In my previous post on History and Analogy I explored why we use the technique and the ways in analogy can be a two-edged sword (if you will). Here I want to give some examples that I have come across recently when preparing for my module on Tudor England. I didn’t have to look far for these, evidence of the ubiquity of these types of comparison. Many are taken from G.W. Bernard’s The Late Medieval English Church, the book that inspired the original post. If you have any examples of your own, please do add them in the comments below.
The short and pithy:
G.W. Bernard is unable to resist analogies, whether historical or not. How about:
Did people collect indulgences in the spirit that we collect tokens or Air Miles?
Or a W.G. Hoskins comparison passed on by Brodie that is short, pithy, and controversial to say the least:
Henry VIII was ‘England’s Stalin’.
The elaborate and multi-layered:
Grappling with the problem of how to perceive of early modern culture in Music and Society in Early Modern England, Christopher Marsh invites us to envisage culture as a lute, with each of it’s six strings representing:
…one of the basic socio-cultural polarities that helped individuals to understand their world and to locate themselves with it: gentle/ common, male/ female, old/ young, clerical/ lay, urban/ rural, native/ foreign. The extremes are permanently connected, and in tension, the strings form a musical staircase that allows for traffic in both directions, the sounds produced can be in harmony or might result in ugly clashes, anyone can pluck and strum as they see fit…
If an analogy is a comparison between the familiar and unfamiliar, there is also a tendency for writers to use a concept that they know particularly well and which they would assume might therefore particularly resonate with their audience. Bernard’s comparisons of modern academic and late medieval religious institutions are a case in point, the author connects with his reader by drawing on what they have in common. In some instances, this can allow him to load his prose with a double meaning, as here:
How far were religious vocations – like those of modern academics – stultified by the piling up of administrative tasks, by the burdens of detailed administration of buildings and estates? Was there a loss, or a lack, of spiritual impetus and creative energy?
The peculiarly appropriate:
In other instances, the analogy is pleasing because it is fitting, as with Alexandra Walsham’s allusion in her book on landscape:
Before we can begin to investigate the Reformation of the landscape, it is necessary to evacuate the sedimentary layers of religious association that had been deposited upon it over the course of the preceding two millennia.
Technically this is not an analogy, but given Bernard’s love of comparison it was hard not to read the following as a metaphor for the life of an early career academic:
…there was no necessary connection between ordination – a relatively straightforward matter – and the security of a benefice – a relatively difficult matter, since all turned on finding a suitable post. A priest might wait years before obtaining a benefice. Meanwhile he would seek employment as an assistant, as a deputy, as a chantry priest or as a chaplain in a domestic household… for which there were many opportunities… In practice they did play a considerable part in the religious life of a parish, despite lacking any formal pastoral responsibilities.
Even if Bernard had not encouraged his reader to draw such parallels, current debate about the rectitude and extent of zero-hour contracts in academia reverberates through the passage.
Sometimes the comparison is straightforward and passes without much notice:
Of course, monasteries were organic entities, all that grows decays, and, just as in a garden, weeding and pruning deadwood were perennial tasks.
At other times humour provides some light relief:
The tone of many Elizabethan congregations seems to have been that of a tiresome class of schoolboys.
Any modern British university historian who has lived through countless administrative reorganisations, and seen the consequences of, say, the restructuring of local governments, will hesitate before pronouncing too confidently on the shortcomings of the monasteries in late medieval England.
[On the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist:] the strength of conservative feeling at home, and the sensitivity of Protestant divisions abroad, made the issue the theological equivalent of nitro-glycerine: it had to be handled with care.
And Patrick Collinson…
Patrick Collinson was renowned for his epigrammatic, witty and entertaining writing style, and the well-turned comparison was an important component of this. Jonathan reminded me of his special talent by passing on this wonderful bit of analysis:
When Picasso came to Sheffield to attend a peace rally, he sat on the platform making sketches and dropping them on the floor. Nobody picked them up. These preliminary sketches – Swallowfield and Terrington – can lie where they have fallen. Our subject is neither local government nor village republics, but the political culture of England at its centre and summit, in the age of Elizabeth I.
Here is a further selection, all drawn from the same chapter on the culture of Puritanism:
Traditionally, puritanism and culture have been seen as polar opposites, so that an essay on puritan culture might seem to merit no more space than the topic of snakes in that book on Iceland, which, according to Samuel Johnson, contained a chapter consisting of a single sentence: ‘There are no snakes to be found anywhere in the island’.
Shortly followed by:
But if man shall not live by bread alone, he must have bread, and perhaps some butter and even jam to spread on it; and it is not likely that puritans found all their needs supplied by ‘every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’.
‘it was those local teacup storms which gave substance, a cultural or counter-cultural substance, to the very concept of ‘Puritanism’.
And my favourite:
That is not to say that the thing identified as ‘puritanism’ had no real or prior existence, any more than the large quadraped which Sir Harry Johnston ‘discovered’ in the Ituri rainforests in 1900 had no existence until Johnston gave it a name, ‘okapi’.
And we are still only on the third page of the chapter. It seems very fitting therefore that in his obituary, John Morrill used an analogy to sum up Collinson’s lifelong interest in Puritanism:
The obsession at its heart is the role of principled disobedience within powerful institutions, a study of those committed to reform from within. And that is how Pat saw himself… He became an establishment figure who struggled to square his radical conscience with membership of establishments.
 G. W. Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome (London, 2012), p. 143.
 W.G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder (1976), p. 232.
 C. Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 15-22.
 Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 197.
 A. Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2011), p. 18.
 Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 79.
 Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 190-1.
 K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (London, 1971), pp. 191-2.
 Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church, p. 196.
 P. Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642 (London, 2003), p. 65.
 P. Collinson, ‘Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism as Forms of Popular Religious Culture’ in C. Durston & J. Eales (eds), The Culture of English Puritanism 1560-1700 (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 32-4.