Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Tudors and the Printing Press

Some wonderful, decisive moments in history have been brilliantly portrayed in the past few episodes of The Tudors on Showtime. I've currently seen 8 of the new season, thanks to Showtime On Demand.

My single favorite moment, being the media historian that I am, was Thomas Cromwell's introduction - to us as well as Archbishop Cranmer and George Boleyn - of a great "new weapon" for the Protestant reformers, in Episode 6: the printing press. This scene was right on in its portrayal of how monarchs such as Henry were able to harness the advantages of the press in their campaign to break free of Rome, and establish their national identities. (And James Frain superbly played Thomas Cromwell, as he does in every episode.)

As media historians such as Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis explained back in the 1950s, and I elaborated upon in my 1997 The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, books printed in English and other national vernaculars in Europe helped crystallize a powerful sense of nationhood. Those few who were able to read were able to see words in their own languages rather than Latin. Public education arose primarily to teach children how to read. More and more people became literate, the Church weakened, and the rise of national states was off and running.

That, however, was only Part I of the story of monarchs and printers. In Part II, which we will not likely see this season, printers begin to break free of the monarchs, and print tracts and pamphlets that were critical of the monarchies. This led to crackdowns by the monarchs, and informed Thomas Jefferson and his insistence on a free press, and a First Amendment insuring it, in America.

Back on The Tudors, the other great moment of historical drama is the Pope's gradual declaration of cultural war on Henry VIII. You couldn't ask for a better actor than Peter O'Toole to play Pope Paul III, and his every word rings with resonance and almost cosmic authority. It won't be enough to overthrow Henry in England, but it's a pleasure to see on TV.

The Tudors
continues to be a feast for the historical intellect - and hey, the sex and romance and heartbreak are pretty good, too.

See also ...

Tooling Up for The Tudors and The Tudors: Transformations and Assassins ... John Adams Concludes, The Tudors Continues, The First Amendment Abides ... The Tudors Concludes and America Begins ...

and my reviews of all of last season's episodes, beginning here ...

and more on the printing press and the Protestant Reformation in my book, The Soft Edge ...

and ...

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