Neither Saint nor Sinner: An Analysis of Richard Marius as Biographer of Thomas More

By Bowman, Glen | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Neither Saint nor Sinner: An Analysis of Richard Marius as Biographer of Thomas More


Bowman, Glen, Southern Quarterly


ON 31 OCTOBER 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More patron saint of statesmen and politicians. As one might expect on such an occasion, the praise flowed as smoothly as water down the mighty Mississippi. According to the pontiff, More was "an imperishable example of moral integrity" and "a source of inspiration for a political system that has as its supreme goal the service of the human person." Moreover, his life and death reflected "unfailing moral integrity" and demonstrated the lesson that "government is above all an exercise of virtue" ("Apostolic Letter"). Arguably, these statements have a strong basis in fact. As sixteenth-century England's most prolific writer, as well as the first non-churchman to serve as Lord Chancellor, More has been lauded as one of British history's great individuals. Ironically, he is most famous not because of what he did, but rather because of what he did not do. He could not, in good conscience, swear an oath in support of Henry VIII's decision to create his own state church separate from the papacy. Because of this he was accused of treason and beheaded in 1534. For his courageous stand in defending the Church, he was canonized in 1935. The 2000 papal declaration cements More's reputation as one of the most decorated saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul's depiction of the man was consistent with the positive image that had been crafted by biographers over centuries. That is, except for one. If renowned writer, teacher, and historian Richard Marius had been alive to hear the pope praising and honoring More, he almost certainly would have been disappointed. He had spent a good portion of his career-over twenty years, in fact-trying to debunk what he saw as a myth. His 1984 book Thomas More: A Biography, that established Marius's reputation as an outstanding biographer and that remains the most compelling and controversial study of the man, had seemingly removed More from the panoply of idols, yet Pope John Paul II was now putting him back on display, as decorated and polished as ever.

It is no exaggeration to say that Marius's work on More represents the achievement of an iconoclast. The purpose of this essay is to examine his contributions-his study of More's writings, his approach to biography-to the study of this man. A careful look at this body of scholarship reveals a thesis that borders on irony. Marius took on the role of iconoclast in order to challenge traditional assumptions that More was a saint. He did this by examining the entire body of More's writings to an extent that had never before been done. Like a gunslinger, Marius shot his reputation full of holes; More's own words were often the bullets. His Thomas More stands as one of the most ambitious, groundbreaking works of modern biography. Nevertheless, a study of his assumptions and epistemology reveals that Marius himself held some myths about the writing of history.

Marius's greatest long-term contribution to the study of More was his editorial work in the magisterial Complete Works of Thomas More, produced by Yale University. Marius was one of several editors, and in this role he wrote some essays accompanying More's key works on heresy. Although much of his editorial work precedes his biography, Marius in these volumes was already depicting More's career as less than saintly. Take, for instance, his piece about the possible sources More used in writing his A Dialogue Concerning Heresies. This can be found in volume 6, part ii of the Yale multi-volume edition of More's writings. According to one of Marius's co-editors, Louis A. Schuster, this treatise represents "the most comprehensive" polemical work from More (Works 8: 1142). Marius almost certainly would have agreed with that assessment, but he himself was more interested in questioning the accuracy of More's sensational description in the Dialogue of the 1527 sack of Rome. In gruesome detail, More describes how soldiers sexually violated and mutilated Roman citizens. …

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