Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Belloc's Strengths and Weaknesses

There is much that Belloc gets wrong in his Characters of the Reformation--details like Henry VIII having syphilis and Anne Boleyn having an extra finger--but his analysis of politics and personalities is often correct. It is his thesis that the Reformation was more a political event than theological and that England's break from Rome thwarted the political reunion of Christendom after Luther and Calvin divided the Continent.

That thesis drives his selection of characters: neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin have a chapter to themselves. Belloc selects instead, on the Continent for example, Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, Gustavus Adolphus, and Cardinal Richelieu. The first tried to reunite Germany under Catholicism and failed; the second was the brilliant general who thwarted that attempt; the third was the √©minence grise who aided the second to prevent German unity at the expense of French hegemony, and thus continued the break up of Christendom.

Because of the second part of his thesis, Belloc profiles almost all the important figures of the English Reformation era: Henry VIII, More, Cranmer, Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, etc. He also includes figures from the early Stuart era, two philosophers (Descartes and Pascal) and two more combatants: William of Orange and Louis XIV.

In each chapter, Belloc examines the personality of the individual he is profiling. His analysis of Henry VIII's character, for example, explains more than the usual attempt to trace a change in his personality. He identifies Henry's main characteristic as "an inability to withstand impulse; he was passionate for having his own way." Belloc notes that all those who helped Henry get his way (Wolsey, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn) flattered and led him until he grew tired of their control over him and destroyed them. Belloc thinks that only Catherine of Aragon loved and respected Henry but even she did not attempt to influence him in matters of self-control. As Belloc notes, she was so simple, direct, and straightforward that she did not understand intrigue: "She neither made scenes, nor intrigued to recover her position," Belloc states. She remained adamant that she would never respond to any other title than Queen of England, but she did not know how to manipulate others to achieve her goals.

Belloc's interpretation stresses power and authority above theology and reform. While I agree with him that many political leaders took advantage of the religious divisions and debates for their own purposes, I think he goes too far in not considering the need for reform. The absence of any consideration of reform is a weakness in his study as it means he leaves out the great reformers like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope St. Pius V, and Reginald Cardinal Pole. Over-emphasizing the political aspects of the Reformation era leads Belloc's selection of characters to be unbalanced and incomplete. The latter should have been part of the survey of English Reformation characters.

One extraordinary aspect of his view of the Reformation is that he places more blame on the Catholic rulers who failed to uphold Christendom because they wanted power and to prevent others from having power. Thus, Belloc blames Richelieu and Louis XIV for interfering with the efforts of Ferdinand II and later rulers to bring religious unity to Germany, fearing German unity meant French weakness. He also laments Louis XIV revocation of the Edict of Nantes because it thwarted the progress being made in France toward peace and unity.


  1. I have always found Belloc to be very anti-French monarchy.

  2. He was educated in III Republic when Leo XIII had ordered the Ralliement.

  3. details like Henry VIII having syphilis and Anne Boleyn having an extra finger

    Are we sure of this?

    As to six fingers, if no one back then had alleged it, why would he have come up with it? If someone did, how do we know he was wrong to trust him?

    As to syphilis, that could be overtrusting a modern doctor giving a post mortem diagnosis without the corpse, idk.

  4. Btw, did this come up because of my discussion with tredzwater back in Candlemass and two following days?

    Assorted retorts from yahoo boards and elsewhere : Someone Considered Me Psychotic, Because I Know Cultural History of Early XX C. Better than He

    You can say yes, and tell me who is arranging such things behind my back - or you can say you had no idea and leave me wondering who was praying after that debate for me to be corrected on Henry VIII's syphilis as reported to us by Belloc.

    Btw, I haven't had access to the book since 2004 at latest, not sure when I returned it to Lund UL, but it must have been before or, via mother, at latest when leaving. Have you reread the passage so you can say what Belloc based this on and how or if it has been debunked?

    Syphilis was extant back then, Ulrich von Hutten, a German proner of Reformation, though in a less bloody way than Henri VIII, had caught it and described it in Latin poetry of perfect Renaissance style.

    Two teens having died in tertiary syphilis have been found from back then - I think it more probable they got it at birth from mother than, as the codebator suggested, "at age 8 or 9". Syphilis was there, and reducing the risks was not yet mastered by aristocrats that were less than content in their sex lives.

    Saying "can't have happened back then or to so high placed persons" is not an answer. So, before concluding Belloc was wrong, I'd like to know what the mistake was.

    1. I posted my review because I re-read the book and for no other reason.

    2. Then someone may have prayed for you to do that, so I could get what he considered my due correction about it.

      This kind of thing happens a bit annoyingly often, and it is not "correcting me" as some may have hoped.

  5. This discussion on wiki seems to leave all possibilities, including syphilis, open:

    The theory that Henry suffered from syphilis has been dismissed by most historians. A more recent theory suggests that Henry's medical symptoms are characteristic of untreated type 2 diabetes. Alternatively, his wives' pattern of pregnancies and his mental deterioration have led some to suggest that the king may have been Kell positive and suffered from McLeod syndrome. According to another study, Henry VIII's history and body morphology was probably the result of traumatic brain injury after his 1536 jousting accident, which in turn led to a neuroendocrine cause of his obesity. This analysis identifies growth hormone deficiency (GHD) as the source for his increased adiposity but also significant behavioural changes noted in his later years, including his multiple marriages.

    However, type 2 diabetes or joust injury or both would be more charitable than syphilis to suspect. Unless one should rather say that joust injury would be less charitable, since jousting, unlike going to harlots, was and remains directly an excommunication offense. 1536 means he had already broken with Rome.