Fiorella Sultana de Maria
Last week, I spent several gigglesome hours in the library, transcribing a manuscript. This may not sound like the most amusing occupation, but reading through the intricacies of the Earl of Essex's embarrassing problems in euphemistic 17th century legalese and Lady Frances Howard's response to them had me hunched over my desk with tears streaming down my face. It made a change from schoolmasters' manuals anyway. Then came palaeography class.
"Lady Frances Howard was a very bad woman," said our supervisor, explaining how she had conspired to have a man imprisoned and poisoned, "but she was a Catholic". Oh well, that explains it.
When I take it into my head to commit a heinous crime I will use my Catholicism as my main defence. I'm so sorry, your honour, I just couldn't help myself, I am a Catholic, you see. Perjury and homicide just come naturally.
He suddenly seemed to remember that I was in the room. "There might be some in the room who'll take issue with me," he added, quickly, but there was a row of students between us and he fortunately couldn't see me trying to glare him to death, "I'm just pretending to be a Jacobean Protestant minister." Well, congratulations, I wanted to say. Welcome to a breeding ground of Jacobean Protestant ministers.
There are plenty in Cambridge, from the CICCU (Christian Union) member who turned down an offer by Catholics to form an ecumenical prayer group on the grounds that Catholics committed "idolatry" and "blasphemy" (but then he did say "correct me if I'm wrong" — and we did) or the theologian who demanded that a Catholic applying for a place on his course "prove" he was capable of thinking for himself.
Having said all that, if studying Renaissance litera ture has its grim side, it is both terrifying and heartening somehow to find that our own world is not overwhelmingly different to that of Campion and Gerard, prejudice-wise anyway.
If Holy Mass was a "mummery" then, it is "all theatre" now, and it is hard to read of Lord Burghley claiming that Catholics would be "free to worship if only they kept out of politics", without wondering whether Dr Jenny Tonge et al would not have been quite at home in the court of Elizabeth I. Ah yes, if only Catholics would stay out of politics — nothing against your "unbelievably weird credo" or anything, just as long as you practise it nice and quietly and don't get in our way. We've heard that before haven't we, Lord Alton?
A recent article in The Times spoke optimistically of the way in which Catholics have become re-integrated into English society over the past 30 years, helped along by charismatic figures such as Cardinal Hume and there is some reason for rejoicing. It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for the cardinal to be invited to Sandringham but it ought to be unthinkable now for a Catholic MP to be discriminated against on the grounds that he might "toe the Vatican line". Non-Catholic friends are often shocked at the idea that hostility towards Catholics exists, but not shocked enough to want to do anything about it or even to check their own behaviour.
A charming old gentleman once explained to me that he loves and understands everyone — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, the lot — before going on to spout out the usual clichés about the Catholic Church. He was not being a hypocrite, he simply did not realise that there was anything offensive in what he was saying.
Catholic integration may have moved in leaps and bounds over the past 30 years but whether or not it is possible for the residual but pernicious media-fuelled prejudices of the majority to be broken down remains to be seen. If my generation is to achieve anything, it must be to ensure that the open season on Catholics closes once and for all.