The Past is a Foreign Country: Liturgical Latin and Fiction | James Casper | IPNovels.com
Much we know about the world would be lost were it not for artistic renderings of the past. Memories otherwise would seldom outlive those who remember.
Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars forced professional historians and casual readers alike to revise assessments of the Catholic religion in England in the years immediately preceding the Reformation:
If medieval religion was decadent, unpopular, or exhausted, the success of the Reformation hardly requires explanation. If, on the contrary, it was vigorous, adaptable, widely understood, and popular, then we have much yet to discover about the processes and the pace of reform.
In the almost six hundred pages following this observation, Duffy develops support for this thesis: that the Reformation in England was more of a revolution against a popular, widely-revered institution than an effort to reform something rife with problems and corruption. He can only build his case by reference to contemporary written accounts and a study of Church artistic works that somehow managed to survive state-sponsored efforts to obliterate the past.
The Tudor and Puritan road he guides his readers down is littered with burnt books, defaced statues, destroyed altar screens, and melted down church vessels. Destroy the artistic creations and traditions of an age, and when the last person who remembers it dies, a world dies also. This is where the road ends.
In our own time, those of us old enough to remember the Catholic Church as it was prior to Vatican II are also living with an obliterated past on a road marked ‘Dead End’. Inevitably, as the days move along, we are a vanishing breed on an all but forgotten journey.
These days much is made of the Catholicity of celebrated writers Chesterton, Tolkien, and Waugh. The latter two lived long enough to experience firsthand changes wrought by Vatican II, and both railed against them. (Details are at hand in the Ignatius Press edition of A Bitter Trial.) Tolkien and Waugh would never again feel at home in the Church. G. K.’s childhood memory of successful businessmen, bankers, and shop clerks falling to their knees as Cardinal Manning passed by along Kensington High Street seems to come from a world other than this one. G. K.’s old nemesis, George Bernard Shaw, might think the Church has become a bit more palatable, but what would G. K. himself think? Given his sense of humor, he might have somehow managed whereas Belloc—had he lived to see the day—would have blown a fuse.
Tolkien is said to have been dismayed by the exiling of Latin to what would become in our time a liturgical antique shop.