Dissolution: how revolutions consume their own children

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by Steve Hayes
Originally published at ondermynende.wordpress.com

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?

Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.

Ruins of an English monastery

In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.

I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.

Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.

One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.

But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.

And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.

The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.

For more on this, and its relevance to our times, see Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

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