Some time in the middle of last century, large numbers of people studied the history of the Renaissance and the Reformation. And what a contrast the periods formed. There was all that humanistic sunlight pouring in, all that Italian civilisation, and then it was succeeded by the age when Christians decided to torture and murder each other about the details of their faith. Remember the way Kenneth Clark in his famous Civilisation series contrasted the urbanity of some Raphael cardinal with the perturbation and angst of Dürer’s impression of that turbulent priest and troublemaker, the “I can do no other” man, Luther, who nailed his theses to the wall at Wittenberg and precipitated all the walls of a united Catholic Europe to come tumbling down, as the walls of Jericho had at Joshua’s horn.
And if Luther looked like a nutter bent on revolution out of personal angst, what about the Anabaptists? Even in the hippie 1960s, when we liked a bit of chaos and mayhem, the Anabaptists with their intimations of the End of Days and their mad exploitative regimes, some of them sexual, sometimes for children as well as women, seemed just a bit like… well, a sect. There were shades of Charles Manson in all this millenarian madness. And then there was the backlash against them, as harsh and hideous as anything Luther had justified in crushing the Peasants’ Revolt.
Didn’t it show the two sides – fundamentalist and crypto-fascist authoritarian – of allowing religion to usurp the function of politics so that competing theocracies proceeded to tear each other apart with fire and sword?
So why is Paul Ham, the narrative historian enthralled by grave and terrible modern moments who has written books about Passchendaele and Hitler, Hiroshima and Vietnam and the Kokoda Track, why is he preoccupied with early modern Europe, with Germany when the Melchiorites rolled up their sleeves for Armageddon in the city of Münster, before the forces of reaction came storming in to kill them all? Why this fascination with 1535?
A postscript explains the preoccupation with a world where people were blinded by the light they live according to, losing any sense of proportion or tolerance. Is it so unfamiliar in a world where terrorism so often wears the face of Wahhabist Islamic fundamentalism, turning Allahu Akbar (“Allah is greatest”) into a cry of hate? And what about an American right that cheers on the shifting of the United States embassy to Jerusalem in the name of its own creepy fundamentalism?
In an up-to-date insertion into political debate, Ham explains how he thinks any presidential shift from Donald Trump to Mike Pence would be a shift from what he calls, in his forthright way, kleptocracy to theocracy. He sees Pence as the full Christian catastrophe, a man with a vision as dogmatic and narrow as the fanatics of Daesh and their cognates and cousins.
So the author sees his narrative of Reformation Germany as a costume drama prefiguration of the extremes of our own time where religion can be used as the shield for a fanaticism that, to left or right, Islamist or capitalist, is simply the imposition of a reign of terror.
It’s a grim and ghastly tale Ham has to tell and the fact that his technique is so sedulously narrative rather than analytical doesn’t provide the kind of intellectual relief offered by Norman Cohn in his monumental study of the irradiating madness of Christian extremity in The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. Though the title of the most famous work ever written on this subject suggests where Ham might have got his taste for the politics of parallelism in relation to these horsemen of the apocalypse and their hunters down.
The story tends in New Jerusalem to be all the more awful because Ham is immune to the seductions of language or the rustling cloaks and rattling crucifixes of historical echo. In a work about the sorrow and pity of how an age of faith broke up into the internecine dissension of competing Protestantisms and orthodoxies that shared nothing but a commonality of obsession and blindness, it’s surprising that Ham doesn’t invest in the atmosphere and eloquence of the language of the period.
These are People of the Book, however mad and one-eyed, and it’s disconcerting to find Ham in his very epigraph from Luke 19 (where Christ weeps for Jerusalem) quoting the Bible in a tame modern version rather than in one of the grand soaring translations such as Tyndale’s or the Geneva Bible that came to colour the glories of the King James version.
Still, this is a story full of pity and terror enough for any retrospective meditation. John of Leiden, who had ruled Münster like an ayatollah, was nothing if not sincere, and said under inquisitional interrogation that he had lived as the apostles had and that he believed no one had ever had a better understanding of the truth than he had.
And there was no recantation. He stuck to all the details of his creed, he would not renounce adult baptism, he would not deny the human nature of Christ. He would die for his faith. And did.
How he must have astonished and appalled his persecutors, the lion-like courage and saintly grace with which he faced his execution. His last words were: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” His co-religionist Bernhard Knipperdolling, when he was bound to the stake, cried out, “Have mercy, Lord, on me, a sinner.”
How brave they were, how sad and mad it all is even at this distance. I once heard a former minister of the Crown say with passionate sincerity of the supporters of Daesh, “We have to hunt these people down and kill them.” No doubt that’s what Raphael’s urbane cardinal thought, too, of the Anabaptists and all their brethren. QSS
William Heinemann, 384pp, $45
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Paul Ham, New Jerusalem". Subscribe here.