h i s t o r y l e s l i e m i t c h e l l
Fiery Debates The Day Parliament Burned Down
By Caroline Shenton (Oxford University Press 333pp £18.99)
According to The Times, on 16 October 1834 London was visited by an ‘afflicting accident’, which was a ‘spectacle of terrible beauty’. Quite simply, the Houses of Parliament burned down. For over 600 years after its foundation, the Exchequer, the forerunner of today’s Treasury, had kept its accounts on wooden tallies. These bundles were not regarded as a superb archive of medieval administrative practice but as an embarrassing nuisance. Accordingly, two Irish labourers were instructed to burn them in the boilers situated immediately below the Chamber of the House of Lords. They worked with a will and achieved a result that exceeded all expectations. At a subsequent inquiry, both men expressed surprise at what their handiwork had caused.
The buildings that were consumed represented a jumble of architecture from many centuries. A warren of corridors and staircases connected some of the greatest offices of state. Beautiful survivals from the Middle Ages, such as the Painted Chamber, stood cheek by jowl with rooms that were barely habitable. The home of the House of Commons, for example, was St Stephen’s Chapel. Measuring only thirty-three feet by forty-eight feet, it could barely provide seating for half the Members of that House. During debates, ‘the heat of the house rendered it in some degree a second edition of the Black Hole of Calcutta’. Radicals, such as William Cobbett and Joseph Hume, had long claimed that it had become unfit for purpose. Equally alarmingly, Parliament stood on the edge of Devil’s Acre, one of London’s most dangerous slums, stretching along Millbank. All of this made politics an uncomfortable business.
Although unloved by many, Parliament had many defenders on the night of the fire, and the tale makes heroic reading. The new London Metropolitan Police Force was severely tested in controlling crowds of sightseers, who had come to see the greatest show of their lifetime. Appreciatively, some even applauded as roofs caved in or walls collapsed. Under even more strain was the recently formed London Fire Engine Establishment, an amalgamation of the capital’s fire-insurance companies. Their employees were helped by an army of volunteers. Cabinet ministers manned
Spot the fire engine the pumps, and passers-by ran into buildings to rescue books and paintings, while others cheerfully threw state papers out of windows. Through their collective efforts and a fortunate change in the direction of the wind, Westminster Hall was saved and much else. There was no denying, however, that it had been a terrible night.
Great disasters produce standard responses. The smoke and flames had barely cleared before some interpreted the event as the working of providence. For Queen Adelaide, the fire was God’s revenge on a Parliament that had dared to pass the Great Reform Act two years earlier, while those of a more radical disposition saw it as punishment inflicted on the authors of the heartless new Poor Law. Equally, conspiracy theorists were early in evidence. Arson and Irishness were linked in some minds, while others speculated that persecuted trade unionists might be at the bottom of it all. Five years earlier, York Minster had been severely damaged by a fire started by a deranged Methodist who objected to the noise of its organ; clearly anything was possible. For those for whom disasters have to be portentous as well as agonising, the London fire offered considerable scope.
Others took a more pragmatic view. Disaster often presents marvellous opportunities to the criminal. While the Attorney-General was helping to pump water, his pockets were picked. According to police reports, many, ‘with the sharp hyena look of plunder’, saw no distinction between salvage and theft. Equally enterprising were local inn-keepers whose stocks were exhausted by thirsty firefighters, and those who, in subsequent months, lodged claims for compensation to cover losses real and imaginary. Relic-hunters were also much in evidence. Boxes made out of timbers from the old Parliament sold well, but their numbers were such as to rival fragments of the True Cross.
There was profit, too, for the artist. The poet Letitia Landon thoroughly enjoyed herself: ‘Never was a spectacle so much enjoyed. All London went to see the fire – and a very beautiful fire it was.’ J MWTurner sat on the river for most of the night sketching furiously, while John Constable preferred the relative comfort of a hackney cab stationed on Westminster Bridge. Forty other artists produced work covering the same subject in the months that followed the blaze. For a romantic mind in search of the sublime and the awesome, nothing could be better.
Most fortunate of all were those who could make a career out of the necessary rebuilding. Sir Charles Barry, whose designs would win the competition to frame the new Parliament, frankly exclaimed on hearing of the fire: ‘Oh, what an opportunity for an architect.’ Similarly, Augustus Pugin thought that little of value had been lost, and that his own ideas offered a better
Literary Review | a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 8 h i s t o r y future: ‘there is nothing much to regret & a great deal to rejoice in. A vast quantity of Soanes mixtures and Wyatts heresies have been effectually consigned to oblivion.’ In his view, the old buildings had been a gimcrack mixture of all styles – part medieval,
part Tudor, part classical, and part fraud.
As this well-researched and wellwritten account makes clear, the Westminster on view today is the result of one extraordinary accident. The Houses of Parliament are uniquely the product of
Pugin’s and Barry’s imaginations. The rebuilding took more than three decades to complete, and, to no one’s surprise, came in significantly over budget. To order this book for £15.19, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 37
m i r i r u b i n
How Jesus Became God Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30–325
By Geza Vermes (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 271pp £25)
One of the most fruitful concepts for the understanding of the emergence and transformation of religions is that of charisma. The German sociologist Max Weber applied it, alongside the concept of the institution, to create a notable dialectic: on the one hand, the powerful message of a charismatic teacher or prophet; on the other, the treatment of each legacy by his (or her) disciples and subsequent followers. The fervid and loving attempts to package memories of the charismatic often resulted in bodies of scripture, in exemplary tales about their lives and deeds, and in commemorative rituals. Yet the essence of charisma resides in a certain inscrutability – in gnomic sayings, in baffling gestures – and so disciples are charged with the task of interpreting, enshrining and repeating for future generations often ineffable experiences. To truly know a charismatic presence, ‘one has to have been there’.
Weber also suggested that the process of building institutions was tantamount to turning the extraordinary into parcels of experience that were ‘routinised’ – made predictable – and therefore manageable and repeatable for generations to come. This process can be lengthy and full of conflict, as different groups of followers fight for legitimacy and over the right to interpret the beloved teacher’s legacy.
More than any other scholar of early Christianity, Geza Vermes, professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, has consistently applied this Weberian model with unparalleled erudition. Beginning with his Jesus the Jew (1973), and over several later studies, Vermes has demonstrated that
Jesus was a prophet in a well-established tradition of prophetic Judaism. This tradition existed alongside the rituals of the Temple and the daily rhythms of obedience to the laws of Moses as encoded in the Torah. While kings ruled and conquered, from 1000 BC charismatic men of God ‘prophesied’, chastised the living and foretold the future. They often berated kings, as Nathan did in his denunciation of the lustful David, but also comforted and healed ordinary folk and communities: healing the sick and praying for rainfall. Elijah even reproached God for killing the child of a poor widow, whom the prophet was able to revive. This tradition persisted for centuries, so that in the decades before the birth of Jesus a spectrum of charismatics were at work. There was the jovial Honi the CircleDrawer, famed for public performances that importuned God for rainfall, while more austere Essene sages in the caves of the Judean desert reinterpreted ancient prophecies and encouraged a change of life in preparation for their fulfilment. The rabbis disdained both types of spiritual agents, dismissing the performer types and suspecting the sages, though neither claimed to be doing anything more than beseeching God or interpreting his messages and signs.
Jesus – and his slightly older kinsman John the Baptist – can be understood within this tradition. They encouraged in their listeners a change of life, as Isaiah had done: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Unlike priests whose lives were hedged by rules of purity and decorum, they mingled with ordinary people. The Synoptic Gospels portray
Jesus as a charismatic healer; like Elijah before him, he even raised the dead with mere words. Jesus preached and healed while announcing the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and he did so as the Son of a loving Father, one privileged to act as a prophet, as an agent of God’s plan. Vermes insists that Jesus was a Jewish prophet whose message was theocentric, centred on the service of God.
How then did Christianity become Christocentric? How did it come about that, by AD 325, at the first global gathering of bishops at the invitation of Emperor Constantine, participants came to think of Jesus the Galilean as cosubstantial with the eternal God, creator of the world?
Vermes tells an enthralling story, as he traces the development of Christianity from the ‘parting of the ways’ that was already evident in the first generations after Jesus. The Jerusalem community of the Jewish followers of Jesus lived in apocalyptic expectation and was guided by the vigilant and austere apostles James, Peter and John. These were Jews who still frequented the Temple, and who envisaged Judaism as the natural route towards membership in their community. They remembered Jesus as the ‘servant of God’, as the ‘Righteous One’, of the Acts of the Apostles.
Yet away from Jerusalem, the Hellenistic city of Antioch and similar cities in Asia Minor – where large Jewish communities resided among gentiles and attracted adherents to their synagogues – became battlefields over the rightful leadership of Christian communities and custody of Jesus’s hortatory message. Here was the dilemma, which Paul, who had not been a disciple of Jesus in a direct sense, began to grasp. He made entry to the Christian community and its rituals – which by now involved baptism and a communal meal – open to all who were pure of heart, shunning ‘drunkards, idolaters, revilers and robbers’. Seeing the possibility of realising a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 9