On Rebuking Mediaevalism

MR. ZANGWILL, criticising very kindly a quiet little comedy about devils which I happened to write, once remarked that I was trying to put the clock back in philosophy; though he was so generous as to add that I was putting the clock forward in drama. Since then, and down to the recent days, I have heard a great deal about the impossibility of putting back the clock, especially to the Middle Ages—or, as such critics would call them, the Dark Ages. It strikes me as highly quaint that people should be so fond of this figure of speech for fantastic and impossible reaction, especially just now. For they are now regularly performing, twice a year, a mere trick with time, the second half of which does invariably consist of putting back the clock. They do it, as it happens, because they want a little more daylight, not to mention a little more sunshine. That is why I want to put the clock back to the Dark Ages.

In fact, evidence multiplies every moment to show that it was not the mediaeval world that was dark, but only the modern world that was kept in the dark about it. I was reading recently some critical remarks about the last of Mr. Penty’s admirable books on the guilds and economic history. The book itself I do not profess to consider adequately here; but the criticism of which I speak, which appeared in the New Age, raised the larger matter of historical comparison in a clear form which is convenient for discussion. And the first and most striking fact is the change of tone about mediaevalism, even among its hostile critics. It is taken very seriously; it is considered almost as a rival civilisation, but not as a remote barbarism. Eighty years ago it was a paradox to say, as Cobbett said, that the mediaevals were not barbarians, as it would have been a paradox to say that the Ancient Britons in the time of Caesar were not barbarians. To-day, one feels, the pressure is the opposite way. It is a paradox to say that the mediaevals were barbarians, as it was a paradox to day, as Dr. Johnson said, that the ancient Athenians in the time of Pericles were barbarians. Dr. Johnson added that they were brutes, and the same is often said of the men of the Middle Ages. But Dr. Johnson was only irritated for the moment, possibly from lack of tea, possibly from the exaggerated Hellenism and classicism of his epoch. So it is, for that matter, with the moderns who call the mediaevals brutes.

The moderns are irritated, possibly from lack of beer (which they could have bought by the gallon for a few pence in the Middle Ages), but much more by the extreme mediaevalism now to be found everywhere, even in modernism. It is they and not we who are the reactionaries, for they can strictly be described as reacting against a modern movement towards the ideals of the Middle Ages. The very fact that the youngest and most sweeping form of Socialism has now to call itself Guild Socialism is an example of what I mean. The imitation may be very thin and fictitious, as is the modern use of the word “hostel”—and very often for that matter, in the modern use of the word “guild.” But the point here is that such fashionable terms and tags, though they do not show that mediaevalism is understood, do show that it is not despised. The truth is that the public-house is a very degenerate descendant of the mediaeval inn, and the trade union a very degenerate descendant of the mediaeval guild.

The New Age—a very able organ—is both rationalistic and revolutionary; and, while it works for the establishment of modern guilds, it certainly would not wish especially to make them mediaeval guilds. But, even in rebuking the mediaevalism of Mr. Penty, the New Age critic shows signs of a strange, unconscious change in the attitude of such men towards mediaevalism. He does not call the mediaevals brutes; he questions mildly, and almost meekly, “the assumption that the people of the Middle Ages were fundamentally better than ourselves.”  Imagine the feelings of Bentham or Buckle on hearing that this had become an assumption, somewhere in the twentieth century! Well, it is not, perhaps, as stated, a true assumption for the twentieth century; and it would certainly not have been the assumption of the twelfth century. The man of the Middle Ages certainly did not think there was anything specially sacred about the Middle Ages, merely because he was in the middle of them. That confusion of thought is rather characteristic of the modern ages, which might as well be called the muddle ages. The mediaeval man thought that men would be tempted to sin in all times and places while the earth endured. And if the modern man had thought the same thing he would have been readier for the war of 1914, not to mention such a trifle as the peace of 1919. The reviewer, therefore, really rebukes a claim which no mediaeval or mediaevalist would make, but at the same time conceives a tribute with which any mediaeval or mediaevalist may well be satisfied. He says that “what differentiates the Middle Ages from our own is that the goodwill then existing was not found to be incompatible with the economic system; whereas in our day goodwill and capitalist economics are poles apart.” Surely nothing higher could be said of a human effort than that it did create an economic system not inconsistent with goodwill. Such a thing, as he implies, has never been heard of in the whole modern world, which made economic science. And surely the practical point is to inquire, not whether (as compared with our own inmost minds) the mediaeval man was better, but rather how on earth he came to do better if he was quite as bad.

The system of the guilds was healthy, because it used democratic brotherhood not to destroy property, but to preserve it—only to preserve it for all the democrats. A man worked in his own shop, with his own tools, for his own livelihood; but the strong brotherhood he belonged to directed its rules to keeping the shop over his head, and the tools in his hand, and the livelihood out of the grip of usury and bankruptcy. In short, the guild had what every peasantry has—small property plus large co-operation. That ideal, whether it is mediaeval or modern, is now the only escape from an alternative of anarchy and slavery. Both anarchy and slavery will be all the worse for being promoted with the best of motives. Many of the Semitic Socialists are sincere idealists, and imagine that the negation of mere negation of nationalism and property will somehow produce liberty. Many of the capitalists, with their model villages and modern appliances, mean well by their workmen, and are quite unconscious of rebuilding slowly a humane but heathen servile state. The cure is not to make private property public; on the contrary, it is to give a decent proportion of private property to every private man. This is the sunshine that shone upon the world long before clocks were invented; and I fancy we shall find it easier to put back the clock than to put out the sun.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, April 26, 1919.

The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton,
Vol. 31: Illustrated London News, 1917-1919

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