History for laughs and for keeps

Karl Keating’s 1054 and All That is every bit as amusing as Sellar and Yeatman’s 1930 book 1066 and All That, but his object is not so much to mock Church history as to begin to restore its study among general readers.

Many readers of Karl Keating’s 1054 and All That: A Lighthearted History of the Catholic Church might be tempted to see the book as little more than an amusing chronology of the Church history no longer widely taught either in schools or colleges. Yet the book is itself a fascinating product of a good deal of history both secular and ecclesiastical, and if understanding that history will not necessarily make the book’s wonderful jokes any funnier, it will show how the book fits in the continuing evolution of history as a study, whether for schoolchildren, undergraduates or Catholics keen on having a surer grasp of the Church history that has been so instrumental to establishing the deposit of the Faith.

For a sense of this history, we can go to R.W. Southern (1912-2001), the biographer of St Anselm and Robert Grosseteste and the historian of the scholasticism that gave us European civilization. In an essay entitled “The Shape and Substance of Academic History” (1961), Southern revisited the study of history to see how it had developed and saw a curious rise and fall. For the historian, “The truth was history had attained academic status in 1850 [when it was introduced as a formal discipline at Oxford] on a wave of opposition to theological dogmatism and impatience with ancient restrictions, without anyone being clear whether the subject had a method or a public, or indeed whether it was a recognizable subject at all.”

This concern that history might be too chaotic and too inscrutable to yield defensible truths was answered by the great historians William Stubbs (1825-1901) and F.W. Maitland (1850-1906), who sought to give the study a certain respectability by showing how the West’s long-standing commitment to liberty emerged from England’s constitutional development. For these historians, the study of history should not be regarded as an easy subject for rich men too lazy to tackle what Lytton Strachey called the “bleak rigidities of the ancient tongues” but a severe and exacting discipline replete with practical application. “The central theme of constitutional history was Parliament, the long-matured and best gift of England to the world,” Southern wrote.

Its origins could be traced back to the dim recesses of the German forests, and its development could be brought forward through the most famous events in English history to the moment at which it seemed destined to enlarge the area of freedom and responsibility in this country and throughout the world. Here was the noblest and most generous theme for secular history ever proposed.

By the time Southern himself entered Balliol in 1930, this was the reigning view of historical study at Oxford. History, not Theology, ruled the academic roost. The claims made for the moral properties of historical study might now seem, as Southern says, “pure moonshine”; but it did not seem so then. “Indeed, history had succeeded beyond all expectation in giving the university that central position in society which it had had in the thirteenth century and had gradually lost in the intervening centuries.” By 1900, one third of all undergraduates were studying history. Fifty years later, historical study had begun to lose and would never regain its evanescent centrality.

What went wrong? Southern says that the study of history became too predictably formulaic – much as overly syllogistic scholasticism did in the 14th century when it lost its leading role in the development of Europe. It also became too narrowly reflective of the interests of England’s liberal establishment. Of course, in our own time, we have seen this overly cozy relationship between the study of history and our elites degenerate into critical race theory – the eyewash of cultural revolution; though independent scholars continue to do good work outside of the academy. The reasons why Church history is no longer read by the general public are too manifold to enumerate, though the historical illiteracy among the faithful is not helped by an episcopate heedless of inculcating any substantive catechesis.

Such factors are persuasive as far as they go, but they do not tell the whole story of why history fell out of favor. What Southern fails to note in his precis of the discipline’s decline is the publication of a tell-tale little book called 1066 and All That (1930) by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, both Punch writers who were perhaps more appreciative of the actual relationship of history to its readers than Southern and his Oxford friends realized. Here was a rollicking rejection of all the grandiose claims made for the discipline of history by two wags who recognized that for most men – even university men – history was little more than a series of half-remembered imbroglios of dubious significance. Told from the standpoint of the man in the street, it had little coherence and less reliability, though lots of laughs. Here is the book’s entry on the Middle Ages:

The Chapters between William I (1066) and the Tudors (Henry VIII) are always called the Middle Ages, on account of their coming at the beginning; this was also the Age of Piety, since Religious fervour was then at its height, people being (1) burnt alive with faggots (the Steak), 2) bricked up in the walls of convents (Religious Foundations), and (3) tortured in dungeons. All of this was not only pious but a Good Thing, as many of the people who were burnt, bricked, tortured, etc. became quite otherworldly.

The entry on the Dissolution of the Monasteries is equally ludicrous:

One of the strongest things that Henry VIII did was about the Monasteries. It was pointed out to him that no one in the monasteries was married, as the Monks all thought it was still the Middle Ages. So Henry, who, of course, considered marrying a Good Thing, told Cromwell to pass a very strong Act saying that the Middle Ages were all over and the monasteries were to be dissolved. This was called the Disillusion of the Monasteries.

The entry on St Thomas of Canterbury is funnier still. “Thomas á Belloc, the great religious leader, claimed that clergyman, whatever crimes they might commit, could not be punished at all; this privilege, which was for some reason known as Benefit of Clergy, was in full accord with the devout spirit of the age. Henry II, however, exclaimed to some of his Knights one day, ‘Who will rid me of this Chesterton beast?’ Whereupon the Knights pursued Belloc and murdered him in the organ at Canterbury. Belloc was therefore made a Saint and the Knights came to be called the Pilgrims of Canterbury.”

Taking 1066 and All That as its model, Keating’s book dispatches huge themes in comparably lapidary paragraphs. Apropos Pius X, he remarks:

He wrote against Modernism, the religious theory that everything, whether doctrinal or moral, is adjustable to suit one’s preferences. Modernism was popular for years, but today the only self-described Modernists to be found are gray-haired. Young people genuinely interested in Catholicism think Modernism is too old-fashioned.

The Punch writers might have left matters at that, but Keating goes on to distill his subject’s essence: “This pope is remembered particularly for calling for frequent reception of Holy Communion and for lowering the age of First Communion. Like his immediate predecessor, Pius called for an expanded study of Thomism, particularly as an antidote to the many philosophical errors that had arisen in the nineteenth century.”

Having given his readers this nice précis, he can then leave them with a particularly apt bon mot: “On his accession to the Throne of Peter, Pius declined to make his impoverished sisters papal countesses, which shocked Roman High Society, and just as well, since High Societies regularly need shocking.”

As this shows, Keating’s book is every bit as amusing as that of his predecessors, but parts ways from them. His object is not so much to mock Church history as to begin to restore its study among general readers. Since there is no Church history more relevant to our own present discontents than that surrounding the Blessed Sacrament, Keating’s entry on one of the saints most solicitous of its devotion is particularly apt:

One of the earliest Catholic writers was Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome in 107. As he was being taken to Rome under guard, he wrote letters to seven local churches that he passed along the way. Among much else he said, Ignatius noted that the Eucharist is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins, the flesh which the Father in his goodness has raised again.” This explicit and early affirmation of the Real Presence seems to be why there never has been a Baptist church named after Ignatius.

Here is light-hearted history that manages to be at once funny, faithful and insightful, and yet it still serves a serious purpose.

Why? While R.W. Southern might never have been unappreciative of the Oxford History School — after all, it trained him to become an historian — he was still dedicated to reviving the scholastic humanism that Oxford abandoned, the same humanism that gave Western civilization not only its fidelity but its zest. In sharing with his readers the history of the Church in such a succinct, entertaining, incisive way, Keating prospers that vital revival.

1054 and All That: A Lighthearted History of the Catholic Church
By Karl Keating
Rasselas House, 2022
Paperback/Hardover, 140 pages

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About Edward Short 34 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. Recently, he chose and introduced the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, which includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists and historians, will be published by Gracewing this spring. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

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