Saturday, October 16, 2010

History without Medication

How different history would have been if certain leaders had been given the medication they needed. I speak anachronistically, of course, since I am preparing to give a talk next week about "The Lion in Winter," the 1968 film about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is filled with intentionally amusing anachronisms. The screenplay by James Goldman spits and sparkles with sarcasm and memorable wit.

The real Henry II (Plantagenet) seems to have been hyperactive, in today's language; the various chronicles record his restless energy, his refusal to sit down (except on a horse). He preferred to conduct business standing up, and was always in a hurry, moving from one castle to another (no permanent home) or from one battle to another. He died at 56, worn out, in 1189.

Peter O'Toole, who seemed destined to play this king (twice on film), roars and bellows while Katharine Hepburn as his troublesome wife Eleanor plots and schemes with their unlovely sons. Quite a family. Quite a movie.

I have also dipped into a new book, "The Tudors," by G. J. Meyer, whom I knew in college when we worked together on the St. Louis University News. The focus of his very ambitious book is on later kings named Henry: Henry Tudor and his notorious son, Henry VIII. How different history would have been if the latter had eaten more sensibly and had some of his egomaniacal tendencies controlled by more than alcohol.

This is not a point made by Meyer, who successfully portrays the Tudors as a far cry from the glamorized Hollywood figures we know almost too much about. Henry VIII here is seen as an arrogant, opinionated bully who ended up as a tyrant; he bankrupted England after acquiring more treasure than any of his predecessors.

What is sometimes called, mildly, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, was really a destruction, a wholesale slaughter of thousands of men and women and of the schools, hospitals, and homes for the poor and aged whose inmates were now turned loose.

This has always been for me one of the worst events in English history: destroying libraries and art treasures as well as a way of life, insisting on everyone believing what the king believed. Henry insisted on conformity even while causing a division and confusion in religious belief and practice that continue centuries later to haunt his realm, setting Catholics against Protestants--and all to satisfy his colossal ego.

I don't know if history is essentially biography, as Carlyle said in the Victorian era, but the power of an unbalanced individual, unchecked, has wreacked havoc on the world in other eras. Why is such power unchecked? In many cases, like Henry VIII's, fear is the answer. Tyrants establish reigns of terror.

Meyer in his huge popular history of the Tudors has made this clear.

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