John Bossy

John Bossy is an emeritus professor of history at York University. His books include Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story.

Compared to boring old Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, we think, had a short life and a gay one. When not writing his sonorous verse, he was spying, preaching atheism, fighting and getting murdered. Park Honan has done one of the two already, and now has done the other. Coming shortly after David Riggs’s solid, even too-solid The World of Christopher Marlowe, his Christopher Marlowe:...

Once I rebuked for bad taste a friend who described Savonarola, at his execution, as ‘serving as the pièce de résistance of a public bonfire’. Actually his taste was better than mine: I had ignorantly supposed that the friar had been burned alive, whereas he had been hanged first and his dead body then burned in what was indeed a public bonfire. His soul had gone...

What on earth, you ask, is a scarith? Well, it is a sort of mud-piecrust package, which may be tubular in shape, containing in various layers documents of immense antiquity. What language is the word from? Apparently from ancient Etruscan, or Hetruscan, if stories about the grandeur of the Tuscan kingdom up to the time of Lars Porsena of Clusium are to be believed. Since the Etruscan tongue...

Why is it so hard to write a decent history of the Jesuits? Perhaps the subject is too large; but people manage with other worldwide institutions, such as the British Empire or the Roman Church in general. Why would the Society of Jesus prove more tricky? Well, there is the long history of self-advertisement, which has sometimes seemed to be one of its special characteristics, and the equally...

Holbein’s double portrait known as The Ambassadors must have been anatomised any number of times since its emergence into public view at the end of the 19th century, and recently had an exhibition all to itself in the National Gallery; but I doubt if anyone has gone into it so pertinaciously as John North. North is an expert in the history of astronomy and mathematics, so naturally his...

Remember Me: Hamlet

John Bossy, 24 May 2001

Stephen Greenblatt has moved on, or back, and not only from Berkeley to Harvard. He ended Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) with an account of Othello similar in shape to his present account of Hamlet, but pretty unconvincing; Hamlet in Purgatory hits the nail resonantly on the head. As is the way with new historicist interpretation, both expositions proceed by relating a crux in the play to...

Haleking: Simon Forman

John Bossy, 22 February 2001

Twenty-five years ago A.L. Rowse, whose memory becomes more blessed in an age of research assessment exercises, made known to the world the riveting personality of the Elizabethan and Jacobean astrologer, private-enterprise medical practitioner, counsellor, sexual athlete and compulsive writer Simon Forman. Forman’s voluminous papers, case-notes, diaries and all sorts of other writings...

It is a shame for a 16th-century historian to know nothing about astrology, but that has been my case, and I should think that of most others in this branch of the profession. I come across, say, a letter from a French Ambassador in London in April 1583, where he remarks that there is about to occur a ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Aries, something that happens once every seven hundred and sixty years or so and heralds some frightful disturbance in the sublunary world. What am I to think? That he is writing an obligatory letter to somebody he needs to butter up but has nothing really to say to? That he is reporting a matter of general concern in the distinguished conversational circles he moves in? Is passing on superstitious gossip from the servants downstairs? Has just had a letter from Jean Bodin, or been talking to his newly arrived guest, Giordano Bruno? Has been studying his almanacs to find out what line he should take between the poles of English politics, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots?‘

In 1846 Karl Marx published a version of a chapter about suicide which had recently appeared in a book by one Jacques Peuchet entitled Mémoires tirées des archives de la police. Peuchet had been an encyclopedist and statistician of some distinction, and is said to have invented the term ‘bureaucracy’. He had survived the Revolution, and under the restored Bourbons had become archivist of the police records of Paris and hence a benefactor of Richard Cobb and readers of his Death in Paris (1978). The records of suicide caught Peuchet’s eye, and he had a line on it. The line was to defend suicides against the customary condemnation by claiming, like Thomas Hood in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, that their despair was the effect of a general lack of Christian charity in the field of social relationships. He illustrated this by invoking the oppressive use of parental or paternal authority, particularly against girls, which had perhaps been encouraged by the Code Napoléon. They were victims, not of Society with a capital S but of a shortage of society, or sociability.‘

Everybody knows that Abelard was a philosopher, the lover of Heloise, and castrated in consequence: a romantic figure, like say Tchaikovsky, in an age of epics. Michael Clanchy’s life of him is too serious to count as romance, and too witty to be epic. He writes extremely well, and matches with a wide and happy learning, which runs from Socrates to Eliot and from Cole Porter to Eco, his intense engagement with the mind and heart of Western Christendom in the 12th century, a time which always seems particularly springlike. His engagement is no less with the authors who have already written about Abelard, 76 of whom are cited briskly in his preface; but he does not bang on about it. He is telling a story; his mode, to borrow a phrase from Peter Burke, is thick narrative.

A Tall Stranger in Hoxton

John Bossy, 3 July 1997

In the spring of 1604, the English were adjusting to the arrival of King James from Scotland, attending to the doings of his first Parliament, and awaiting the arrival of envoys from the King of Spain to negotiate an end to twenty years of war. Peace, even with the Scots, was in the air. This did not please everybody, and some of the people it did not please were Catholics, who thought that the Spaniards had let them down by failing to make formal toleration for them a condition of the peace. They also had a grudge against James, who was supposed, before his accession, to have promised to remove their disabilities, and was now, they thought, about to put the Elizabethan code against them back into force.


John Bossy, 4 April 1996

Do we need narrative history? Yes, because otherwise we shall live on clichés about it, like the French. Do we need a narrative history of England? Yes, for the same reason, and because otherwise we shall think that the past is an allegory of the present and be suckers for propaganda for good or bad causes, environmental, constitutional, criminological, Euromushy, feminist. Do we need multi-volume histories of England? Yes, probably, because there is a limit of compression below which narrative history cannot do its duty. Do we need them to be produced by one firm of publishers? Doubtful: volumes will be better or worse, and are most unlikely to amount collectively to the seamless web Lord Acton dreamed about for the Cambridge Modern History. So, do we need a New Oxford History of England? The old one, got off the ground with great promptitude by G.N. Clark in the Thirties, held up by the war, and finished with A.J.P. Taylor’s extra volume on 1914-45, does not much ring in the mind, except for its first two volumes (Collingwood and Myres, and Stenton) and Taylor’s. I doubt if the new one will fare any better. John Roberts, the general editor, does not show his hand in detail, and we must keep our fingers crossed about the whole being greater than the parts by giving ‘an account of the development of our country in time’ – ‘our country’ meaning something different for King Alfred and Queen Victoria, but ‘the state structure built round the English monarchy’ being the core of it.’’

Tush Ye Shall Not Die

John Bossy, 23 February 1995

There must be an ecumenical spirit at work at Yale University Press for, having just given us Eamon Duffy’s masterly and devoted evocation of English Christianity before the Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars, they have now made things even with David Daniell’s William Tyndale. Tyndale’s life is soon told. He was born, probably in 1494, of a landowning and entrepreneurial family in that part of Gloucestershire where the Cotswolds meet the Severn, since then the home of Evelyn Waugh (temporarily: the ghost of Tyndale got the better of him), of a bird sanctuary and a power station. Then it was most famous for the cloth trade, which gave Tyndale plenty of support during his life. He went to Oxford, where he discovered Erasmus, and perhaps to Cambridge as well. Around 1523 he left Gloucestershire for London, and tried to persuade the learned Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to let him translate Erasmus’s New Testament into English. When Tunstall turned him down, he went abroad to the Netherlands and Germany, where he published his translation, now of a Lutheran stamp, in 1526.

Application for Funding

John Bossy, 23 April 1992

Francis Bacon has had a variety of reputations, which have tended to go up and down in a random or independent sort of way. At the moment he is generally regarded as a master of English rhetoric, an unsuccessful reformer of natural philosophy, and a cold fish. Julian Martin has tried to put him together, not by a lumping biography, but by finding the crux. His title is clumsy, but he is a good read, has an excellent point to make, and makes it successfully. His line is that it has been impossible to get at the inwardness of Bacon because of the radical division between writers who are interested in the history of science or philosophy, in Jacobean politics, and in the advancement of English prose. His method of dealing with this is to engineer a restoration of proper categories, where ‘science’ is not distinguished from ‘polities’, or indeed from the ‘arts’, if the construction of aphorisms is to be regarded as an art.


Marlowe cleared!

14 December 2006

Park Honan says that it is hard to know where to start with complaints about my review of his life of Marlowe (Letters, 4 January). We might start with the trivial details. Faversham was never a Cinque Port. He describes Padua as ‘struggling with other small states against Hapsburg and Valois control’. On p. 123 he says that Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, ‘trusted that...

Walsingham’s Plumber: John Bossy

Patrick Collinson, 5 July 2001

‘Incidentally, they know you know they know you know the code.’ Peter Ustinov’s Cold War satire Romanoff and Juliet (1956) could have been about Salisbury Court, the London home...

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Nolanus Nullanus

Charles Nicholl, 12 March 1992

The files of the Elizabethan intelligence service are a rich and oddly neglected source: rich in historical detail, in the surprising appearance of famous names, in the whole tawdry but...

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