14.09.15, Betteridge, Writing Faith and Telling Tales

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Brendan Cook

The Medieval Review 14.09.15

Betteridge, Thomas. Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More. ReFormations. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-268-02239-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Brendan Cook
University of South Florida

The value of Thomas Betteridge's Writing Faith and Telling Tales will depend in part upon the reader's generosity towards the considerable ambitions of this relatively brief book. In scarcely two hundred pages, Betteridge attempts to weave together several generations of literature, exploring the English writings of Sir Thomas More (as well as the Latin Utopia) through comparison and contrast with over a dozen vernacular authors from the previous two centuries, including Chaucer, Langland, and Skelton. On the one hand, it is easy to mistrust any book that sets out to make sense of so many elusive and multifaceted texts. It is easy, too, to lose patience with Betteridge's discursive manner as he leaps from text to text in pursuit of the various threads that unite his chosen authors across the centuries. On the other hand, it is also necessary to acknowledge the remarkable breadth of reading displayed here. Betteridge clearly enjoys a magisterial command of both his primary and secondary materials, and he shows it to great advantage in constructing an argument which spans the five brief sections of his book. Even the most skeptical reader must admire his efficiency in bringing order from the chaos of so many authors and texts; as synthesis and summary alone, his achievement is impressive.

At its most basic, the central argument of Writing Faith is eminently reasonable, indeed plausible before any demonstration is offered. Betteridge presents More's works, from the earliest to the very last, in conversation with the vernacular literature of the previous two hundred years. "More's English writing, indeed his sense of the shape and sound of a good Christian life and commonwealth, are part of the same vernacular tradition as the Digby Mary Magdalene, Piers Plowman, and The Canterbury Tales" (35). At the same time, Betteridge is also at pains to distinguish his book from certain superficially similar interpretations of More's life and writing--the studies of R. W. Chambers and Peter Ackroyd are both named here (4-6). According to Betteridge, the "late medieval" traditions reflected in More's writing are not so "conservative and homogenous" as they have often been represented; in affirming some elements of earlier thought, More is also challenging and rejecting others (6). Betteridge sees authors such as Langland and Chaucer as polemicists for a very specific vision of religion, society, and literature, standing in conscious opposition to another tradition, one associated with Latin rather than the vernacular (8-9). Their emphasis upon "a relationship between ancient Christian teaching and plain, simple wisdom" is also an implied reproach of the "linguistic complexity" of contemporary scholastic theology (8). And in this sense, Betteridge's thesis dovetails very nicely with interpretations stressing More's affinity with continental humanism--E. E. Reynolds's Thomas More and Erasmus may serve as an example if one is needed. [1] The More of Betteridge's interpretation would have responded with enthusiasm to Erasmus and his Italian forerunners precisely because he found something familiar in their critique of over-intellectualized theological system-building. The Erasmian embrace of plainspoken apostolic piety would have seemed to complement and even to amplify the message which he had previously encountered in the vernacular traditions of his native country.

But Betteridge is not content simply to define the tradition which he identifies in terms of a reaction against the excessive intellectualism of the scholastics. The writers featured in his book also share certain ideas and even certain characteristic metaphors and rhetorical tactics. The notion of the body as text reoccurs again and again, as does the analogy between language and politics as cooperative, consensual activities which only remain meaningful through constant redefinition and negotiation. "It is only when texts are read within a community that they make sense or have a purpose" (105). The problem of the limitations of human reason is never remote either; the ongoing debate over "the shape and sound of a good Christian life and commonwealth" would be inconceivable without it. It is here that Betteridge is arguably at his best. His intimate familiarity with the vernacular literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reveals parallels and resonances which have escaped scholars more attentive to Latin literature. His knowledge of the secondary literature is such that he can nearly always find a supporting quotation for each of his readings, a critical or scholarly comment which elegantly sums up the point at hand. In consequence, Betteridge is never at a loss for specific examples to demonstrate precisely what he means when he speaks of More's engagement with medieval vernacular traditions.

But while Betteridge knows his subject very well, this actually compounds his challenge in bringing such a wealth of material within the compass of a relatively brief book. Rather than focusing upon a single text, such as Richard III or the Dialogue of Comfort, Betteridge attempts to discuss several of More's lengthier works in an equal degree of detail. And since his thesis requires him to find parallels with a number of earlier vernacular sources, Betteridge has a habit of bouncing back and forth, moving from More to his predecessors and then to More once again, spanning centuries in the course of a single page and following what he himself confesses is often "a circuitous route" to each chapter's conclusion (40). And while Betteridge is extremely acute in drawing connections between his texts, he does not always give them the sustained attention which they demand. He speaks of the "basically optimistic vision of humanity...which informs Utopia" without devoting the necessary space to an adequate defense of this extremely controversial assertion (98). He gives insufficient notice to the various considerations, some founded in More's life and some in his writing, which suggest that Utopia's author felt a profound sympathy for the grim vision of human sinfulness presented by the dialogue's primary speaker. There are also times when Betteridge's enthusiasm for the vernacular leads him to forget that Utopia is written in Latin. He refers repeatedly to the treatment of "wisdom" by the dialogue's principal speaker without ever recognizing that his Latin usage makes a distinction that the English term does not allow, separating the politic, worldly cunning of prudentia from the more refined, philosophical insight associated with sapientia (83-84). [2] This is not a critical omission, but it springs from the same focus on the vernacular which is also the source of the book's greatest strengths.

At its best, Writing Faith and Telling Tales serves as an expansive overview of English- language literature in the centuries before the Reformation. It is an interesting, original, and occasionally frustrating account that grounds More's work in the larger context of contemporary vernacular literature. If there are times when Betteridge's reach seems to exceed his grasp, these are amply compensated by the study's breadth and scope. Students of the English authors discussed here will take pleasure in the juxtaposition of familiar texts, while those who have known More through his engagement with Renaissance humanism will find that it enriches and deepens their understanding of the influences behind his work.



1. E. E. Reynolds, Thomas More and Erasmus (Fordham University Press: New York, 1966).

2. A focus on the Latin, as opposed to English, would reveal that Hythlodaeus uses the two Latin terms to distinguish the Christian wisdom of Jesus from the pagan reason of Plato. The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 4: Utopia, ed. Edward Surtz and J. H. Hexter, English text revised from the translation of G. C. Richards (Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 104 and 242.

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Brendan Cook

University of South Florida