I happened to stay up late last night to finish the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, in which novelist Hilary Mantel imagines Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s often vilified chief minister, as a wily humanist who ushers England toward modern government. This being a story of 16th-century statecraft, torture and executions feature prominently. More than once the question of whether the king might show sufficient mercy to have someone’s head cut off, rather than burning them alive, arises.
I woke up this morning to read, on the front page of the paper, that the Iranian government has bowed to international pressure and is reviewing a sentence of death by stoning, handed down by one of its courts against a 43-year-old woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, convicted of adultery. The fear now is that Iran might hang her instead. It would have been comforting to pretend that the grislier concerns of Cromwell’s time were not still so precisely present in our own.
It’s not even possible to take solace in thinking that these matters are limited to throwback regimes. On this continent, we were subjected only last month to the disturbing spectacle of double-murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner insisting on death by firing squad, rather than lethal injection, in Utah. His choice—like a question of burning or beheading, stoning or hanging—forces into our thoughts the real nature of any state resorting to killing as a punishment.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel explores the period when Cromwell was orchestrating England’s break with Rome, on Henry VIII’s behalf. She shows us the ascendant instruments of law, bureaucracy and commerce in conflict with the old forces of church hierarchy, superstition and aristocracy. One of her great narrative strengths is the ability to take the reader deep inside the machinations of court and clergy, and then shift her focus deftly to how modest individuals—a naive “maid” who has religious visions, a scholar whose reading takes him in a risky direction—get mangled by the forces at play around them. These poor souls end up imprisoned, interrogated, put on trials in which the verdicts are inevitable.
There’s other news in the papers that might fit that line of storytelling. For example, a mere boy is dragged by his fanatic father into religious war, and ends up languishing unseen, for many years, in the notorious prison of a great power, awaiting trial before a special court convened by the very army whose soldier he is accused of killing. Cromwell would have found such a scenario as familiar as he would our contemporary questions about how an innocent woman or a guilty man might be put to death.