Letter: The 'mentalite' of England in 1492

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The Independent Online
Sir: Danny Danziger's article '1492: if Columbus had come here' (10 October), was full of interesting and illuminating pieces of information, but, startingly, contained almost no mention of religion. In his tour of not-so- Merrie England, Mr Danziger almost disregards this feature of contemporary life, which was so central that 15th-century Englishmen would have found his picture of their country strangely alien.

There has been extensive scholarly debate about the significance of religion to the man on the late- medieval Clapham ox-cart, but none has denied that the outward manifestations of religion, the festivals determining the rhythm of the year, the religious guilds offering support and fellowship, and the rites of passage regulated by the church, were of profound importance to community life. Furthermore, without religion, especially as formally expounded by the church, the intellectual justifications for prevailing ideas about politics and society, indeed the whole medieval thought-world, meant nothing.

Albeit unintentionally, by concentrating on material life, Mr Danziger has left us with a picture of life in England in 1492 as simply, as it were, backward, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

By neglecting what French historians call the mentalite of the age, and especially its religious context, he has underplayed a difference between ourselves and our ancestors of five centuries ago which is at least as important as standard of living, and that is the secularisation of our thought.

Yours faithfully,


London, E8

10 October