Sister Wendy Beckett has bemoaned the fact that people don’t know the Bible or classical mythology and as such can’t appreciate much Western art. “In the past everybody knew these stories, although they didn’t necessarily live the spirit of them,” she says. “Everybody used to know the Greek myths and most people had a smattering of Latin, now they don’t.” Now, far be it from me to contradict the Mother Teresa of the art world, but I’m not sure she’s entirely correct. Before mainstream Christianity began to decline as the default philosophical position of most Brits (in the years following World War II), people would have had a better grasp of the most obvious bits of the Bible (the Nativity; the Crucifixion; Adam and Eve; Noah) and would know the Lord’s Prayer and a good few hymns (more ancient than modern) but I’m not sure a bog-standard Anglican would necessarily have been able to do much better than that. Catholics would probably score higher, but there haven’t been quite so many of them in the UK since that unpleasant business with Henry VIII a few years back. Which is, I guess, what Sister Wendy is really bemoaning. Everything was all going so nicely until that pesky Reformation.
As for the smattering of Latin she describes, I’m not sure that was ever the case either. Until the 1870 Education Act, the provision of schooling in Britain was patchy in the extreme; even after that date, most kids could hope at best to get a grasp of the three R’s before being pushed into the factories or fields that were tdeemed to be their right and proper place. And once state-funded grammar schools had been introduced, they still only catered for the most able minority; there wasn’t much room for amo amas amat in secondary moderns. (Of course it had always been available to the private educated; Radleian Peter Cook presumably had the Latin that his creation EL Wisty lacked.) Maybe everybody knew the Greek myths, but only if you believe that “everybody” means “everybody with whom Sister Wendy Beckett came into regular social or professional contact” which is a rather different thing. Beckett’s cloistered existence, it seems, has always excluded such ungodly distractions as the inadequately educated. Until now, maybe. What’s changed is not so much the number of people who don’t know who Medusa was, or can’t fully appreciate Rubens, but the fact that such people now have a public voice, which permeates even to Sister Wendy’s little caravan.