The Ends of Life is one of the most enjoyable, provocative, and instructive works of historical scholarship I have ever read. It is a work I will return to again and again, and I doubt that I will ever exhaust its riches—even though its historical narrative occupies fewer than three hundred pages (followed by a hundred and fifty pages of notes). Keith Thomas has provided as rich and compelling a picture of what early modern people lived for—what they believed gave meaning to their existence—as we could ever hope to have. And few if any historical subjects could be more worthy of our attention.
Sir Keith Thomas is widely regarded as one of the greatest living historians, and yet his reputation has been built almost wholly on just two books: Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (1983). Aside from the occasional article or pamphlet, Thomas produced little in the quarter-century following the publication of Man and the Natural World. One might think of him as the Marilynne Robinson of historians, given that almost the same number of years separated Robinson's extraordinary novel Housekeeping from her even more extraordinary Gilead.
Thomas taught at Oxford for over thirty years. (The novelist and biographer D. J. Taylor studied under Thomas when at Oxford, and has written that "He was a brilliant and merciless expositor, quite the cleverest man I met at Oxford or anywhere else—so brilliant and merciless that he should never have been let anywhere near nervous undergraduates.") Then, in 1986, he was named President of Corpus Christi College and held that post until his retirement in 2000. This administrative service is usually cited to explain the long scholarly silence, but the fact of the matter is that Thomas' historical method simply requires extended periods of research and gestation. It's worth noting that his academic career began in 1955: none of his books was produced in less than a decade. We probably wouldn't have gotten The Ends of Life all that much earlier even if Thomas had never been an administrator.
Near the beginning of The Ends of Life Thomas briefly describes his method and identifies his goal as a historian: to produce "a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society." For Thomas, the ethnographic approach requires him to allow his subjects, whenever possible, to speak for themselves; this in turn requires the historian to know what they say; and this requires countless hours spent sorting through obscure archives and perusing dusty and long-forgotten chronicles (in Latin as often as English). Thomas knows what the great and near-great think—Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hobbes, and the noble Puritan divine Richard Baxter make frequent appearances here—but he also has an unerring sense for the telling anecdote from an obscure source. For instance, he explains that the records of the city of Lichfield note an interesting expense: when Queen Elizabeth I made a progress there in 1575, the city paid one William Hillcroft five shillings "for keeping Mad Richard" out of the royal presence.
Why does he relate this story? Because it indicates the concern of the fathers of Lichfield for the "honour" of the city, and the achievement and preservation of a certain dignity is one of the "ends of life"—one of the things that people in the early modern period thought made life worth living. Thomas identifies six general sources of potential or actual fulfillment for English men and women in the years (roughly) from 1500 to 1800. First he explores "military prowess"—the first of the "ends of life" to wane in importance, thanks to the rise of a professional soldiery—then "work and vocation," "wealth and possessions," "honour and reputation," "friendship and sociability" (including marriage), and, finally, "fame and the afterlife." He makes the curious statement in his preface that he chose to "omit any sustained discussion of religion" because it is "too large a subject to be adequately treated here"—curious, because the book is full of distinctively Christian reflections on all the topics mentioned. There were a good many Christians in England in the period that Thomas studies, and it turns out that they have very many interesting things to say about wealth and honor and friendship and all the rest; and they do not always agree with one another.
In concluding his narrative, Thomas—making one of the few claims in the book I disagree with—says that the "traditional message" of Christianity is that "it was to the next world, not this one, that human beings should look for their fulfillment." But his own narrative suggests something very different, namely an energetic engagement with this world, in which work and vocation, friendship and sociability, and all the rest are not simply dismissed but are considered sub specie aeternitatis. For some Christians the "particular friend" (the especially close friend, the "second self") is incompatible with the commandment that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; but the biblical pairing of David and Jonathan is cited often as a model of Christian friendship—one 17th-century minister even thought of his beloved sister as "our beloved Jonathan"—and, as Thomas explains, "in 1778 the Quaker lady Mrs Knowles famously defeated Samuel Johnson" in an argument on this point by pointing to the distinctive affection that Jesus bore for John, the "beloved disciple." Indeed, close friendships were often understood as foretastes of heaven—the Earl of Clarendon thought that friendship was "much more a sacrament than marriage is"—and it was not uncommon in the early modern period for close friends to be buried together.
In the same chapter Thomas elegantly demonstrates the long and slow process by which such openly intimate friendships came to be seen in homosexual terms. Before the 18th century there are few such suspicions, and it was only slowly that male friends abandoned the practice of embracing and kissing to demonstrate their affection, contenting themselves with handshakes. In 1630, John Winthrop, leader of the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay, wrote to his friend Sir William Spring and pleaded for a letter in return: "Let us hear that sweet voice of thine, my love, my dove." Immediately after quoting this, Thomas points out that "as governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop oversaw the execution in 1646 of a sodomite, whom he denounced as 'a monster in human shape.' " Even as we have begun to interpret these figures from the past as though they were just like us, Thomas introduces an anecdote that reveals how thoroughly alien their thinking could be; but he is equally likely to tell a story that suddenly closes the gap of time. It is impossible not to feel a sharp pang of sympathy for John Chesman, a chandler and barber who died in 1508, and left to his fiancée, Agnes—"my wife should have been [if] God had willed"—"a gown cloth that should have been my wedding gown."
Again and again in The Ends of Life, these people from the distant past stand forth to us with a quick vividness, and then yield the stage to others. On social mobility: "At Oxford the phenomenally industrious Dr Prideaux, Rector of Exeter College between 1612 and 1642, kept the old leather breeches he had worn as a young man in order to show his pupils the social depths from which his diligence had raised him. It was said that three men in his college lost their lives in vain attempts to emulate his industry."
On the motivating powers of the fear of hell: "When James Boswell visited the great jurist Lord Kames in 1782, he remarked that the doctrine of the eternity of hell's torments did harm. 'No,' said Kames, 'nobody believes it.'"
On honor and precedence: "In 1625 Roger Williams of Brecon assaulted John Games, declaring that, since he was the fourth son of Sir David Williams, Games ought to have offered to go out of the room before him. Games retorted that he was the second son of Sir John Games and appealed to the Earl Marshal. In 1673 Lord Cholmondeley killed a carter for his 'insolence' in not allowing his coach precedence on the highway."
On the promises of heavenly bliss: "An Elizabethan preacher promised the inhabitants of Wilton, near Salisbury, that 'to live in heaven together is better than to live in Wilton together.' But an old lady on her sickbed, near Lewes, Sussex, was not so sure: when a well-intentioned neighbour informed her that she would shortly go to heaven and be with God, Jesus Christ, angels, and saints, she answered that 'she had no acquaintance there, she knew nobody there, and therefore she had rather live with her and her other neighbours here than to go thither to live amongst strangers.'"
These quotations could continue for some time: there is something equally funny or poignant or surprising on almost every page. This "retrospective ethnography" is a great feast indeed. Reading The Ends of Life, I find myself recalling John Dryden's words about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "'Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty. We have our fore-fathers and great-grandames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, tho' they are call'd by other names than those of Monks and Friars, and Canons, and Lady Abbesses, and Nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, tho' everything is alter'd."
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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