Europe is a culture with an ancient wound, a fault line which has divided it since the sixteenth-century Reformation. The division between Catholic and Protestant Europe still runs deep even where religious practice has become a marginal activity: wretched news from Belfast picks at the scab every morning when we turn on Radio Four. In Peter Ackroyd’s richly enjoyable book, we are transported back to the moment when the wound was inflicted; it was the last golden season of a society unified in a single Western Church, where jokes cracked by gentle scholars and urbane politicians could circulate from Cork to Cadiz or Cracow in the universal language of Latin. Well-informed, well-educated Europeans were self-assured, optimistic that an even better future could be engineered by sweetly reasonable, carefully argued programmes for reform. Instead, their world was ripped apart in order to find the best path to heaven. We may blame selfish and foolish popes and bishops, or an obstinate and neurotic monk called Martin Luther. Our judgement will probably reflect where we stand on either side of the fault line, and we will judge Thomas More with the same resonances in mind.
More was one of the most favoured sons of that lost European society, and he died to defend it, so the heirs of the old Western Church have turned him into a saint. The conferring of sainthood would make him smile; More smiled a great deal, as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa, and his humour could be distinctly unsaintly. Hagiographers have been uncomfortable with his Latin poetry: saints are not supposed to be interested in the female pelvic region, yet More could snigger (in Latin, of course) ‘So, young lady, who says that you can’t cope with a man, when you can get your legs round a great horse?’ He was also an ideal example of that genre of practical scholarship which posterity has labelled humanist. Humanists were seized by the conviction that an immersion in literature from classical Greece and Rome had urgent and beneficial use in everyday politics, so More took his talents first into a brilliant legal career and then into the Royal Court, ending up as the most eminent law officer in the kingdom, Lord Chancellor.
In public office, More’s smile faded, and he turned his pen to fighting what he saw as deadly religious error. Such was the scale of the emergency that for the first time he turned from writing in Latin, the universal tongue, to English, clipped and brutal. In his controversial works