Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

Very brief indeed…

🙂 🙂 😐

According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.

My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.

Paul Scofield as More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.

Anton Lesser as More in Wolf Hall (2015)

Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…

John Guy

Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, SPCK.

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51 thoughts on “Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

  1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear you weren’t impressed with this one, FictionFan. With such an interesting historical figure, there’s lots that could’ve been done, and it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t more ‘meat’ here. Glad, though that what you did read was well-written.

    • Yes, I’m not convinced these brief histories serve much purpose, but it might just be down to personal preference. I really did feel I could have just read Wiki and got all the same info though. Oh, well! Hopefully it will work better for other people!

  2. Meh, sounds like one I can pass on. Sad to end the week on a downer, but there’s always leftover Easter chocolates — and wine! — to induce more levity. Have a good one!!

  3. Sorry you were disappointed, but at least you’ve saved me wasting a few hours. I have read Utopia, which is up there with Middlemarch in the “most tedious book ever” category!

    • Ha! Good to know! I must say Guy didn’t inspire me to rush out and add it to my TBR! Yes, I doubt you’d find this one any more satisfying than I did… oh, well!

  4. Or as the author Amy Krouse Rosenthal (recently passed away at far too young of an age) so succinctly titled one of her picture books: “I Wish You More”

    Guess I don’t have to pick this one up. Ever. 😀

  5. Sorry you were disappointed but you chose some great pictures – loved Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons and Anton Lesser is an honorary member of my “always good” category of actors. He scores extra points as he got me through Paradise Lost on my OU course because of his narration of the audio books.

    • Digging out the pictures made me want to watch A Man for All Seasons again – and the Anton Lesser pic reminded me I still haven’t watched Wolf Hall! I love both these actors too, and it might be fun to compare how differently they portray More…

  6. I’ve avoided these ‘brief history’ books for the precise reasons you give here, so I’m glad if I might be right to keep clear of them. Would much rather have something that goes into its subject with great depth. I think Diarmaid MacCulloch, never one to write a ‘brief’ history, has a biography of Cromwell out this year? Looking forward to that.

    • I think these might appeal more to people who don’t read ‘normal’ histories and biographies – I’ve tried a couple of them now and have found them very unsatisfying. Oh, I must look out for that – I haven’t come across him before. I’m kinda stuck in all my Russian Revolution stuff at the moment, but a Cromwell bio would make a welcome break… 😀

  7. Hmmmmmm. I shall redress the balance slightly. I rather like to begin with something short and simple. My knowledge of More is about on a par with yours, although I only recently discovered (from a book blog the name of which I can’t remember) that he wrote Utopia. It seems that these days (ha, images of bath chairs abound) I can only absorb generalities or very small snippets of facts at a time. So, learning that More wrote Utopia was a single fact – which I have remembered! 😀 Utopia even made it to the tbr list, seeing as it seemed quite an important tome. (I’m slightly less enthusiastic now…) Reading a short biography such as you’ve described would be good for me. It would cement the little knowledge I currently have; give it a context; and give me the confidence to maybe read Guy’s longer book. And I’d probably feel rather smug too but we’ll skim over that.

    I’ve just looked at the series itself: Very Brief Histories. There are many books and they range widely in historical subject. Most cost just a couple of pounds. (with a £1 voucher thrown in if I’ve looked properly but I may have that wrong.) They seem ideal for getting a working knowledge of a historical event or figure that one perhaps came across elsewhere and wanted to slot into one’s paltry worldview. (For ‘one’, read ‘Sandra’: I wouldn’t want to suggest that yours, or anyone else’s worldview is paltry, dear FF! 😉 )

    More seems to be one of the longer books – and is currently very pricey at almost £9. I wouldn’t pay that much for such a short book – but you have piqued my interest in the series and I can see myself turning to some of the cheaper ones 🙂

    • Well, actually I’m glad to hear that these have piqued your interest. I do think it’s the format that doesn’t work for me – I tend to weirdly like my biographies to run to 800 or more pages and tell me every detail of everything ever! (Which I then promptly forget as soon as I finish reading, but never mind… 😉 ) Guy is undoubtedly one of the major current experts on the whole Tudor era and I’ve loved a few of his books – especially his book on Thomas Becket (not Tudor, I know), which was really the book that started me reading history again after many years away from it. His book on Mary Queen of Scots is excellent too. But recently he’s done a few of the these ‘brief’ histories, or ‘short’ ones for another publisher, and on each occasion I’ve felt as I did about this one – that anyone interested enough to want to read it probably already knows as much as it tells.

      But I’d be happy to be wrong! If you do decide to try some of them, I’ll be interested to hear whether you feel they work for you. There’s another blogger – I can’t remember who at the moment, unfortunately – who regularly reviews this style of book and finds them throughly enjoyable and good introductions to the subjects. I expect this one is only so highly priced because it’s just come out – the price will probably drop soon.

  8. Haha I know quite a bit about Thomas More having read a very detailed university essay numerous times – I was in charge of proofreading and it seemed to go on for weeks although it wasn’t 144 pages worth!! In short, I’m not tempted by this one 😉

    • Haha! Maybe I should take up a career as a proofreader – think how educated I could be! I suspect the essay probably went into at least as much depth as this book, so I’ll let you off this time… 😉

  9. PLEASE don’t tell FictionFan, but…………….I am reading American Pastoral (absorbedly, on a ‘buddy read’) It has been worth the wait, except of course I am berating myself for the wait. None of which has anything to do with More’s short history. As far as I know, as I haven’t reached the part yet where the author goes off into an aside about Thomas More (!)

    • Woohoo! Well, I’m glad your OTHER buddy finally persuaded you to read it! I look forward to hearing what you think! Ah, so you haven’t reached the bit where he gets bitten by a vampire and starts hallucinating about Anne Boleyn? Well, you still have that to look forward to then…

      • Acksherley, it was me persuaded them, in order to get going on it myself. We are buddy reading American novels, and this was my choice. It was a hard choice between a re-read of Gatsby and this.. it will take 3 weeks, the way we are doing it, but it’s probably a good sign that I got pretty well hooked and have had to say whoah in order not to be leaping ahead on the staged discussion

        • The only buddy reads I’ve ever done were the Barsoom books with the Prof – and I always finished them about six weeks before he did, and then kept having to check if he was done yet before I could post my review! I decided in the end buddy reads should only be done with buddies who like reading! 😉 I do hope you enjoy American Pastoral, but will be interested to hear your response to it either way…

          • Oh the buddies do. We agree on the timescale, it might only be 3 or 4 of us who proceed on, and do partway postings. Our schedule is a section a week. I certainly have been hooked by the first third. Should I stay locked in thought provoking admiration and brain chatter, and it make the blog, I will then go back, once finished scribbling, to ‘re read your review and do the greatful linky. It’s just as well I checked to see what predictive had produced in the fire, as though I typed greatful and prevented it from inserting the horrid gr8 (ugh, I hate and abbreviations) it tried to punish me by inserting ‘dreadful’ in front of linky!

  10. Have you read Roper’s Life of More? William Roper was More’s son-in-law, so it’s all contemporary.

    • No, I haven’t. Interesting! I must admit I usually read modern histories rather than contemporary accounts – mainly because they’re easier to read but partly because the closer to the events, the more you have to allow for bias, I find.

      • Interesting comment on bias in history, there, FF. When (eons ago) I was studying history at university and we had to read Roper as part of our course, we were taught that the best way to get at the truth was to take account of bias as you read. For instance, if Roper had written something uncomplimentary about More, you take it very seriously, much more so than when he’s heaping praise upon him.

        • Yes, and you also have to allow for whatever was happening when it was written, too – like Shakespeare’s histories being careful not to upset the current monarch etc. Which means you have to have a pretty good understanding of both periods – when the subject lived, and when the writer lived – before you begin…. which I don’t always have… AND you need to know if the writer had an agenda. I know you need to know all those same things with modern historians, but at least I understand the context they’re writing in, if that makes sense…

          • All historians have an agenda. Even those writing about events several centuries ago take sides. When I was at university all those millions of years ago, my tutor (teaching me the Reformation) was definitely on the side of the Catholics, despite being an atheist himself.

    • Ah, I knew I’d been reading reviews of short histories, but couldn’t remember for sure whose blog they were on. Yes, I suspect it’s the format of these that doesn’t work for me – and the ones I’ve read have all been about subjects I know at least a little about. I’m going to stop taking them for review, because I don’t really like giving negative reviews where I feel it’s just a mismatch between book and reader…

  11. Every time you review a book about a historical figure, I wonder, “Why did she read this book? What about it interested her?” Then I remember, “Oh, yeah. Some people are smarter than me and have HEARD of the people about whom they are reading.” But you make a great point here; why WOULD someone want to read such a short book? I always thought short little historical bios were for children–and pictures must be included!

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