Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, London, BL, King's MS 9, f. 62v.

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, London, BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v.

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Wolf Hall. Everyone else is doing it. Yet, here I am, timing myself to twenty minutes for this. Because I loved Wolf Hall. I loved the book and I loved the first episode of the TV series. I think the candlelight works, I think it looks amazing, and, frankly, you could sell me most anything with Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance and I would be happy.


Wolf Hall has a bit of a woman problem, and it’s a familiar woman problem. In order to make Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, you have to oust Thomas More. You have to get rid of that image of kindly, noble, gentle Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons, lovingly educating his daughter in Humanist ways and standing up for his conscience.

One of the ways Mantel achieves this, in the books, is to give Cromwell a family life – and, personally, I found the opening paragraphs of Bring up the Bodies, stunningly poignant and brilliant. It opens with “His children are falling from the sky” and then shows that Cromwell’s hawks are named after his dead daughters. In the TV series, this family intimacy plays out in a scene where Cromwell sits with his daughter on his knee, letting her leaf through a gorgeous facsimile prayer book, while she comments that she’d like to learn Greek, as well as Latin. Kate Maltby, who’s been tweeting the series, has written a lovely review that comments on the historic validity of this, linking Cromwell’s daughter to other precocious young women educated in Greek. From the medieval side, I found both Cromwell’s closeness with his daughters, and his reading-aloud of his son’s letter, nicely authentic: I could see echoes of the Paston family there, and Rachel Moss has shown that our image of distant medieval fathers is misguided.

No, my problem is with Cromwell’s wife. You see, this scene is echoing bits of A Man for All Seasons: feminist papa, precocious daughter … someone has to represent the annoying intrusion of Tradition and Caution. And, just as in More’s household it’s his wife Alice, so too here, it’s Cromwell’s wife who looks dubiously instructs her daughter to leave her Latin learning for her breakfast. In the older film, More’s wife Alice is a caricature medieval Catholic woman, uninterested in More’s Humanism, emphatically rejecting to his offer to teach her to read. I’ve noted before that illiteracy this strikes a false note, it typically being medieval women who taught children to read. It belongs to a stereotype of medieval Catholicism as backwards and unbookish, a yoke energetic Humanist men (and their daughters) were throwing off, while their wives clung to it.

It’s slightly disappointing, then, in Wolf Hall, to see Elizabeth Cromwell lean across the breakfast table, disapprovingly, to hand her husband a parcel whose contents are obviously something subversive. “If you want to know,” he begins, and she cuts him off: “I don’t what to know”. It turns out that the parcel contains a book, an unbound New Testament in Tyndale’s translation. Cromwell eagerly proselytises:

“You should read it for yourself. It’s in English, that’s the point, not Latin. How can that be heresy? Read it and you’ll see how you’re misled. No mention of nuns, monks, relics, popes …”

This little speech, sounding a bit too much like a twenty-first century Biblical literalist’s view on the subject, gets shot down by Elizabeth: “My prayerbook is good reading.”

This is as neatly-drawn an opposition between (misleading, outdated Latin) Catholicism and Brave New English Proto-Protestantism as you could wish. For Cromwell, the austere, unbound, plain-looking English New Testament holds the promise of religious and social revolution, freedom from the lies of the medieval Church.

It bothers me that this scene feeds, subtly, into the twenty-first century idea of ‘The Medieval,’ which has become a code word for primitive, superstitious (and, often, Middle Eastern or Islamic) attitudes and actions. I don’t particularly like the gendering of religion in this way, in which women are repeatedly the representatives of a medieval Catholicism characterised by illiteracy and misleading superstition. I don’t like the way that it covers up a pretty well-known history of women as educators and book users. I’ll keep watching, but I’d like to know what you make of these quibbles.

16 thoughts on “Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two

  1. I wonder if the unwillingness of Cromwell’s wife to read the Tyndale New Testament has less to do with “Catholic illiteracy” and more to do with the perceived risk to her family of having such a book in the house? At the time in which this scene is set, Henry has still to break with Rome, and even after this Protestant theology was still a risky business.

    • Oh, I am absolutely sure that is the implication – but I dislike the way what could be played as her perfectly sensible caution is represented as a refusal of enlightenment.

  2. Interesting point, and not one I considered when reading or watching.
    I take your point about Wolf Hall in general and this particular portrayal of more as unpleasant, scheming and reactionary – it reminds me of a supervision I had as a graduate student when I unwisely referred to him as “Saint Thomas More” and supervisor responded (in much the same as Cromwell did the other night!),” Do you think you get to be Lord Chancellor just by being good?” But you are right: ousting More from the good guys means, to cut a long story short, moving the Holbein picture to Cromwell’s household.
    Having said that, I rather liked Elizabeth’s line of her “prayerbook was good enough,” which brought the whole debate to the domestic level, and the daughter treasuring the pictures was touching, too. Yes, it’s shorthand, but did mean we didn’t need all the ritual on display, leaving the modern reader/watcher thinking “why did people think this was at all edifying?”

    But a great blog post. Thanks.

    • Oh … but I *want* the ritual on display! And I am not sure I like that it’s the woman bringing it to a ‘domestic level’. It feels too glib for me – medieval Catholicism isn’t just ritual and pictures and emotion.

      Glad you liked the post, though, and thank you for such an interesting reply.

  3. Echoes of the FGM debate here where in some communities, the women are blamed for its continuation because of their internalised patriarchal values. The implications are unpleasant- that it remains the ‘fault’ of women, dragging their heels about modernising and loving the chains that bind. Religion and cultural ritual certainly comes into this too.

    Interesting post and one which challenges some of the intimidation that books like Wolf Hall can trigger in those of us, less familiar with tackling BIG Historical works. You speak of Mantels writing with such affection and warmth.

  4. This a thought provoking post. I, too, loved the book and Mantel’s muscular writing style. And think Mark Rylance’s performance riveting. I see your point about Elizabeth and the arrival of the Tyndale text, but on the whole took her reaction to denote concern for family safety. In the space of one episode the scriptwriters had to do so much ruthless abridging of the book. On the whole they did it pretty well, but here and there the context is delivered up in neat little ‘explanatory’ packages, which perhaps, of necessity, lack subtlety. I would be interested to know how people who have not read the book, or know much history, get along with ‘the plot’.

  5. In many adaptations and quite a few books, it’s unclear to me whether the author is (intentionally or not) trying to discredit “Catholicism” by portraying it as a “women’s thing” or trying to discredit women because they’re the ones clinging to “Catholicism”. A lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric (modern or otherwise) aligns it with traditionally female sins (superstition, irrationality, the bad sort of romanticism, wishful thinking/wish fulfilment, etc.) – contrasted with the striding muscular rationality of Protestantism. It’s a shame if the BBC Wolf Hall is falling into that trap too. It’s an unfair representation of Catholicism AND women!

  6. I agree that that particular scene was a ham-handed, especially Cromwell’s little proto-Protestant speech, and that it had unpleasant gendered overtones. That said, I also think one could decide to read it against the grain. “My prayerbook is good reading” is neither illiterate nor superstitious. It could instead suggest Elizabeth’s deep, thoughtful and recurrent engagement with a spiritual text, much deeper than Cromwell’s superficial biblical literalism. I rather doubt that’s what was intended, or how it came across to the average viewer, but I do think it’s a possible reading of the scene.

    • Well, yes … that’s absolutely what I am arguing, that choosing to read a prayerbook is not actually being illiterate or superstitious.

      • Of course: I guess I’m just trying to emphasize that Elizabeth’s specific line – “My prayerbook is good reading” – has a subversive potential, even if the scene as a whole was reinforcing a gendered stereotype.

      • Yes, I agree, and I do like that possibility of reading against the text – we’ll have to see where it goes next week!

  7. I have only just discovered your blog – what a super find! Now catching up. One of the things that, unfortunately, didn’t make it to the adaptation was the long line of proto-Protestant women that Elizabeth is said to come from. There’s a beautiful line in the book (of course, there are a million beautiful lines in the book!) about the face of Agnes – or is it Mercy? – Elizabeth’s mother (if I recall), the features in which can be traced generations of Lollard strength, or some such. That gives a whole different perspective to this scene, and the thoughts behind this post.

    • Hello! Thanks for commenting – that’s adds a really interesting twist to it all. I don’t remember the line at all, but Mantel is such a great writer and there’s so much you (or I, anyway) only pick up on the second/third/fourth reading.

      Thank you for prompting me to go back to the text!

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