrism were added, with a long rod or spoon, and the child could now be baptised. Thomas More, what seekest thou? The sponsors replied for the infant, Baptism. Dost thou wish to be baptised? I wish. The child was given to the priest, who immersed him three times in the water. He was then anointed with chrism and wrapped in a chrismal robe. Thomas More, receive a white robe, holy and unstained, which thou must bring before the tribunal of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest have eternal life and live for ever and ever. The candle was lit and placed in the child's right hand, thus inaugurating a journey through this dark world which ended when, during the last rites, a candle was placed in the right hand of the dying man with the prayer, 'The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear?' Whom shall this particular child fear, when it was believed by the Church that the whole truth and meaning of baptism was achieved in the act of martyrdom? 'Baptism and suffering for the sake of Christ', according to a second-century bishop, are the two acts which bring full 'remission of sins'.
It was considered best to baptise the child on the same day as its birth, if such haste were practicable, since an infant unbaptised would be consigned to limbo after its death. To leave this world in a state of original sin was to take a course to that eternal dwelling, Limbus puerorum, suspended between heaven, hell and purgatory. There the little unbaptised souls would dwell in happy ignorance beside the more formidable and haunting Limbus patrum, which contained the souls of Noah, Moses and Isaiah together with (in Dante's epic) Virgil, Aristotle, Socrates and all the good men who lived on earth before the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Adam had already been dragged from this place at the time of Christ's crucifixion, but there was continual debate within the Church about the consequences of denying new-born children the eternal comfort of paradise. Could a child be saved by the desire, the votum, of its parents? Thomas More himself would eventually concede only that 'those infantes be dampned onely to the payne of losse of heauen'.
In various late medieval pictures of baptism, in manuscripts and devotional manuals, the priest stands with his surplice and stole beside the font. Sometimes he seems to be balancing the infant in the palm of his hand, yet the child is so unnaturally large and alert for such an early stage in its life that we can only assume it acquired mental consciousness with its spiritual renovation. A clerk with a surplice stands behind the priest, while two sponsors and the child's father are generally seen beside the font. In some depictions of this first of the seven sacraments, an image of the dying Christ hangs behind the human scene. But the mother was rarely, if ever, present.
In the more pious households, she would have worn a girdle made out of manuscript prayer rolls in the last stages of her pregnancy, and it was customary in labour to invoke the name of St Margaret as well as the Blessed Virgin. She remained secluded after giving birth, and two or three weeks later was led out to be 'churched' or purified. When she was taken to the church, her head was covered by a handkerchief, as a veil, and she was advised not to look up at the sun or the sky. She knelt in the church while the priest blessed her and assured her, in the words of Psalm 121, that 'the sun shall not burn her by day, nor the moon by night. It was a ceremony both to celebrate the birth of the child and to give thanks for the survival of the mother. This is the late fifteenth-century world into which Thomas More was baptised.
Meet the Author
Peter Ackroyd is a bestselling writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books include the biographies Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More and the novels The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Milton in America, and The Plato Papers. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award (jointly), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Guardian fiction prize. He lives in London.
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Wow, what a book. What a MAN! Ackroyd's More doesn't leave your side as you immerse yourself in Ackroyd's 16th century England. He walks beside you with a knowing smile on his face, you hear his steady voice as he gently but insistently states his case, you marvel at his pragmatic mind while you chuckle at his affectionate nature. You probably know how his story ends but if you don't - SPOILER ALERT! I was reading a chapter a night. On the day that I knew I would be reading the last chapter, I was sad all day long. All I could do was sigh and think, "It's so sad - Sir Thomas More dies today." I missed him for days after I finished the book.