Friday, July 30, 2021

The Violence of Henry VIII

The contradictions of Henry VIII character have attracted much attention.  He had a reputation for wisdom and patience early in his reign, and though adventurous was not known to be especially violent, and certainly not cruel. He became an unquestionable tyrant later.  Historians during the 18th and 19thC tended to see these changes as a function of the temptations of power, and losing his grip on his better self because of not getting his way.  That fit their beliefs.  In literature since the Greeks and Romans, humans were prone to such temptations, and rulers were especially susceptible to deteriorations of character once they were unchecked. It is a common theme in Shakespeare and all subsequent European literature. Nothing wrong with that, it's often true.  But they didn't really know how baps on the head might affect you once you had regained consciousness, so they never went to that explanation.

One traditional approach, favoured by (David) Starkey and others, is to divide Henry's reign into two halves, the first Henry being dominated by positive qualities (politically inclusive, pious, athletic but also intellectual) who presided over a period of stability and calm, and the latter a "hulking tyrant" who presided over a period of dramatic, sometimes whimsical, change.
More recently, there have been suggestions that he died young due to the obesity caused by brain trauma, or that his personality was influenced by the draining effects of many medical conditions resulting from his several blows to the head and periods of unconsciousness, and finally a direct suggestion that his violence and impulsivity were clearly derived from his TBI's. They didn't think that way then, we think that way now. Taking more factors into account is usually better than fewer. (As we just discussed under Critical Race theory.)

Even in my generation, unless permanent results were very obvious, people did not ascribe behavior to brain trauma. Parents might be aware of it - "After that he was never quite the same agin, always losing his temper and getting into trouble." Yet parents are both the best and worst of observers of such things.  They see that something is wrong even when everyone else looks away or attributes behavior to simple disobedience or other bad character.  But parents also have too much information and their own needs, and so fit behavioral changes into any of a dozen categories: parental divorce, the emotional rather than physical effects of abuse, rejection by a girl, a bad teacher/pastor/school bully, competition with siblings. I have heard all these explanations offered by parents when taking a social history. We all fall into this naturally, as the brain will not endure having an unexplained phenomenon, and we jump to conclusions. Much of what I believe about how my children became who they are is likely only partly true. Many of their own explanations are probably similarly slanted, as are mine about why I am who I am.

Baps on the head are one of those things that fade from memory fast. We expect boys to be reckless, they take falls, they hit their head on rocks. Because ice is a factor in New Hampshire, my worst blows to the head were usually to the back. These injuries usually take place out of sight of parents or other adults.  They were considered just a normal part of growing up. Getting assaulted by older boys, or sneak assaulted from behind by weaker boys, even with sticks or bats was also just considered part of childhood, unless something obvious and severe occurred.* Men and women in prison have an unusually high incidence of head injury, which we often write off as the environmental effect of "being exposed to violence," or "coming from a bad neighborhood."  Yet while those things matter a bit, when we try to factor out all such factors they don't matter much. Measurable neurological changes matter a lot more, and have larger consequences. Like maybe a nation's split from the Roman Church and a division of Europe that has enormous consequences even in our own time. 

It would be great if my bad qualities were the result of one or more of those incidents as a boy, so that I have "diminished responsibility," as they say.  Yet that would immediately extend to everyone else, and it may be that the evils done to us were the result of actions by people who had diminished responsibility themselves. What societies have to consequate for their own survival may not be the most accurate measure of judgement.

There is a gene-environment interaction that goes even deeper. In families that have a lot of children showing risky behavior, so that we figure they can't all have been bapped on the head in exactly the same way and there must be some genetic risk-taking involved, those kids are going to just naturally have more head injuries, including repeated small, undetected ones. When they become teenagers and adults we are going to blame the parenting, and the courts are going to treat crimes as personal decisions. We might be wrong.

*This may also affect whether we perceive something as traumatic in an emotional sense. I don't like to go too far down the road of what is called "blaming the victim," but I experienced events at school for which I might have sued my children's school district had they happened to them, a generation later and in a gentler place. There was a comment-section argument a few years ago among women about sexual assault in which one woman who still lived in a rough part of town quoted a young woman from a suburb who was describing some aggressive behavior by a date and noted "At my high school forty years ago, we just called that dating." The younger woman may have been correct that it should be considered assault - I would have expected a call from the police myself had it been me - but clearly the older woman did not experience it as traumatic.  Expectations matter, because they affect feelings of uncertainty and control. What children experience they immediately compare to the experiences of those around them.  If Jeffrey next door got beaten up much worse than you, you didn't feel so bad about yourself.


james said...

There's a little chicken/egg complication with the criminals, of course--but maybe we can find some sort of proxy.

Is there some way of estimating the historical rate of TBI among youth--even coarsely? --something that it clearly correlates with, that we can look at hospital records for.
Then, if there's a correlation between that and violent crime rates, we might have something.

2 problems are obvious: increased hospital availability would skew the apparent rate, and the hospitalizations would be for major events and not cumulative small injuries.

Narr said...

My brothers and I and friends roughhoused and rassled, and played football-like games that featured a lot of head knocks.

This is not to mention the regular slaps upside the head from our elders, and some shakings.

I had not realized until recently that H VIII got his title of Defensor Fidei from the Pope in appreciation for Henry's critique of Lutheran theology.

Cousin Eddie

Donna B. said...

@james Would the use of helmets (and increased effectiveness of helmets) work? That's not to say that helmets prevent all brain injuries, especially cumulative small ones.

Along with increased hospital availability is increased first responder availability and their increased effectiveness at the scene and during transport. There would be many confounding factors, but it's an intriguing idea.

james said...

It might have played a role, but I don't remember them in the 60's. The murder rate fluctuates in ways that seem driven more by social factors, so I'm not sure if that's useful for this sort of analysis.

Grim said...

This theory would be very persuasive if it were accompanied by evidence that (a) Henry had sustained a noteworthy blow, perhaps at a tournament, and (b) that the time of his character change correlated with the blow. It’s a useful spur for more research, then, rather than a conclusion we ought to accept as probable on its own.

Grim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grim said...

Double posted that last comment somehow. Anyway it does look like that research has been done. My guess that there was a tournament injury noted at the time worked out.

Charles Harrell said...

I have often thought that a TBI suffered around age 8 sent me off into an increasingly violent life resulting in numerous incarcerations culminating in what is now Life on Parole.

Only persistent introspection and education has tempered those impulses. More likely belief in a higher being such as the Judeo/Christian God, Buddhist philosophy, or maybe Zen meditations have changed that uncaring person that I was into the current Empath that I am now.

However it is somewhat embarrassing for an eighty-one year old man to tear up at beautiful music, sad stories, or other's grief. Consequently becoming somewhat of a recluse to avoid those situations so only my immediate family sees those moments.

Thank you AVI for the blog and the analyses that you do.

Charley HuaChu

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You are certainly welcome.

Just plain aging may be part of both of those changes. We have less energy and call it wisdom - and maybe it is. Maybe that's why the old were considered more wise in most societies. You increasingly find things are simply not worth getting that upset about, combined with instances of having seen someone else's viewpoint turn out to be right. And I also increasingly tear up at music or stories, including when at church or when I am alone. Our filters may erode as we age. Or maybe we have more associations with sentimental things. You may want to embrace them as an opportunity to tease yourself in front of others - "I'm glad to be a sentimental old fool," and give others permission to be sentimental as well, so they don't feel obligated to become recluses as well.

mc23 said...

My oldest adoptive son had at least one concussion in high school that affected his behavior.

He hid the symptoms for months but it first manifested itself as anger and migraines. He was hearing voices for awhile, dangerous voices. Later it subsided into anxiety and insomnia and it seems concentration problems. It seems he will never be whole again. He always had anxiety and focus issues It seemed that the injury aggravated existing issues.

I saw other injuries like this growing up but never any consequences. Now I am a believer.