Remembering the Catholic Middle Ages: The Franciscans, English National Identity, and William Hogarth's the Roast Beef of Old England

By Salter, David | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Catholic Middle Ages: The Franciscans, English National Identity, and William Hogarth's the Roast Beef of Old England


Salter, David, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Introduction: An Eighteenth-Century Ecumenical Encounter

AT THE VERY BEGINNING of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), we are presented with a highly emblematic encounter between the novel's fictional protagonist, the Anglican clergyman, Parson Yorick, and a Franciscan friar, who we subsequently discover is called Father Lorenzo. By the time of the novel's publication, Parson Yorick was already well known to the reading public through his earlier appearances as the affable provincial Minister in Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67), and in A Sentimental Journey the author was able to exploit Yorick's existing popularity, along with the contemporary vogue for both travel writing and "sentimental" fiction, with an account of the parson's tour of France. (Although it would appear that he had originally intended to include a description of Yorick's subsequent journey to Italy, Sterne's chronic illness at the time of writing, and his subsequent death a mere month after the novel's publication, prevented him from completing his original plan.) As we might expect from the author of the experimental Tristram Shandy, Sterne offers an extremely unconventional travel narrative that is almost entirely lacking in those elements normally to be found in the genre, such as descriptions of historical sites, artistic treasures, landscape and topography, and so on. Rather, the narrative consists of a set of introspective reflections recounted byYorick of how he is emotionally and morally affected by the experience of foreign travel, and in particular by foreigners and their unfamiliar habits and customs.

It is as a commentary on the English experience of traveling abroad--of confronting the unfamiliar "otherness" of foreigners--that we are invited to read the encounter with the Franciscan, which comes at the very start of Yorick's journey, on the day of his arrival in Calais. Father Lorenzo, whom the narrative first identifies as "a poor monk of the order of St. Francis" approaches Yorick in his Calais lodgings soliciting alms "for his convent." (1) Yorick evidently finds the situation deeply disconcerting: like many eighteenth-century English Protestants, he is affronted by the Franciscan practice of mendicancy--of begging--and is determined not to give the friar "a single sous." (2) However, on dismissing Father Lorenzo in a rather haughty and peremptory manner, saying that there are many people much more deserving of his charity, Yorick immediately regrets his actions. Observing how the friar accepts the rejection with equanimity and good grace, Yorick reproaches himself not so much for his lack of charity, as for the high-handed way in which he acted, and the want of empathy and fellow feeling it reveals. At the outset of his journey, then, in what is almost his very first encounter with a foreigner, Yorick acknowledges his own inability to make the imaginative leap necessary to understand and sympathetically enter into the world of the Franciscan friar. In the language of the novel, he has failed the test of the "Sentimental Traveller," (3) but, recognizing his own shortcomings, he endeavors to do better in the future: "I have behaved very ill; said I within myself; but I have only just set out upon my travels; and shall learn better manners as I get along." (4) And he is almost immediately offered the opportunity to put his good intentions into effect when he once again meets up with the Franciscan, this time in the street, and their second encounter ends much more happily with an exchange of gifts, which cements their newly acquired friendship and mutual respect.

What we see in this brief vignette is something both highly conventional and deeply idiosyncratic. In his initial display of unkindness to Father Lorenzo, Yorick gives expression to the distrust and hostility that was so characteristic of eighteenth-century English attitudes toward continental Catholicism (sentiments that Yorick had already displayed in the pages of Tristram Shandy. …

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