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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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3 comments:

VIVAT REX! said...

All fine and well, but Henry's astonishment when he saw the press was a bit misplaced. Books had been printed for eighty years - and sixty in England - and Henry had written a couple of published, printed books, himself. For one of them he was named "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X. He had certainly harnessed the power of the press to So he was very familiar with printing and that scene, like many in this series, was quite misleading.

Not to deny the importance of the press in the entire Henry VIII saga. Without it, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon would have been even more difficult to pull off, and the course of the English Reformation (especially the introduction of the Bible in English) would have been vastly different.

Paul Levinson said...

I don't recall Henry being astonished - but, rather, Canmer and George Boleyn.

It's certainly possible that neither man had ever actually seen a press in operation.

Comparable, to say, in the 1920s, two government officials, or corporate execs, being brought to a radio broadcast facility, and being amazed at what they saw (even though they had heard radio broadcasts).

But, in any case, for me the essence of the scene was the amazement at the use of the press as a political weapon - which was certainly new (the early outpourings of the press in England were Canterbury Tales and the Bible).

I grant you that this might have been made a bit more clear, in contrast to just amazement at the press in general.

Gregory House said...

Please bear in mind this is a 'Hollywood' representation of the Tudor court and the era. Considering Henry's early and ongoing interest in mechanical devices there is little doubt that he had seen a press in action before he became king. On the reaction of George Bolyen et al the printing houses of London were very much on the street and not hidden away. Just walking through the city every day they would have been familar with the press and its processes. However it is clear that the 'historical' Cromwell understood the political implications of the press in the public and paper battle for the annulment.

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