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06 March 2013

'The Life of Thomas More' by Peter Ackroyd

If you wish to know the true difference between a medieval mind, however brilliant, and the Renaissance mind, then this is a wonderful book

Sometimes friends hand me a book quite at random.  This time I was handed Sir Thomas More, well, 'The Life of Thomas More'.  I started the book out of curiosity but was hooked early and hard.  Peter Ackroyd can write.  He does not state facts...he unfolds a life.  His subject, Sir Thomas, was a learned man on the edge of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance World.  Ackroyd from the first sentence immersed me into what is essentially a medieval city and a medieval life.  It was a life full of harsh absolutes.  A man's place in society was determined at birth, where God saw fit to place you, rich or poor.  Hierarchy, respect for those above you and The Church kept order in the world.  God was above all.  To help man please God, to help him attain Heaven and to protect him, the Holy Catholic Church stood as a wise intermediary.  Today people often forget that catholic means universal.  One God, one church, one authority.  'One above all' is what Thomas More defended , which is of course, where Thomas in a very real sense lost his head.  He ultimately believed the church and its voice the Pope are above a mortal king.  King Henry VIII disagreed.  But this rigid system is a medieval system. So was Thomas More a man who in spite of his intelligence and humanist connections could not adjust or was he a man who understood the new world but rejected it because he would not give up his scruples on the whim of a king?  Peter Ackroyd leads us to this question but first he lets us become acquainted with Sir Thomas More.

The Renaissance destroyed the Medieval world and its philosophy. It encouraged the rereading of Greek and Latin philosophers. Man became the center of creation.  Martin Luther crystalized the Renaissance way of thinking by insisting there is nothing between a man’s conscience and God; private faith is enough for salvation.  This new way of thinking was an anathema to Thomas More.

Ackroyd does a superb job of letting Sir Thomas speak in his own words and defend the old order he loved.  Ackroyd's research and subtle interpretation of his subject is humbling.  Thomas More, it can be argued, was the last brilliant gasping breath of the Medieval world and a whole Church.  But what a wonderful lawyer, writer, poet, orator he was.  God, order, loyalty and peace of mind were the lights by which he lived his public life.  To him there was no private life or a private man in a private world.  All was under God, King and Church to be judged.  To live an obedient hard working life was to live according to the wishes of God.  I can only wonder at a life lived in such certainty.

Thomas More must have been a formidable man to share a home with.  There is an old saying "It is harder to live with a Saint than to be one".  This is what came to mind when More married and then a month into widowerhood, married again.  His second wife seems to have had the correct character to manage and encourage him.  I like that Ackroyd spends time on her and the children.  The family was fundamental to More and to neglect it for his intellectual accomplishments is to miss the life he lived.

Peter Ackroyd walks me through the crowded streets of London and introduces me to high and low men.  All the important buildings and churches are pointed out like a good guide, he lets me miss nothing of importance... the noise, the pageantry and the dirt are all disclosed.  If you wish to know the true difference between a medieval mind, however brilliant, and the Renaissance mind, then this is a wonderful book.  I finished the book and regretted the obstinacy and blood lust of a King.  I also regretted the obstinacy and unyielding mind of More.  He is a man who could have guided the coming age if he had embraced some of the good that change would bring.  He seems to have seen only bad in change; the end of the world.  This was a complex, satisfying read.  I learnt a great deal, remembered a great deal and reconnected with my love of history.

Peter Ackroyd 
ISBN: 9780749386405 


  1. Anonymous09:35

    guten tag Miriam,
    I will post one comment for the last 2 blog entries. some very serious history in both of the books you blogged. both are important reads but my deeper reaction is with Stasiland. I am of the age that I heard a lot about the cold war and the wall. I cannot imagine living in those conditions. one of the memories that remains strong in my mind is the breaking of the berlin blockade. it actually happened before I was born. but the DC3 (gooneybirds) that were the main planes used to break the blockade was a plane I saw everyday in the 50's and 60's. we lived near a small town airport and the airline that served that area flew DC3's. reading your blog brought back memories from my childhood when my love of airplanes and interest in history began.

  2. Dear Bob,

    I am glad that the reaction was personal. Sometimes it is difficult to convince others that history is of real value to the here and now, if only to compare. Are we glad the Renaissance happened? Yes, beautiful art and the foundations for what would become human rights and equality... I am sorry for the blood shed and the political hijacking of good questions and ideas... some things never change, like Stasiland points out; those in power will take things as far as they can. But we can learn from the past and remember.

    Warmest Regards, Miriam