Dead heads and humanists
In view of the continuing argument about the 'humanist' arguments of Thomas Churchyard, whether I used the word correctly, and whether a blog is merely 'random jottings' I offer the following quotations from the book with which I began.
Churchyard, for newcomers, was an Elizabethan critic, soldier, journalist and general chancer in life who described the English tactic of lining paths with Irish severed heads in order to terrorise the rebels of Munster.
He defended the actions of Sir Humphrey Gilbert with what the distinguished editors of Edmund Spenser's Selected Letters describe as 'a humanist apology on ethical grounds', arguing that since the dead Irishmen suffered no further harm from the use of their heads the tactic was ethically sound.
This justification is 'humanist' because it relies on rationalistic arguments from classical Greece, in Churchyard's case, those of Diogenes, a philosopher happy that dogs, or anything else, might eat his body when he was dead. What was it to him who ate or passed by his corpse?
As the Oxford editors continue, 'Churchyard deliberately and elaborately expends his humanist learning not in defence of Gilbert's crime against the living - surely the nub of his cruelty - but rather in defence of his supposed crimes against the dead'.
Churchyard was not a particularly noble human being. Consult Wikipedia for an account of his varied sins. But that did not bar him from using and abusing humanist philosophy.
As the editors of the new Spenser papers continue, 'Churchyard's representation of Gibert's policies may seem extreme, but similar kinds of humanist arguments were adduced to explain and apologise for similar kinds of events - on the English side - throughout Spenser's period in Ireland'. They go on to list them.
The aim of my original blog, like many others here, was to draw attention to some interesting pages in a new book. Since blogs are, indeed, 'random jottings' of a kind, I began by recalling that my first encounter with this issue came in a discussion of Conrad's Heart of Darkness some years ago with an Irish friend.
I am still not sure why this should have puzzled the academic and author, Margarita Stocker. There was no more 'point' in my blog than to draw readers' attention to a book that for one reason or another had caught my attention.
To repeat: Selected Letters and Other Papers by Edmund Spenser, edited by Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher, published by Oxford University Press, priced rather fiercely at £125.