Saturday, January 18, 2014

A grimdark Christmas -- Batman: Noël

Yesterday, I took a break from more serious reading material during my work breaks to enjoy a comic book. The lady got me Batman: Noël, a one-off short story of my favorite superhero in a handsome hardcover edition. What's it about, you ask? The unseen narrator has a working-class voice, telling the tale of a Scrooge who has everything but appreciates none of it; who begrudges one of his workers for taking Christmas Day off to spend time with his son "as though he were getting away with a crime". 

The stand-in for Dickens' classic character needs no introduction: he is, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne, who moonlights as self-appointed lord and protector of Gotham dressed as a flying rodent. Batman is on patrol for the night of Christmas Eve as though it were any other. His prey for the evening is a certain Bob, a low-level Wayne Enterprises employee down on his luck, a single father struggling to support a disabled child. The sunken economy has pushed Bob to desperation; namely, he's agreed to play the bagman and deliver a package for his new employer, the clown prince of crime. Bob, of course, is really just an ordinary working stiff, and is no match for the Bat. The caped crusader allows our part-time crook to escape solely to use him as bait later on: for Batman can rely on the Joker's retribution to swiftly bring him out into the open when he comes to collect. The pieces are in place to put two criminals behind bars, though at great risk to Bob's son at home, to which the embittered, heartless Batman nary gives a second thought... that is, until three "ghosts" come to him through the course of the night to bring him out of the shadows he's too long dwelt.

Observe, in the display case, Batman's "first appearance" costume from DC Comics #27, existing alongside an Adam West-style suit, and finally, a modern armored suit.

Lee Bermejo superbly illustrates the Dark Knight as we know and love him today: bulky, weathered, with a permanent grimace at all the injustice he wades through from night to night. The years of scrapes, bruises, near-death encounters, and seeming futility of all his efforts have taken their toll on Bruce; most of all, the death of Jason Todd. The artist plays with the motif of newer vs. older interpretations of Batman in memory panels, especially the rendering of vintage costumes in the same realist style as the rest of the comic. "We used to play, remember?", says Catwoman in the midst of their latest altercation. It was a risky move, given A Christmas Carol's descent into the realm of cliché in recent decades, but Bermejo, as both writer and illustrator for this piece, puts it all together in such a way that, at the end, old and new visions of the Dark Knight are reconciled, and even the most ardent fan of broody, Frank-Millerized Batman can appreciate why he's been cast as Scrooge for this story.

I have to admit that my own exposure to retellings of A Christmas Carol have been minimal, so I treated the book as mostly an original story; in fact, I think I nearly shed a tear toward the flip of the final page. Altogether, for masterful artwork, decent writing, and clever application of themes all in one hardcover edition that feels "just right" without breaking the bank, I give Noël 9 out of 10 batarangs.

As an aside, I liked Jim Lee's description in the forward of the book as a "neo-Gothic work". That is all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part III

Part III: The King's right hand

Theobald briefly assumed power as regent until Henry and Empress Matilda landed from Normandy. Thomas, naturally, was present at the coronation in Westminster Abbey, presided by his master. And, to ensure that Henry would keep the terms of the Treaty and the Church's interests at heart, Theobald nominated Thomas to serve as Henry's chancellor, even sending two bishops from Normandy to make the case. The office of chancellor was usually filled by a bishop, but given his extensive involvement in royal affairs thus far, Thomas's rank in the Church was no obstacle. Henry confirmed the nomination and brought Thomas into his inner circle.

Now, whether Thomas and Henry were quite the bosom buddies they're portrayed as in the Anouilh play/film is up for debate. William fitz Stephen, the new chancellor's clerk, wrote that "never... in the whole epoch of Christian history were two men more of one mind or better friends." However, Guy observes that William gives precious little evidence to back up the assertion, opining instead that William played up the idea of a past friendship to castigate the king even more for his role in the murder; for as Dante showed us, if any sin is greater than murder in the medieval mind, it's betrayal. What we do know from history is that, at least in the first years of his term, Thomas enjoyed the king's unbound trust over the royal treasury. A common-born Londoner in a court where virtually all high offices, both secular and sacred, were held by sons of the landed gentry, Thomas was obliged to outspend his rivals in every way to assert his authority. This is completely counter-intuitive to our modern attitudes toward world leaders. Where we today are enamored with "people's popes" and presidents that pretend to have something in common with the working class, a public official in the Middle Ages that didn't enter a city in grand procession, didn't feed his guests the finest dishes available in the kingdom, or refused to appropriately dress the part, would be seen by his inferiors as weak, stingy, or both. Hospitality, or what would be known in later codes of chivalry as largesse, was a virtue that measured one's worth as a man and a Christian. There's truth to King Henry's line early in the 1964 film, "on gold plate? I am your king, and I eat off silver". Guy mentions how Thomas once served a dish of eels rumored to cost £180, "enough to keep whole families of laborers in comfort for a lifetime." When traveling to Paris on a mission to secure a marriage between Henry's son and King Louis VII's daughter, Thomas rode with over two hundred mounted followers. In Paris, he went through twenty-four changes of clothes, most being worn once or twice before being given away to Louis's courtiers as gifts, or to charity. Free beer was distributed at every village they passed on the way. Villagers are reported to have said, "if this is the chancellor and he travels in such great state, how much greater must the king himself be!"

And if people really did say such things in the streets of France, then the king could not ask for a better servant. But when the barons and bishops at home whispered that Thomas's consumption outdid the king's, it set the stage for the quarrel they would wage in later years. For now, though, Henry never seemed to mind, and was an uncouth sort in any case. Secure in his birthright, he came to court in his riding clothes and served days-old meat at his table. His hands, unlike Thomas's, were weathered as he never wore gloves save for hawking. Standing four inches shorter than Thomas, he even cut a less royal figure, so it's no surprise if visitors confused the chancellor for the king or outright preferred to dine at the chancellor's house. Thomas's popularity may have worked to Henry's advantage in the end, since he never cared for his own. From the beginning of the reign, Henry established himself as a philanderer, an imp (literally, an impious person), and worst of all, an oathbreaker, such as when he violated the terms of the Treaty of Westminster by seizing William's (Stephen's younger son's) castles and lands. This is not to say that Henry had no interest in governing the kingdom. On the contrary, he embarked on a long-term plan to restore the "ancestral customs" of grandfather, Henry I, and his great-grandfather, the Conqueror; some of which were genuine, others which sprang from the young king's imagination. 

If Theobald banked on his former protégé keeping the Church's interests at heart, he was most probably disappointed, since Thomas showed himself a king's man. The play touches on one of these instances, when Thomas, at Henry's behest, levied a tax on church landowners to pay for the military campaign in France in lieu of providing knights. The wealthier bishops and abbots found themselves paying six times as much in dona ("gifts") as they did before. And Thomas's incursions against the Church were not strictly financial, either. Guy devotes several pages to a case Thomas judged in the Exchequer alongside lords Robert de Beaumont and Richard de Lucy. In 1157, a long-lasting feud between Battle Abbey and the diocese of Chichester came to a head. Walter, abbot of Battle, had aspired to the bishopric of London, but the local bishop, Hilary, refused to give a recommendation. Instead, Hilary chose to assert "supervision over the morals and discipline of the abbey", which the monks resisted all the way until Walter was excommunicated. Fortunately for the monks, they had friends in high places that they could count on to reverse the decision. Battle Abbey drew its name from its founding, built over the site of the Battle of Hastings as William the Conqueror's atonement for the blood spilt for the English throne. The abbey, therefore, was sponsored by and intimately associated with the Norman kings; it even had charters in pristine condition which proved their royal exemption from local diocesan authority. The charters were not denounced as forgeries until nearly a century later, so in Becket's time, the issue at hand was strictly on whether a king had any authority to declare a religious community exempt from a bishop's rule in the first place. When Hilary pleaded his case before the judges, he not only defended his rights to all the souls within the boundary of his see, but went so far as to assert the bishops' autonomy from all powers save for the successor of Peter in Rome. The king, who was present at the hearing, smarted: "Very true... a bishop may not be deposed, but see (and at this he gave a violent shove with his hands), with a really good push, he could be thrown out!" Once Henry's blood was up, there was no stopping him from imposing his will. According to the abbey's chronicler, Thomas sided with the king: "You have forgotten your allegiance to the king, to whom you have, we know, taken an oath of fealty. You should therefore be prudent." In the end, for affronting the king's majesty, Hilary was forced to drop all charges and offer surrender before the entire court, much to Theobald's shame.

The ruins of Battle Abbey. The high altar is supposed to have been built over the very spot where King Harold was slain with an arrow in his eye.

The summer following the Battle case, Henry and Thomas turned their attentions westward with a mind to pacify the insolent Welsh, where Dwain of Gwynedd's men were raiding English settlers. Thomas served as capably a general as he did a treasurer and judge. Despite being formally forbidden from bearing arms by virtue of his ordination as a deacon, he personally took to the field in both Wales and later in France, often leading his men at the vanguard of the force and no doubt slaying the enemy by his own hand. In one instance, during the French campaign to reconquer territory that belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry's wife), Thomas was left with the unenviable task of defending the fortress of Cahors while Henry retreated with the tattered remains of his army back to Normandy. All the barons had "excused themselves" from the command, but again, the London merchant's son allowed himself no such leeway. Not content with merely holding the fort, he sallied forth at the head of his men and stormed three nearby castles at great personal risk, without adequate protection in the rear, but nonetheless pushing the French to the far side of the Garonne.

Can we conclude from all this, then, that Thomas the chancellor plunged a dagger into the Church's bosom in exchange for a life of warmongering and carousing with the king? Not entirely, it seems, for even in those years, there were times when Thomas felt the need to draw a line. For instance, one of Henry's favorite ways of boosting his income was by allowing the seats of bishoprics and abbeys to go vacant for years since he was entitled to collect their revenues until a successor was found. Perhaps Thomas's experience at Canterbury illuminated him to the Church's need for good shepherds, so he used his influence to fill vacancies with haste where he could, often with worthy candidates from Theobald's inner circle of former clerks. In one case, Henry attempted to appoint a baron's illegitimate, illiterate son to the bishopric of Exeter as a favor to the father. Somehow, Thomas managed to subvert the king's will and have Theobald's favored candidate, Bartholomew, appointed instead. Another instance that pricked the chancellor's conscience was Henry's plan to have King Stephen's daughter, Mary of Blois, married off to a cousin he trusted, thereby nipping any chance at a future insurrection in the bud. The trouble was that Mary was not only an avowed nun, but abbess of Romsey. The arrangement was enough for Thomas to call "profane" and "abominable", but though he put his relationship with Henry at risk to block the marriage, his influence wasn't enough, and Mary was dragged out of the nunnery for reasons of state.

Thomas's occasional pangs of conscience at this stage in his life weren't enough to answer Theobald's summons when the archbishop was on his deathbed. To the king, he wrote, " since the evils of these days deny us your bodily presence, you would at least allow our archdeacon to return to us... He ought to have come even without our summons and would have been convicted of disobedience before the eyes of God and men did not your needs excuse him." But Thomas, for reasons unknown, never came, and in 1161, Theobald surrendered his ghost to God and left his see at Canterbury for the ravenous king to determine his successor.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part II

In part I, we explored young Thomas Becket's origins in London up to his appointment in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury's household staff as a clerk. Now we'll look at his first ventures into the world of royal and ecclesiastical politics.

The first order of business was orders. Thomas, like any man or boy put to the service of the Church at virtually every level, was ordained to one of the four minor orders, so literally, a "clerk". He was likely a lector or acolyte and served in that capacity in the liturgy, and was expected to maintain a tonsure (that is, to shave the upper part of the head as a sign of humility before God), but was not bound to any religious vows or promise of celibacy. Theobald enhanced Thomas's on-the-job training by hiring a tutor in Roman and canon law. Soon enough, Thomas showed promise in the archbishop's court and and was sent to the University of Bologna (the world's oldest university as we know it) for a year to advance his study of law. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his work now, driven by a newfound ambition to make a place for himself in this world, particularly by gaining the archbishop's confidence. This he did, when in 1149 or 1150, Theobald sent Thomas to Rome to secure the title of "papal legate to England" for Canterbury. The position was previously given to Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester and, much to Theobald's consternation, younger brother of King Stephen. Thus, the king's brother held the highest precedence in the English church and frequently hampered Theobald's attempts to enforce the Pope's will. Fortunately, Pope Eugenius had the sense to put an expiration date on Henry's authority as legate. When the time came, despite the fact that Henry raced to Rome himself to seek a renewal, Thomas convinced the Pope to pass his authority on to Theobald instead. Soon after, the archbishop sent Thomas back to Rome with a mission of even greater importance. Stephen was counting on his brother to secure the succession and crown his son, Eustace. But with Theobald now papal legate as well as archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald held an unimpeachable claim over the coronation rite. Thomas's task was to convince Eugenius to issue a formal decree banning anyone from placing a crown on Eustace's head. This he achieved, eroding Stephen's hold over the realm, bolstering the archbishop's, and establishing Thomas as Theobald's right hand in all affairs.

Stephanus Rex... not quite the most flattering portrait.
By 1153, the house of Stephen was crumbling at the foundations. The hated Eustace died of a heart attack while plundering the lands of Bury St Edmunds Abbey (it's said that the monks of Bury rejoiced at Eustace's timely demise). With the future of England uncertain after Stephen's inevitable passing, even his brother, Bishop Henry, eventually saw the light and threw in with Canterbury, regretting his earlier role in aiding Stephen's usurpation. Between an old and broken king on the one hand and a young prince across the channel without the army to take his birthright by force, the realm turned to the archbishop of Canterbury to mediate a truce. Theobald, meanwhile, turned to Thomas Becket, "my first and only counselor". The ensuing six months were as precarious as walking a tightrope under the jaws of two lions, but at last, Theobald and Thomas hammered out the royal rivals' differences in the Treaty of Westminster. Stephen agreed to forbid Eustace's younger brother, William, from taking the throne. In William's place, Stephen adopted Empress Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, as his own "son and heir" in ceremony, with all the bishops swearing fealty to him in all "saving only the fealty which they owed to the king for as long as he lived". All castles and lands taken during the war would be returned to their original owners on pain of excommunication and interdict. The Anarchy was over.

For Thomas's indispensable service, he was given the archdeaconry of Canterbury. That office's revenues, in addition to sinecures (parish incomes given to absentee officials instead of vicars with actual care of souls) he already received as one of Theobald's favored clerks, meant that Thomas earned more than £100 a year by Guy's estimate; even more than the previous archdeacon, Roger of Pont L'Évêque, now promoted to archbishop of York. The archdeaconry, of course, required Thomas to advance to major orders and forswear marriage and bearing of arms; minor inconveniences in the face of such rich rewards. But even these accomplishments would pale before what was to follow, for within a year of the Treaty, Stephen would die of a bloody flux and the twenty-one year old Henry would assume the throne and impose a new order upon his kingdom.

Part III will cover Thomas's eight year tenure as chancellor of England.