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Wiping the slate

Spurred, it seems, by the destruction wrought by Islamic State fundamentalists in the Assyrian city of Nimrud earlier this month, Simon Schama has written a short essay in the Financial Times (March 14th/15th) on the impulse to iconoclasm.

From the winter of 1643 through to the following summer William Dowsing, also known as “Basher” Dowsing, provost-marshal of the armies of the Eastern Association during the English Civil War, was entrusted with the task of destroying “all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry” in the areas under his charge. He operated particularly in the counties of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk and is thought to have visited, and helped destroy, two hundred and fifty churches. Items to be targeted included fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images of the Virgin Mary and pictures of saints or “superstitious inscriptions”, and later also angels, rood lofts, holy water stoups and images, whether in stone, wood, glass or plate.



One regrettable omission from the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Schama notes, was “the sledgehammer gangs unleashed by Thomas Cromwell during the dissolution of the monasteries”.

In the first phase, the wreckers’ targets were works said to promote foolish devotion to spurious miracles. But, from 1547, during the reign of the boy-king, Edward VI, a much more aggressive onslaught was launched on all images equated with “idolatry”. It has been estimated that by the time this state iconoclasm ended, with Edward’s death in 1553, England had lost as much as 90 per cent of its Christian art.

So we must guess that either what Basher Dowsing was destroying in the 1640s was just a small remnant of what had once existed or that that corner of East Anglia where he operated had once been exceptionally rich in sacred art: in the village of Clare in Suffolk a thousand paintings were said to have been destroyed by Dowsing’s mallet gang.

The puritans (all puritans) were always very keen to classify what they destroyed as “superstitious”, which often seemed to boil down to the fact that it was not “scripturally attested”. Thus anything that is related or portrayed which does not come from the Bible (but rather has arisen through “tradition”) is superstitious nonsense, while anything that is in the Bible, no matter how wildly improbable, is the literal truth and cannot be doubted. This, it would seem, is the essence of fundamentalist Protestantism and it is still of course to be found on this island, where the North’s Free Presbyterians, for example, feel obliged to reject the geological evidence on the origin of their main tourist attraction, the Giant’s Causeway: your beliefs and practices (“devotions” to particular saints, the sacraments of penance or eucharist) are base superstitions; mine (the world was created in 4004 BC, the penalty for homosexual acts should be death) are unshakeable truths.


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Of course those who wish to sweep away all superstition are not always seen in as unsympathetic a light as is Basher Dowsing or the fanatics of IS. Voltaire, who with some justification still gets a good press, wished to dissolve superstition with scorn (he still believed in God, but not in priests); the French revolutionaries, however, in their efforts to bury superstition (making way for “the religion of humanity”) preferred the more direct means of the sword and the hammer. In 1922 Lenin and Trotsky sent two shiploads of liberal and Christian Russian intellectuals into exile from Petrograd. As Frances Stonor Saunders wrote in a review of Lesley Chamberlain’s book on the subject, The Philosophy Steamer: “Lenin spoke of religion as getting off on the dead; he referred to those he was evicting as "the shit". Trotsky, eager assistant in the deportations, described one of the victims as "a philosophical, aesthetic, literary, religious sponger, that is, he's the dregs, trash."

Many years ago I listened to the views of an associate who told me that he could see no reason why young children should be allowed read fiction (or “stories”), particularly given how much work was involved in understanding the world from a scientific perspective – he was himself a scientist. At the time he did not have children and I don’t know if he has had them since – or indeed if he has changed his mind on the matter or if he has not what his children are like. But when a popular newspaper columnist argues that children should not be taught “fairy stories” in school as the time so spent (wasted) might detract from arming them to compete effectively out there in the jobs market I think it matters very little whether the fairy stories objected to are about Hansel and Gretel, Diarmuid and Gráinne or Adam and Eve. What we are dealing with here is militant philistinism, or, as Ryszard Kapuściński, citing TS Eliot, put it, a kind of provincialism which is entirely ignorant of the past and its value:

We normally associate the concept of provincialism with geographic space. A provincial is one whose worldview is shaped by a certain marginal area to which he ascribes an undue importance, inaptly universalizing the particular. But T.S. Eliot cautions against another kind of provincialism – not of space, but of time. “In our age,” he writes in a 1944 essay about Virgil, “when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space but of time: one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials, can only become hermits.”

It may seem quite a large step from the roundhead attacking wooden angels with his mallet to the secularist pundit wishing to banish them (and presumably also wizards, talking animals, kings and queens, princes and princesses, gods and heroes) from the modern classroom in the interests of preparing our children in the most streamlined way possible to be employable units. But it is not actually that large: both impulses indeed are motivated by a (“forward-facing”) certainty that one is right, a dislike of complexity, a distrust of mystery and the ineffable and a desire to wipe the cultural slate clean and deprive us of a vital inheritance.

23/3/2015