BWW Reviews: Reissue of JOHN KNOX Holds Up History's Mirror and Allows Us to Gaze Upon Ourselves
"It is useless to write of such a man's life in terms of comfortable certainties"--E. Percy
John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, emerged from a densely tangled thicket of sixteenth century history, politics and theology. Making sense of his life and legacy is no easy task. Fortunately, Eustace Percy, whose 1937 biography of Knox has just been reissued by The Lutterworth Press, was the right man for the job.
Having scant, sometimes contradictory, evidence of Knox's childhood, and not much more of his personal life even after his fame rose in the era when Catholic France and newly divergent and roiling England were contesting for Scotland's soul and soil (much as they would for North America's two centuries later), Percy wisely chose to concentrate on Knox's personality and its effect within a larger context which is far more knowable: the history, geography, politics and theology of sixteenth century Europe in general and the Scotland of the Protestant Reformation in particular.
In all honesty, it helps the reader to be somewhat conversant with these things as well. Percy assumed a level of historical (and even linguistic, as more than a few of Knox's own words, liberally quoted here, have either lost or switched their meanings in the ensuing centuries) awareness in his audience which was probably a bit more common in the 1930s--an era in some ways closer to Knox's time than to our own--but is now pretty much the domain of the academic specialist. Certainly the last third of the book is heavily reliant on familiarity with a welter of mostly obscure proper nouns which somewhat dulls the effect of the narrative.
That being said, this is still an immensely valuable read for any modern reader who has even a scintilla of interest in its subject.
In any case, Percy's approach, using Knox's writings as the best available avenue to his mind and treating that mind--more than his documented actions or the responses of his contemporaries--as the thing most worth studying, requires a good deal of intellectual and moral authority to achieve resonance.
As a writer who is able to render large ideas and complex political intrigue in short, crisp sentences that nonetheless reflect the contemplative spirit of the sixteenth century mind, Percy is able to achieve such authority in part because he isn't afraid to let us know when he's standing firmly on the historical record and when he's supplying his own version of the period's controversies.
Those controversies--many of which (the proper place of the Mass and manner of its observance in both public and private worship, for instance) now seem arcane--were the Protestant Reformation's life blood. Not for the first or last time in history, momentous changes sprang from the smallest of spats.
Of course such patterns never emerge in a vacuum and the ferocity of Knox's commitment, following Martin Luther and running parallel to John Calvin's on the continent, grew from one of history's reliably repeating themes: the corrosive effects of concentrated power. This Percy ably and meticulously documents. Faced with a church which could confiscate "ecclesiastical dues" in whatever form it preferred, from a king's gold to the poorest parishioner's family cow, and then bar the sacraments to any who were unwilling or (more often) unable to pay, Reformers spoiling for a fight found themselves preaching to open minds. Even after Catholicism had, under pressure, taken considerable steps to reform itself, the die was cast.