Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

I don't mean to be a book bore, but I've now finished Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, her award-winning novel of Tutor England that I bogged last week. Thomas More is dead, Thomas Cromwell is administering the king's affairs, and Henry has his eye on a new lady. Heads are about to roll.

One peripheral comment.

Here we look in on Cromwell's thoughts:
England needs better roads, and bridges that don't collapse. He is preparing a bill for Parliament to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbors, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist. We could pay for them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would all have the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.
Cromwell has another source of income in mind, besides taxing the rich: the fabulous wealth of the Church, which now that Henry has been designated head of the Church in England –- well, technically it all belongs to him. Which is the kingdom's greater need, Cromwell wonders: roads, bridges, fortifications, a secure and well-fed citizenry, or monks and nuns squirreled away -- not always voluntarily -- in their rich monasteries and nunneries, mumbling prayers? A cynical and unholy thought, perhaps, but If nothing else, Cromwell is a practical man, impressed with results this side of the grave.

In Tudor England, it seems, people who fiercely resisted paying an extra farthing in taxes for shelter, doctors, subsistence, or public infrastructure (and, incidentally, fattening the coffers of politicians like Cromwell) gladly spent what little money they had on Masses for the dead and access to holy relics, their eye on eternity.

As they say here in Ireland, that's the way of it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.