Courtiers and tweetstorms

Holbein and Shakespeare help out gaffeur Sir Tim Hunt

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger
Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “Courtiers and tweetstorms”

  1. Your analogy shows that we are still fighting the Civil War — not the one of the 1860s, but the one of the 1640s.

  2. Certainly not! The only way to never say anything wrong would be to never say anything new or interesting.

    So, I asked this the other day too but I was a bit late and everyone was gone — can anyone here suggest a good biography or history of England during this time? (Or two or three.) I enjoyed the Wolf Hall shows so much and I'd like to know more. ("More," get it? Ba dump bump.) Both the religious debates and the personalities involved.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. David Hume's *History of England*, volume 3. (But I would say that, wouldn't I…) Besides that, and more recent: Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Cranmer has an outstanding reputation, though I'm afraid I haven't gotten to it yet.

  3. Read both of Mantel's books. as good as historical fiction gets She hasn't reached Cromwell's fall yet. It's a counter-CW take on Cromwell, usually taken as a skilled and unscrupulous hatchet-man. But I find her hostile take (from Cromwell's point of view) on the sanctimonious More fair enough.

    1. Thanks! I think I'm hooked. A couple close friends told me Wolf Hall depressed them so much, they quit reading it. So I don't know how long it will take me.

  4. Oh I'm not so sure about Hunt. He said stuff that was stupid, unfunny, and intentional, Then he doubled down, And there's evidence that he's been a sexist shit for years. He finally issued an almost apology to some Korean science group, but defending him as the victim of gossip does a disservice to women in science everywhere. The guy's an asshole, with a reputation and lots of other evidence for being an asshole, (not just this one well-planned and public "slip of the tongue") and if he never gets another professorship where he gets to grade women students or recommend them for advancement, then justice has been served. It's like Dawkins or Harris or Shermer or Hitchens — nobody is complaining about that ONE LITTTLE IOTA of poor judgment, but rather a proven track record of dickishness.

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