The Trouble with the Sixteenth Century

The Trouble with the Sixteenth Century

One of the books Dom brought back from last week’s Catholic Media Conference in Denver was The Church Under Attack: Five Hundred Years That Split the Church and Scattered the Flock by Diane Moczar.

Honestly, the title didn’t grab me, not at all, but I added it to my pile because it did look like it might be worth peeking into. Today I grabbed it as my just in case book as we headed to the farmer’s market. When we stopped for coffee I took a peek. The introduction laid out an interesting plan. This book is going to tell the story of the West from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries from a Catholic perspective. While it seems that there was a steady upward progression from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages, beginning with the Reformation we see a series of spiritual, intellectual and cultural crises. But the introduction would have lost me had it not been so short,

It was the beginning of the first chapter that made me realize this book was going to be anything but a dry history. Historian Diane Moczar has wit and panache. The book grabbed me by the lapels and sat me down and demanded that I sit down, shut up, and read already.

The trouble with the sixteenth century is that the people living in it did far too much. Harried teachers faced with squeezing their doings into a tidy lecture would love to give them some advice: Stop doing things! Leave something for the next century!

But no, the sixteenth-century populace wouldn’t listen. Look to the west from Europe. There they go, beetling around Africa in their newfangled sips, getting seasick on the Atlantic routes to America, and staring openmouthed at the Pacific. Look east. There they are, warring with the Turks and winning battles too important for us to ignore. In India and the Americas they are planting colonies and creating empires, while fighting wars in Europe. And in northern Germany, a neurotic monk with a hammer in his hand and a couple of nails between his teeth is getting ready to tack a piece of paper to the door of a church. We won’t be able to ignore him either. To make it worse, there were others who spent their part of the century scribbling plays with names such as Macbeth and Othello or novels such as Don Quixote. And the century was so chock-full of spectacular saints, heroes, and villains that, like its wars of religion, they spill over into the next century.

I am very much hoping it continues to have such a lively voice and a charming personality. Right now I feel like I’m in the front row of a dynamic history class with one of the best lecturers around. Will she be able to sustain the mood and keep my interest?

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  • +JMJ+

    The problem with shame is that it discourages not bad behaviour, but bad appearances. That is, someone who fears shame is not actively choosing the good but just hoping he will never get caught.

    One reason a certain blogosphere (*wink*) is so obsessed with shame is that most of the people who blog there are trying to ape certain behaviours and worried that they will be exposed for “faking it.”

  • Enbrethiliel, I immediately thought of you with that Middlemarch article and was hoping you’d jump in. A great point about shame discouraging appearance rather than behavior.

  • +JMJ+

    By the time I got to that article, someone was pontificating in the combox about shaming teenage mothers in order to make teen sex rates go down. He had clearly not read the line about abortion.

    The first time I made a similar connection was when Sarah Palin was running for Vice President of the US. There were many sneers about her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, including one which went along the lines of: “You don’t see the daughters of so-and-so party getting knocked up.” To which someone answered: “Yes. You don’t SEE . . .”

    I’m not sure if you put all these links together for a reason, but I also see a connection between shame and the modern obesity epidemic. In the Victorian satire “Erewhon”, Samuel Butler envisioned a world in which the ill are jailed and sentenced to hard labour for the crime of disease, while people who break the law are treated with compassion and given support as they go through moral rehabilitation. I think it would have boggled his mind to be alive today, when we have the very attitudes which prop up such a system, if not the system itself. In our age, poor health *is* seen as proof of poor character or lack of virtue. And so people who struggle with obesity must also struggle with shame. And on the other end of the body image spectrum, we have the perfectly toned “gym rats” who brag about their “clean eating” and “healthy” exercise regimens. But if they are the standard, it is less because we value good health than because we value the appearance of good health.

  • I hadn’t put them together deliberately—this was just one of my occasional dumps of interesting things I’d reshared on Facebook—though I do like to try to group links thematically and see what they say to each other. I do think it’s an interesting connection. And blindingly obvious now that you point it out. Call it a happy coincidence or maybe an unconscious connection. Certainly there is a modern attitude of shame towards the obese and it does seem that one of the primary aims of the obesity article is to dismantle that.

  • And if abortion is a response to shame about premarital sex then eating disorders are an analogous response to shame about obesity….