Thursday, August 29, 2013

Susan Bordo's "The Creation of Anne Boleyn"

Susan Bordo, Otis A. Singletary Professor in the Humanities at University of Kentucky, is the author of Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, a book that is still widely read and assigned in classes today. During speaking tours for that book, she encountered many young men who asked, "What about us?" The result was The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private. Her work has been translated into many languages and frequently reprinted in collections and writing textbooks. A popular public speaker, Bordo lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and daughter, and teaches humanities and gender studies at the University of Kentucky.

Bordo applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Creation of Anne Boleyn takes us right to the heart of Anne’s downfall: The times, to anachronistically poach from Bob Dylan, were a ‘changing. Yes, Anne had failed to produce a son for Henry VIII, and yes, Thomas Cromwell had his own reasons to plot against her. Yes, she had many enemies at court, and yes, there was Jane Seymour waiting in the wings, with the promise of greater obedience than feisty Anne and fresher eggs for the incubation of a royal heir. None of these factors, however, could have sent Anne to the scaffold had the charges of adultery and treason seemed utterly preposterous to the Tudor jury, for the Tudors were great believers in “the law,” and it was important to Henry that the “appearance of justice,” at the very least, seem to have been done. What helped make that travesty possible, I believe, was a cultural change in the interpretation of courtly banter, which Anne engaged in—innocently but as it turned out, fatally:
Anne was trained in traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady. But it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings). Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected. Especially in the French court [where Anne had spent much of her young adulthood—sb], a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women. As the Middle Ages segued into the Renaissance and then into the Reformation, however, conversations that would have been seen as entirely innocent may have begun to be viewed differently. In an earlier chapter, I looked at the change from Capellanus’s version of courtly love, still rooted in Plato, that cautions young men to turn their backs on carnal pleasure…to Castiglione, with his cynical advice for the most effective ways to overcome the resistance of their female prey. If actual behavior followed ideology, then by the time Cromwell mounted his conspiracy against Anne, people may have been disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men she was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier. (pp. 99-100)
UK edition
Even in Henry’s courtship of her, Anne got caught in the net of changing romantic conventions. Henry had been raised on tales of King Arthur’s round table, virtuous knights, maidens in distress and chivalrous deeds. Nobility, generosity, mercy, justice, and the power of true love were the stuff of his boyish fantasies. However, by 1526, when Henry began to pursue Anne, Arthurian chivalry, a deeply spiritualized ideal, was well on its way to being transformed into the political “art” of courtly behavior, aimed at creating the right impression, even if deceptive, to achieve ones ends. In his letters to Anne, Henry gives her the impression that she is his Guinevere, and he her loyal servant: “I beseech you,” “if it pleases you,” “begging you,” “fear of wearying you,” “your loyal servant”, “to serve you only.” Etc. etc. Deeply felt emotion, or a pleasurable fiction, designed to woo and win?

Henry was in love, yes. But he was never the helpless swain that he makes himself out to be in his letters. And although he believed in Arthurian honor, which served and protected women as one of its highest goals, he could never have done what Arthur (in the legend) had done: stand nobly and patiently by while his best knight and his wife engaged in a long affair. Anne, almost certainly innocent of all charges, had every reason to believe Henry would spare her in the end, as Arthur did with Guinevere. But Henry lived in a time when kingly authority—not “knighthood”—was in flower. So while Guinevere, who actually had a sexual relation with another man, was saved by Arthur, Anne Boleyn—guilty of nothing more than a bit of courtly banter—was sent to the scaffold, and Henry never looked back.
Learn more about the book and author at the official The Creation of Anne Boleyn website and blog, and at the UK publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Creation of Anne Boleyn.

--Marshal Zeringue