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

Guilds: The Catholic Encyclopedia

Guilds. IN ENGLAND.—Guilds were voluntary associations for religious, social, and commercial purposes. These associations, which attained their highest development among the Teutonic nations, especially the English, during the Middle Ages, were of four kinds:—(I) religious guilds, (2) frith guilds, (3) merchant guilds, and (4) craft guilds. The word itself, less commonly, but more correctly, written gild, was derived from the Anglo-Saxon gildan meaning "to pay", whence came the noun gegilda, "the subscribing member of a guild". In its origin the word guild is found in the sense of "idol" and also of "sacrifice", which has led some writers to connect the origin of the guilds with the sacrificial assemblies and banquets of the heathen Germanic tribes. Brentano, the first to investigate the question thoroughly, associating these facts with the importance of family relationship among Teutonic nations, considers that the guild in its earliest form was developed from the family, and that the spirit of association, being congenial to Christianity, was so fostered by the Church that the institution and development of the guilds progressed rapidly. This theory finds more favor with recent scholars than the attempts to trace the guilds back to the Roman collegia. The connection or identity of the guilds with the Carlovingian geldoniae or confratriae cannot be ascertained, for lack of definite information about these latter institutions, which were discouraged by the legislation of Charlemagne.

The earliest traces of guilds in England are found in the laws of Ina in the seventh century. These guilds were formed for religious and social purposes and were voluntary in character. Subsequent enactments down to the time of Athelstan (925-940) show that they soon developed into frith guilds or peace guilds, associations with a corporate responsibility for the good conduct of their members and their mutual liability. Very frequently, as in the case of London in early times, the guild law came to be the law of the town. The main objects of these guilds was the preservation of peace, right, and liberty. Religious observances also formed an important part of guild-life, and the members assisted one another both in spiritual and temporal necessities. The oldest extant charter of a guild dates from the reign of Canute, and from this we learn that a certain Orcy presented a guild-hall (gegyld-halle) to the gyldschipe of Abbotsbury in Dorset, and that the members were associated in almsgiving, care of the sick, burial of the dead, and in providing Masses for the souls of deceased members. The social side of the guild is shown in the annual feast for which provision is made. In the "Dooms of London" we find the same religious and social practices described, with the addition of certain advantageous commercial arrangements, such as the establishment of a kind of insurance-fund against losses, and the furnishing of assistance in the capture of thieves. These provisions, however, are characteristic rather of the merchant guilds which grew up during the latter half of the eleventh century.

Merchant Guilds.—These differed from their predecessors, the religious or frith guilds, by being established primarily for the purpose of obtaining and maintaining the privilege of carrying on trade. Having secured this privilege the guilds guarded their monopoly jealously. Everywhere the right to buy and sell articles of food seems to have been left free, but every other branch of trade was regulated by the merchant guild or hanse, as it was often called. The first positive mention of a merchant guild, the "cnighten on Cantwareberig of ceapmannegilde", occurs during the primacy of St. Anselm (1093-1109). From the time of Henry I the charters of successive sovereigns bear witness to the existence of merchant guilds in the principal towns. These charters, such as those granted to Bristol, Carlisle, Durham, Lincoln, Oxford, Salisbury, and Southampton, were of the utmost importance to the guilds as they secured to them the right and power of enforcing the guild regulations with the sanction of law. For this reason Glanvill, the lawyer, writing in the twelfth century, regards the guild merchant as identical with the commune, that is, the body of citizens with rights of municipal self-government (Ashley, op. cit., inf., 72). From the fact that out of one hundred and sixty towns which were represented in the parliaments of Edward I, ninety-two are certainly known to have possessed a merchant guild, the conclusion is drawn that a guild was to be found in every town of any size, including some that were not much more than villages.

The organization of the merchant guilds is known from the constitutions or guild rolls which have survived. These documents are only four in number, but fortunately refer to towns in four different parts of England. They are the guild statutes of Berwick and of Southampton, and the guild rolls for Leicester and Totnes (Ashley, p. 67). From these we learn that each guild was presided over by one or two aldermen assisted by two or four wardens or ├ęchevins. These officials presided over the meetings of the society and administered its funds and estates. They were assisted by a council of twelve or twenty-four members. The guildsmen were originally the actual burgesses, those inhabitants who held land within the town boundaries, whether they were merchants or holders of agricultural land; but in course of time rights of membership passed by inheritance and even by purchase. Thus the eldest sons of guildsmen were admitted free as of right, while the younger sons paid a smaller fee than others. The guildsmen could sell their rights, and heiresses might exercise their membership either in person or through their husbands or sons.

The merchant guilds possessed extensive powers, including the control and monopoly of all the trades in the town, which involved the power of fining all traders who were not members of the guild for illicit trading, and of inflicting punishment for all breaches of honesty or offenses against the regulations of the guild. They also had liberty of trading in other towns and of protecting their guildsmen wherever they were trading. They exercised supervision over the quality of goods sold, and prevented strangers from directly or indirectly buying or selling to the injury of the guild. Besides these commercial advantages the guild entered largely into the life of all its members. The guildsmen took their part as a corporate body in all religious celebrations in the town, organized festivities, provided for sick or impoverished brethren, undertook the care of their orphan children, and provided for Masses and dirges for deceased members. As time went on the merchant guilds became more exclusive, and when the rise of manufactures in the twelfth century caused an increase in the number of craftsmen, it was natural that these should organize on their own account and form their own guilds.

Craft Guilds.—Seeing that the merchant guilds had become identical with the municipality, the craftsmen, ever increasing in numbers, struggled to break down the trading monopoly of the merchant guilds and to win for themselves the right of supervision over their own body. The weavers and fullers were the first crafts to obtain royal recognition of their guilds, and by 1130 they had guilds established in London, Lincoln, and Oxford. Little by little through the next two centuries they broke down the power of the merchant guilds, which received their death-blow by the statute of Edward III which in 1335 allowed foreign merchants to trade freely in England. In the system of craft guilds the administration lay in the hands of wardens, bailiffs, or masters, while for admission a long apprenticeship was necessary. Like the merchant guilds, the craft guilds cared for the interests both spiritual and temporal of their members, providing old age and sick pensions, pensions for widows, and burial funds. The master craftsman was an independent producer, needing little or no capital, and employing journeymen and apprentices who hoped in time to become master craftsmen themselves. Thus there was no "working class" as such, and no conflict between capital and labor. At the end of the reign of Edward III there were in London forty-eight companies, a number which later on rose to sixty. Besides the merchant and craft guilds, the religious and social guilds continued to exist through the Middle Ages, being largely in the nature of confraternities. At the Reformation these were all suppressed as superstitious foundations. The trade guilds survived as corporations or companies, such as the twelve great companies of London which still maintain a corporate existence for charitable and social purposes, though they have ceased to have close connections with the crafts, the names of which they bear. The merchant guild of Preston also survives in a similar state, but such bodies have no real significance. The Reformation shook their constitution, while the altered industrial and social conditions finally deprived them of the power and influence they had possessed in the Middle Ages.


IN FLANDERS AND FRANCE.—The word gilde, or ghilde, is but one of many terms used formerly in France and in the Low Countries to denote what the more modern word corporation stands for, viz., an association among men of the same community or profession. Gilde, metier, metier jure, confrerie, nation, maitrises et jurandes, and other like appellations, all essentially express this idea of association, at the same time laying stress on some particular feature of it. The word gilde, however, is the first to appear and we meet it very early in the history of western continental Europe. A capitulary of 779 says: "Let no one dare to take the oath by which people are wont to form guilds. Whatever may be the conditions which have been agreed upon, let no one bind himself by oaths concerning the payment of contributions in case of fire or shipwreck." This prohibition appears several times in the laws enacted under the Carlovingian emperors; nevertheless the guilds continued to exist, at least in the northern part of the empire. The records of the provincial councils held in those districts also show that the guilds were a matter of no small concern for the ecclesiastical authorities; for a long time the Church was bent on extirpating from their organization a number of objectionable features which made them a menace to morals.

In France and the Low Countries a guild was originally a sort of fraternity for common support, protection, and amusement. The members paid each a certain contribution to the common fund; they pledged their word to give one another assistance; they took care of the children of the deceased members and had Masses offered up for the repose of their souls; they celebrated the patron saint's day with great festivities in which the poor had their share. These and other features of the guilds did not, of course, appear all at the same time. Like most human institutions they had a modest beginning, and they developed according to circumstances. Again, it should be noted that they do not everywhere present one and the same type. Some are mainly social, others emphasize the religious side of the organization, while, later on, in the merchant and craft guilds, it is the economic aspect which becomes predominant. Before speaking of the latter a word should be said of the origin of the guilds in the two countries with which we are concerned here. This has been a much debated question. Some scholars consider the guilds as the product in Christian soil, of the German instinct of association, and they would assign for their remotest origin the banquets (convivia) so common among the Teutons and Scandinavians. Others claim that they were nothing else than the Roman corporations (collegia) established in Western Europe under Roman sway and reconstructed on Christian principles after the great invasions. That the Roman colleges of artisans flourished in southern and central Gaul has been established beyond doubt by the discovery of numerous inscriptions at Nice, Nimes, Narbonne, Lyons, and other cities. It is not likely that the Barbarian invasion broke entirely the Roman traditions in countries where the influence of Rome had been felt so deeply, and one is warranted in saying that in southern and central France the origin of the guilds was to a certain extent Roman. Such an assertion, however, could hardly be made for northern France and still less for the Low Countries. There is no evidence to show that the Roman collegia ever attained great importance in these regions. At any rate, the dominion of Rome was established there much later than in the South and was never so deep-rooted. Roman institutions and customs had scarcely had time to take root before the German invasion, and they must have given way very easily under the pressure of the conquerors, whose numbers, rapidly increasing, soon insured to them a preponderating influence.

But whether a legacy of Roman civilization or a native institution of the young Teutonic race, the guild would never have attained its wonderful development had not the Church taken it under its tutelage and infused into it the vivifying spirit of Christian charity. Furthermore, it is certain that a large number of guilds owed their existence solely to the aspirations which gave rise to chivalry and induced thousands of men to join the monastic communities. Towards the end of the tenth century, with the greater security following the Norman invasions, there was an increase of trade on the Continent. In each of the large towns, such as Rouen, Paris, Bruges, Arras, Saint-Omer, there soon arose a corporation which was known as the Merchant Guild and which was, in some instances at least, a development of an older association. None but the brethren of the corporation were allowed to trade in any article except food. Whether the communes (chartered towns) of France and the Low Countries had their origin in the Merchant Guild is a moot question, although it seems certain that the merchants were at least instrumental in the granting of charters by princes, for the right of managing its own affairs, conferred on the town, practically meant that its government fell into the hands of the trading class. At the origin of the Merchant Guild, any townsman might become a member of the corporation on payment of a stated fee, but with the increase of their wealth, the traders showed more and more a tendency to shut out the poorer classes from their association. The latter classes, however, were not without organization; they had their own corporations (the craft guilds), most of which seem to have been constituted in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Each one of these craft guilds, like the merchant guilds, had its charter and statutes, its patron saint, its banner and altar, its hall, its feast day, and its place in the religious processions and public festivities. There were in the craft guilds three classes of persons: the apprentices, or learners (apprendre, "to learn"), the journeymen (journee, "day"), or men hired to work by the day, and the masters or employers.

The apprentice had to remain from three to ten years in a condition of entire dependence under a master, in order to be qualified to exercise his trade as a journeyman. Before a master could engage an apprentice, he had to satisfy the officers of the guild of the soundness of his moral character. He was to treat the boy as he would his own child, and was held responsible not only for his professional, but also for his moral, education. On completing his apprenticeship, the young artisan became a journeyman (compagnon); at least, such was the rule from the fourteenth century onward. To become a master, he must have some means and pass an examination before the elders. At the head of the corporation was a board of trustees composed of two or more deans (doyens, syndics) assisted by a secretary, a treasurer, and six or more jurymen (jures, assesseurs, trouveurs, prud'hommes). These officers were elected from among the masters and entrusted with the management of the guild's interests, the care of its orphans, the defense of its privileges, and the protection of its members. It was more especially the duty of the jurymen to enforce the statutes of the guild bearing on the relations between employer and employee, engagement of apprentices and journeymen, salaries, hours of work, holidays, etc. They could punish or even expel from the corporation any member whose conduct incurred their disapprobation.

From this strong organization, all pervaded with the spirit of Christianity, there resulted great benefits for the artisan. His work, which was well regulated and broken by many holidays, did not tax his strength too severely; the good life he was induced to live saved him from need, while his rights and interests were protected against the vexations of the local or central government. Still more noteworthy was the brotherly character of the relations between employee and employer, to which the great cities of the Middle Ages were indebted for the social peace which they enjoyed for many centuries. This alone would outweigh what disadvantages may have been attached to this organization of labor. The guilds of the Low Countries, otherwise similar to the French guilds, differed from them in one respect: political importance. The latter never gained enough influence to free themselves from the condition of utter dependence in which they had been placed by the kings, but in the Low Countries several circumstances combined which gave the laboring classes a power they could not have in France. Of these circumstances, the most important were the wealth of the cities, the large number of artisans, and their organization into military brotherhoods (confreries militaires) which formed a regular militia, capable of holding its own against the feudal armies, as was illustrated many times in the history of Flanders and Liege.

As this article has to deal mainly with the guilds in the Middle Ages, but little can be said of the corporations of artists, which, in France and the Low Countries, were few and had not much importance before the sixteenth century. The explanation of this tardy growth is found, at least partly, in the fact that, during the greater part of the Middle Ages, the fine arts remained within the Church or under its supervision; even in the thirteenth century the number of laymen engaged in these professions was still very small, as is shown in "Le Livre des metiers de Paris", or book of the statutes of the Paris craft guilds, drawn up by Etienne Boileau under the direction of St. Louis. Two other classes of guilds which deserve a special mention are the basoches (see Vol. VI, p. 193) and the temporary or permanent corporations for the exhibition of religious and other plays. The best known of the latter class of guilds is "La Confrerie de la Passion", established in 1402. Its Mysteres form the link which unites the French tragedy of the seventeenth century with the dramatic literature of the Middle Ages.

After the end of the fifteenth century, under the despotic rule of the French kings, the guilds ceased to be a means of protection for a majority of their members—the journeymen—who formed associations of their own, regardless of all professional and even religious distinctions. Their privileges became a means of filling the royal coffers at the expense of the employers; the latter retaliated on the public, all the more readily that they had no competition to fear. By the middle of the eighteenth century the outcry against the guilds was general in France. In 1776 Turgot, then prime minister, planned their suppression, but his fall gave them some respite. In 1791 they were abolished by the Constituent Assembly. But remnants of these corporations are still found in many French and Belgian customs, as, for instance, the fees to be paid by notaries, solicitors, sheriff's officers, when they enter office. In the first half of the nineteenth century, several attempts were made in France to partially restore the craft guilds, but without success. During the last thirty years, however, there has been a Catholic movement in France and Belgium to counteract the evil effects of socialism by forming associations of employers and employed.

IN GERMANY.—The first well-known German guild is that of the watermen of Worms, its charter (Zunftbrief) dating from 1106; the shoemakers of Wurzburg received theirs in 1112; the weavers of Cologne, in 1149, the shoemakers of Magdeburg, in 1158. But it was not until the thirteenth century that the German guilds became numerous and important. Zunft, Innung, Genossenschaft, Bruderschaft, Gesellschaft, are the terms used in Germany to designate these associations. Here, as in Italy and the Low Countries, the most conspicuous guilds were those connected with the manufacture of linen and wool. In Ulm, for instance, towards the end of the fifteenth century, there were so many linen-weavers that the number of pieces of linen prepared in one year amounted at one time to 200,000. In the year 1466 there were 743 master weavers in Augsburg (Herberger, "Augsburg, and seine fruhere Industrie", p. 46). In the large cities, the linen- and the wool-weavers formed two distinct corporations, and the wool-weavers again were divided into two classes: the makers of fine Flemish or Italian goods, and the makers of the coarser homespun materials.

Other important guilds were those of the tanners and the furriers; the latter included the shoemakers, the tailors, the glove-makers, and the stocking-knitters. In the shoemaker's trade there was a sharp distinction between the Neumeister, who made new shoes, the cobbler, and the slipper maker. The most striking example of an elaborate classification according to craft is found in the metal-workers: the farriers, knife-makers, locksmiths, chain-forgers, nail-makers, often formed separate and distinct corporations; the armorers were divided into helmet-makers, escutcheon-makers, harness-makers, harness-polishers, etc. Sometimes they went so far as to have special guilds for each separate article of a suit of armor. This accounts for the remarkable skill and finish seen in the simplest details.

A class of brotherhoods which deserves special mention is that of the guilds of the mining trades, which from an early date were very important in Saxony and Bohemia. "No politician or socialist of modern times", says H. Achenbach (Gemeines Deutsches Bergrecht, I, 69, 109), "can suggest a labor organization which will better accomplish the object of helping the laborer, elevating his position, and maintaining fair relations between the employer and the employed than that of the mining works centuries ago." The statutes of these mining guilds show, indeed, a remarkable care for the well-being of the laborer and the protection of his interests. Hygienic conditions in the mines, ventilation of the pits, precautions against accident, bathing houses, time of labor (eight hours daily—sometimes less), supply of the necessaries of life at fair prices, scale of wages, care of the sick and disabled, etc.—no detail seems to have been lost sight of.

As to their organization, government, and relations with the public or the civil authorities, the German guilds did not substantially differ from those in other European countries. The members were divided into apprentices, journeymen, and masters. At the head of the corporation was a director assisted by several officers. He was the sworn and responsible power of the guild, called the meetings, presided at them, had the right of final decision, managed the property of the guild, led it in case of war. Each guild had its fully equipped court of justice and enjoyed complete independence in all private concerns, but all the guilds were subject to the town council and town authorities, and were obliged to submit their statutes and ordinances to them. In the event of quarrels, either within or between the guilds, the civil authorities exercised the rights of a commercial judge; in conjunction with the guild, they also made regulations for the markets and police arrangements, fixed the prices of wares, organized the supervision of traffic and the protection from fraud or dishonest dealing.

The purchase of raw material was managed by the guild as a body so as to prevent monopoly. Strict regulations protected the rights of every one. There was equality between all the members with regard to the sale of their productions. The protection of purchasers and customers was assured by the city authorities; the guild was held responsible for the quality and quantity of the goods which it brought for sale to the market. In Germany, as elsewhere, however, the most striking feature of the guilds was the close connection they established between religion and daily life. Labor was conceived by them as the complement of prayer, as the foundation of a well-regulated life. We read in the book "A Christian Admonition": "Let the societies and brotherhoods so regulate their lives according to Christian love in all things that their work may be blessed. Let us work according to God's law, and not for reward, else shall our labor be without blessing and bring evil on our souls." Each guild had its patron saint, who, according to tradition, had practiced its particular branch of industry, and whose feast day was celebrated by attending church and by processions; each had its banner, its altar, or chapel in the church, and had Masses offered up for the living and the dead members. The religious observance of Sunday and holy days was commanded by most of the guilds. Whoever worked or made others work on those days, or on Saturday after the vesper bell, or neglected to fast on the days appointed by the Church, incurred a penalty. This union of religion and labor was a strong tie between the members of the guilds, and it was of great assistance in settling peacefully the differences arising between masters and companions.

The guilds were also mutual and benevolent societies; they helped the impoverished and sick members; they took care of the widows and orphans; they remembered the poor outside the society. Many benevolent institutions owed their foundation to some guild, as, for instance, St. Job's Hospital for smallpox patients at Hamburg, which was founded in 1505 by a guild of fishmongers, shopkeepers, and hucksters. There were a large number of these benevolent associations of tradesmen in the Middle Ages; at the close of the fifteenth century there were seventy at Lubeck, eighty at Cologne, and over one hundred at Hamburg.

In connection with the guilds should be mentioned the workmen's clubs, which were very common at the end of the fifteenth century. So long as the German journeyman remained at work in a city, he belonged to one of these clubs, which supplied for him the place of his family and country. If he fell sick he was not left to public charity, but taken into the family of some master or cared for by his brother members; wherever he went he could make himself known by the society's badge or password, and receive help and protection from the local branch of the association to which he belonged. Thus the journeyman was, in the first place, associated with the family of his employer, in whose house he generally lodged and boarded; in the second place, he stood in close relation with his associates of the same age and trade, co-members with him of the society which protected and helped him; finally, he enjoyed special connection with the Church, because he generally belonged to one of the sodalities which were ordinarily, but not necessarily, a part of the society's organization.

Side by side with the artisans' guilds, there were also merchants' guilds, organized on the same plan as the former, and having similar objects in view with respect to the communal life of their members and their moral and religious well-being. But they differed in their attitude towards trade; for, while the chief object of the artisans' guilds was the protection and improvement of the different trades, the merchants' guilds aimed at securing commercial advantages for their members and obtaining the monopoly of the trade of some country or some particular class of goods. Not alone in the German cities, but also in all foreign countries where German commerce prevailed, corporations of this sort, guilds, or Hansa (the word Hansa has the same signification as guild), had existed from an early date and had obtained recognition, privileges, and rights from the foreign rulers and communities. By degrees these Hansa in foreign countries became banded together in one large association forming an important and rival commercial body in the midst of the native merchants and traders. Such was the case in London, where the merchants who had come from Cologne, Lubeck, Hamburg, and other cities formed an association of German merchants.

To further strengthen their position, the guilds belonging to different foreign cities decided to join in one common association. In England, those of Bristol, York, Ipswich, Norwich, Hull, and other cities were affiliated with the London Hansa, and were each represented there. On the same plan were organized the associations of Novgorod in Russia, of Wisby in the island of Gothland, and the so-called Komtoor of Bruges. The last-named was divided into three branches: one comprising with Lubeck the cities of the Slavonic country and of Saxony; the second, those of Prussia and Westphalia; and the third, those of Gothland, Livonia, and Sweden. This vast corporation, calling itself the Society of German Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire, was the foundation of the general German Hansa, or Hanseatic League, which by degrees embraced all the cities (at one time more than ninety) of Lower Germany, from Riga to the Flemish boundaries, and those in the South as far as the Thuringian forests. This league attained the summit of its power in the fifteenth century, and Dantzic was then universally acknowledged as its most important city; in the year 1481, more than 1100 ships had gone from its harbor to Holland. The ships were divided into flotillas of from thirty to forty craft, each flotilla having armed ships, called Orlogschiffe or Friedenskoggen, attached to it for its protection.

After a time, the Hanseatic League was broken up into separate sections whose centers were Lubeck for the Slavonic country, Cologne for the Rhenish, Brunswick for Saxony, and Dantzic for Prussia and Livonia. The Hansa lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century; its last meeting took place in 1669, and the cities of Lubeck, Bremen, Brunswick, Cologne, Hamburg, and Dantzic were the only ones that had sent representatives. The causes of the ruin of this once so powerful association were the growth of the commerce of Holland and England, the Wars of the League, against Denmark and Sweden in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the Thirty Years' War, which was so detrimental to German commerce and manufactures. Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg are still called the Hanseatic cities.

The history of the German guilds of artists is closely connected with that of the guilds of artisans. For a long time the artists were incorporated in the trade associations, and their organization into independent corporations took place only at the close of the Middle Ages. The architects were probably the first to have their own organization.

In Germany, as in the other countries of Europe, the guilds were compulsory bodies, having the right to regulate trade, under the supervision of the civil authorities; but the system was not injurious in the Middle Ages. It was so only at the close of the sixteenth century, when the guilds became narrowly exclusive with regard to the admission of new members, and were nothing but a mere benefit society for a small number of masters and their associates. The abuses of the German corporations were brought to the attention of the Imperial Government in the diets of 1548, 1577, and 1654, but it was only in the course of the nineteenth century that the guilds were successively abolished in the different States of Germany. In the last twenty-five years, there were enacted in that country a number of laws whose aim was not the reestablishment of the old corporations, which had each its special domain and privileges, but the protection of the laborers, who had been left without organization and defense by the abolition of the guilds.

IN ITALY.—"Of all the establishments of Numa", says Plutarch, "no one is more highly prized than his distribution of the people into colleges according to trade and craft." From these words we should infer that the first well-known Italian corporations date from the seventh century B.C., but some authors, whose contention is founded on a text of Florus, have claimed that Servius Tullius, and not Numa, was the founder of the Roman colleges of artisans (e.g., Heineccius, "De collegiis et corporibus opificum", 138). Whatever may be the truth on this point, it is certain that the collegia opificum existed in the sixth century B.C., because they were incorporated in the constitution of Servius Tullius which remained in force until 241 B.C. There were but few of these corporations in the Republic, but their numbers increased under the emperors; in Rome alone there were in the third century more than thirty colleges, private and public (Theodosian Code, XIII and XIV). The latter were four in number: the navicularii, who supplied Rome with provisions, the bakers, the pork butchers, and the calcis coctores et vectores, who supplied Rome with lime for building. The members of these corporations received a fixed salary from the State.

Among the private colleges were numbered the argentarii, or bankers, the negotiatores vini, or wine merchants, the medici, or physicians, and the professores, or teachers. On the whole it might be said that the collegia were prosperous until the end of the third century B.C., but in the course of the next century they began to show signs of decline. The few privileges they enjoyed had ceased to be a compensation for their responsibilities to the State, and it was only by the most drastic measures that the last emperors succeeded in keeping the artisans in their collegia.

And now arise the questions: What remained of these corporations after the invasions? Is there any connection between them and the Italian guilds of the thirteenth century? We can only answer this query by conjecture. The period extending from the fifth to the eleventh century is extremely poor in documents; the few annalists of those days have limited their work to a bare enumeration of events and a dry list of dates. Mention is made here and there of the existence of a guild, but we are not told whether these guilds are new associations or the development of an older organization. Since we know, however, that the Roman law was to a large extent incorporated in the codes of the Goths and Lombards, we have good ground to believe that many of the municipal institutions survived the fall of Rome. In support of this view, we have the well-known fact that the Barbarians usually dwelt in the country and left the government of the cities in the hands of the clergy, most of whom, being Italians, were naturally inclined to retain the Roman institutions, all the more readily as a better education enabled them to appreciate their value. All this leads to the conclusion that, in most cities, enough of the old Roman corporation must have been preserved to form the nucleus of a new organization which slowly but steadily developed into the guild of the Middle Ages.

The mercanzia, the earliest well-known type of these guilds, existed in Venice, Genoa, Milan, Verona, Pisa, and elsewhere in the tenth century; it somewhat resembled the merchant guild of Northern Europe, being an association of all the mercantile interests of the community without any professional distinction, but, as the increase of trade which followed the First Crusade brought about an increase of industrial activity, the arts found it more convenient to have an association of their own, and the mercanzia was split into craft guilds. As an example of this evolution, we may take the Roman mercanzia. Although it had been in existence at least since the beginning of the eleventh century, it received its final constitution only in 1285. At that time it was composed of thirteen arts, all united into one common association, but in the course of the following century we see these arts withdrawing successively from the mother guild and forming independent corporations until finally the mercanzia was merely a merchant guild.

The Italian arts were not all placed on the same footing. Some, being more important, had a right of precedence over the others and a larger share of the political rights. This hierarchy varied, of course, from one city to another; in Rome the farmers and drapers came first; in Venice and Genoa, the merchants. In Florence we find the most striking illustration of this type of organization. The arts were divided into major and minor. The former were, in the order of importance, the judges and notaries, the drapers, the bankers, the wool-manufacturers, the physicians and apothecaries, the silk-manufacturers, and the skin-dressers. They formed the popolo grosso, or burgesses, and governed the city with the old feudal families; but in 1282 the latter were deprived of their political rights, and the burgesses were compelled to share the government of Florence with the popolo minuto, or minor arts—the blacksmiths, the bakers, the shoemakers, the carpenters, and the retailers of wine.

In its main lines, the organization of the Italian guilds resembled that of the French guilds. Their members were divided into apprentices, journeymen, and employers. Their life was regulated by an elaborate system of statutes bearing on the professional and religious duties of the brethren, the relations of the corporations as a body with the local government, competition, monopoly, care of the sick, of the orphans, etc. The officers were all elected usually for a term not exceeding six months. At first they were few, but their number increased rapidly with the importance of the guild. One of the most remarkable illustrations of guild government is given us by the Roman corporations. At the head of each one was a cardinal protector, but the real managers were the consuls (sometimes called priori, capitudini). Until the beginning of the fifteenth century they were invested with great judicial power, but after the return of the popes to Rome their functions became merely administrative and their authority was limited by a number of other officers—assessors, procurators, delegates, defensors, secretaries, archivists. The second great officer of the corporation was the camerlingo, or treasurer; at one time his office was even more important than that of the consul, but little by little a large part of his powers went to computors, exactors, taxators, depositors. The proveditor had the custody of the guild's furniture and was to preserve good order in the assemblies; the syndics examined the administration of the officers at the end of their term; the physician and nurses attended the sick members free of charge, and the visitor had to call on those who were in prison. Besides, there were many officers attached to the chapel: vestrymen, churchwardens, chaplains.

Guilds of artists appeared very early in Italy. Sienna, Pisa, Venice seem to have been in the lead. The first of these cities had a corporation of architects and sculptors in 1212; the statutes of the sculptors and stone-cutters of Venice date from 1307; those of the carpenters and cabinet-makers in the same city from 1385. In Rome the guilds of artists were formed relatively late; the sculptors in 1406, the painters in 1478, the goldsmiths in 1509, the masons in 1527. On the whole it is seen that the arts connected with construction were the first to have their own association, then came the goldsmiths, and finally the painters. It often happened that artists were incorporated into trade guilds, as, for instance, the painters of Florence, who still belonged to the grocers' guild in the sixteenth century. The famous "Accademia del Desegno" of that city, one of the first academies of fine arts in Europe, grew out of the "Compagnia di San Luca", a semi-religious, semi-artistic guild. The decline of the Italian guilds began in the sixteenth century and was brought about by the decay of the commerce of the country. They were abolished in Rome by Pius VII in 1807, and by the end of the first half of the nineteenth century they had become a thing of the past in all Italian cities.

IN SPAIN.—What has been said of the origin of the guilds in Italy applies to Spain. In no other province (except, perhaps, Southern Gaul) had the inhabitants been influenced more deeply by Roman civilization, and the Visigoths, who settled there in the fifth century, were, of all the Barbarians, those who showed the strongest tendency to retain Roman institutions and customs. Unfortunately, the growth of this neo-Roman civilization was stopped by the Arabian invasion in the eighth century, and in the following 700 years the Christians of Spain, who were bent on the task of wresting their country from the infidels, turned their energies to warfare. Domestic trade fell into the hands of the Jews, foreign trade into those of the Italians, and manufactures existed mostly in cities under Moorish dominion. Religious and military associations were many and powerful, but merchant and craft guilds could not grow on this battlefield.


+ + +
Source. Burton, Edwin, and Pierre Marique. "Guilds." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.


The Wrath of the Roses

THE position of the rose among flowers is like that of the dog among animals. It is so much that both are domesticated as that have some dim feeling that they were always domesticated. There are wild roses and there are wild dogs. I do not know the wild dogs; wild roses are very nice. But nobody ever thinks of either of them if the name is abruptly mentioned in a gossip or a poem. On the other hand, there are tame tigers and tame cobras, but if one says, "I have a cobra in my pocket," or "There is a tiger in the music-room," the adjective "tame" has to be somewhat hastily added. If one speaks of beasts one thinks first of wild beasts; if of flowers one thinks first of wild flowers.

But there are two great exceptions; caught so completely into the wheel of man's civilization, entangled so unalterably with his ancient emotions and images, that the artificial product seems more natural than the natural. The dog is not a part of natural history, but of human history; and the real rose grows in a garden. All must regard the elephant as something tremendous, but tamed; and many, especially in our great cultured centres, regard every bull as presumably a mad bull. In the same way we think of most garden trees and plants as fierce creatures of the forest or morass taught at last to endure the curb.

But with the dog and the rose this instinctive principle is reversed. With them we think of the artificial as the archetype; the earth-born as the erratic exception. We think vaguely of the wild dog as if he had run away, like the stray cat. And we cannot help fancying that the wonderful wild rose of our hedges has escaped by jumping over the hedge. Perhaps they fled together, the dog and the rose: a singular and (on the whole) an imprudent elopement. Perhaps the treacherous dog crept from the kennel, and the rebellious rose from the flower-bed, and they fought their way out in company, one with teeth and the other with thorns. Possibly this is why my dog becomes a wild dog when he sees roses, and kicks them anywhere. Possibly this is why the wild rose is called a dog-rose. Possibly not.

But there is this degree of dim barbaric truth in the quaint old-world legend that I have just invented. That in these two cases the civilized product is felt to be the fiercer, nay, even the wilder. Nobody seems to be afraid of a wild dog: he is classed among the jackals and the servile beasts. The terrible cave canem is written over man's creation. When we read "Beware of the Dog," it means beware of the tame dog: for it is the tame dog that is terrible. He is terrible in proportion as he is tame: it is his loyalty and his virtues that are awful to the stranger, even the stranger within your gates; still more to the stranger halfway over your gates. He is alarmed at such deafening and furious docility; he flees from that great monster of mildness.

Well, I have much the same feeling when I look at the roses ranked red and thick and resolute round a garden; they seem to me bold and even blustering. I hasten to say that I know even less about my own garden than about anybody else's garden. I know nothing about roses, not even their names. I know only the name Rose; and Rose is (in every sense of the word) a Christian name. It is Christian in the one absolute and primordial sense of Christian—that it comes down from the age of pagans. The rose can be seen, and even smelt, in Greek, Latin, Provencal, Gothic, Renascence, and Puritan poems. Beyond this mere word Rose, which (like wine and other noble words) is the same in all the tongues of white men, I know literally nothing. I have heard the more evident and advertised names. I know there is a flower which calls itself the Glory of Dijon—which I had supposed to be its cathedral. In any case, to have produced a rose and a cathedral is to have produced not only two very glorious and humane things, but also (as I maintain) two very soldierly and defiant things. I also know there is a rose called Marechal Niel—note once more the military ring.

And when I was walking round my garden the other day I spoke to my gardener (an enterprise of no little valour) and asked him the name of a strange dark rose that had somehow oddly taken my fancy. It was almost as if it reminded me of some turbid element in history and the soul. Its red was not only swarthy, but smoky; there was something congested and wrathful about its colour. It was at once theatrical and sulky. The gardener told me it was called Victor Hugo.

Therefore it is that I feel all roses to have some secret power about them; even their names may mean something in connexion with themselves, in which they differ from nearly all the sons of men. But the rose itself is royal and dangerous; long as it has remained in the rich house of civilization, it has never laid off its armour. A rose always looks like a mediaeval gentleman of Italy, with a cloak of crimson and a sword: for the thorn is the sword of the rose.

And there is this real moral in the matter; that we have to remember that civilization as it goes on ought not perhaps to grow more fighting—but ought to grow more ready to fight. The more valuable and reposeful is the order we have to guard, the more vivid should be our ultimate sense of vigilance and potential violence. And when I walk round a summer garden, I can understand how those high mad lords at the end of the Middle Ages, just before their swords clashed, caught at roses for their instinctive emblems of empire and rivalry. For to me any such garden is full of the wars of the roses.

~G.K. Chesterton: in Alarms and Discursions (1910)


"Not only is our civilisation not the best possible, it is not even the most civilised"

"IT does something towards destroying that absurd notion that the march of civilisation, must represent an improvement in the condition of every conceivable race of men. That European civilisation is a good thing for every people is a proposition about as sane as the proposition that a fur-lined overcoat and a pair of snow-shoes are good things for every climate. I do not consider European civilisation a disease. I consider it the remedy for many diseases; but while I do not wish to give everyone my malady, neither do I wish to give everyone my medicine. Not only is our civilisation not the best possible, it is not even the most civilised. In a great many points of essential polish and culture it is inferior to much that we call barbarism. For example, in the matter of politeness. If a Bond-street dandy went into the tent of Abraham or Isaac of Jacob, the chief impression he would produce would be simply that he did not know how to behave. Abraham would be sweeping the ground with half a dozen symbolic reverences while the European aristocrat would be playing about with a cigarette, and laughing and looking like a fool.

"Mr. Carpenter's general contention, therefore, that civilisation is relative and not absolute is of great value in making us realise that what we ourselves call civilisation does not suit all complaints. It is not a disease; it may be a medicine, but it is certainly not a panacea. The fact may restrain us from imagining that the Chinaman will immediately fall in love with the beauties of democracy, or that the population of Fiji can be to an unlimited extent increased and improved by doses of gin and gunpowder. But while this truth gives us an excellent reason for believing that our civilisation is not suitable to everybody, it gives us no reason whatever for supposing that it is not suitable to ourselves. Civilisation is like a wife; it represents the softening and ordering element in existence, and just as we are attached to our wife we are attached to our civilisation. We may not agree with the endless colonising and missionising of other civilisations....But, nevertheless, we need not agree with Mr. Edward Carpenter and kill her."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Daily News, Feb. 21, 1902.
(h/t: Mike Miles)

"He believes in himself"

"THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, 'That man will get on; he believes in himself.' And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written 'Hanwell.' I said to him, 'Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.' "

~G.K. Chesterton: from Orthodoxy, II.―The Maniac.

"We seem to be dealing with a new race"

"THE essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some mysterious reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be supernatural. The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand."

~G.K. Chesterton: A Defence of Baby-Worship.
See the complete essay here.

Maternal Admiration (1869),
by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Christianity and Rationalism

MY friend, Mr. George Haw, has asked me to state, in one or two articles, my general belief on the subject of Christianity, to be inserted in the Clarion. I will not pretend to any particular reluctance to do so; but I ought not to do it without first of all offering to Mr. Blatchford our gratitude, and something which is better than gratitude, our congratulations, upon the very magnanimous action which he has taken in thus putting this paper into the hands of the religious opponents. In doing so he has scored, in a generous unconsciousness, a real point. 

Most of the awful revelations of Christian evil and ignorance do not, I am afraid, affect me in quite so serious a manner as they ought to. When I hear that a German professor has found the four-hundredth accurate origin of protoplasm, I try in vain to feel excitement; when I read that savages paint their faces green to please the ghosts (or what not), I have no feeling beyond a vague pleasure and sympathy. Both the German professor and the green-faced savage seem to me to be doing the same thingthat is, falling under the influence of that starry impulse which leads men to take a vast deal of trouble about quite useless things. 

But such things do not make much difference to my view of Christianity. In the whole of this controversy I have felt the force of one thing, which has really hit practical Christianity; I think it is a good argument; I think it is a terrible argument. It is not that this controversy is being conducted in a non-Christian paper. It certainly is a fair point scored against a religion that the people who seem to be most interested in it are those who believe it to be a fraud. I think, therefore, that Mr. Blatchford's magnanimity, like all magnanimity, is profoundly philosophical and wise. 

Nor do I blame him, as some have done, for having discussed it at great length; as the subject is the nature of the Universe, it is necessarily as large as the Universe, and as rich as the Universe, and I may add, as amusing as the Universe. 

In fact, I fancy there must be such a thing as Immortality, merely that Mr. Blatchford and I may have time to discuss whether it is true. 

Before I give an outline of my view, there is one other thing to be said in which I cannot avoid the personal note. I have begun to realise that there are a good many people to whom my way of speaking about these things appears like an indication that I am flippant or imperfectly sincere. Since, as a matter of fact, I am more certain of myself in this affair than I am of the existence of the moon, this naturally causes me some considerable regret; but I think I see the naturalness of the mistake and how it arose in people for removed from the Christian atmosphere. Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy. 

This difference holds good everywhere, in the cold Pagan architectrure and the grinning gargoyles of Christendom, in the preposterous motley of the Middle Ages and the dingy dress of this Rationlistic century. And if Mr. Blatchford wishes to know why we should be surprised if the Duke of Devonshire walked about with one leg red and the other yellow (as a nobleman might have done in the thirteenth century), I can obligingly inform him that it is because of the decay of our faith. Nowhere in history has there ever been any popular brightness and gaiety without religion. 

The first of all the difficulties that I have in controverting Mr. Blatchford is simply this, that I shall be very largely going over his own ground. My favourite text-book of theology is God and my Neighbour but I cannot repeat it in detail. If I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blachford's reasons for not being one. 

For instance, Mr. Blatchford and his school point out that there are many myths parallel to the Christian story; that there were Pagan Christs, and Red Indian Incarnations, and Patagonian Crucifixions, for all I know or care. But does not Mr. Blatchford see the other side of this fact? If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God? 

The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this―that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary therefore is cannot be true. And then this bashful being, veiling his own talents, convicts the wretched G.K.C. of paradox! I like paradox, but I am not prepared to dance and dazzle to the extent of Nunquam, who points to humanity crying out to a thing, and pointing to it from immemorial ages, as a proof that it cannot be there. 

The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it seriously be maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore not two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances? It is tolerably plain, surely, that these two stories are common because the situation is an intensely probable and human one, because our nature is so built as to make them almost inevitable. 

Why should it not be that our nature is so built as to make certain spiritual events inevitable? In any case, it is clearly ridiculous to attempt to disprove Christianity by the number and variety of Pagan Christs. You might as well take the number and variety of ideal schemes of society, from Plato's Republic to Morris' News from Nowhere, from More's Utopia to Blatchford's Merrie England, and then try and prove from them that mankind cannot ever reach a better social condition. If anything, of course, they prove the opposite; they suggest a human tendency towards a better condition. 

Thus, in this first instance, when learned skeptics come to me and say, "Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?" I should reply: "Speaking as an unlearned person, I don't know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn't." 

Take a second instance. The Secularist says that Christianity has been a gloomy and ascetic thing, and points to the procession of austere or ferocious saints who have given up home and happiness and macerated health and sex. But it never seems to occur to him that the very oddity and completeness of the men's surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves. They gave up all human experiences for the sake on one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience. 

It is perfectly tenable that this experience is as dangerous and selfish a thing as drink. A man who goes ragged and homeless in order to see visions may be as repellent and immoral as a man who goes ragged and homeless in order to drink brandy. That is a quite reasonable position. But what is manifestly not a reasonable position what would be, in fact not far from being an insane position, would be to say that the raggedness of the man, and the homelessness of the man, and the stupefied degradation of the man proved that there was no such thing as brandy. 

That is precisely what the Secularist tries to say. He tries to prove that there is no such think as supernatural experience by pointing at the people who have given up everything for it. He tries to prove that there is no such thing by proving that there are people who live on nothing else. 

Again I may submissively ask: "Whose is the paradox?" The frantic severity of these men may, of course, show that they were eccentric people who loved unhappiness for its own sake. But is seems more in accordance with commonsense to suppose that they had really found the secret of some actual power or experience which was, like wine, a terrible consolation and a lonely joy. 

Thus, then, in the second instance, when the learned sceptic says to me: "Christian saints gave up love and liberty for this one rapture of Christianity, I should have been surprised if they hadn't." 

Take a third instance. The Secularist says that Christianity produced tumult and cruelty. He seems to suppose that this proves it to be bad. But it might prove it to be very good. For men commit crimes not only for bad things, far more often for good things. For no bad things can be desired quite so passionately and persistently as good things can be desired and only very exceptional men desire very bad and unnatural things. 

Most crime is committed because, owing to some peculiar complication, very beautiful or necessary things are in some danger. For instance, if we wanted to abolish thieving and swindling at one blow, the best thing to do would be to abolish babies. Babies, the most beautiful things on earth, have been the excuse and origin of almost all the business of brutality and financial infamy on earth. 

If we could abolish monogamic or romantic love, again the country would be dotted with Maiden Assizes. And if anywhere in history masses of common and kindly men become cruel it almost certainly does not mean that they are serving something in itself tyrannical (for why should they?). It almost certainly does mean that something that they rightly value is in peril such as the food of their children, the chastity of their women, or the independence of their country. And when something is set before them that is not only enormously valuable, but also quite new, the sudden vision, the chance of winning it, the chance of losing it, drive them mad. It has the same effect in the moral world that the finding of gold has in the economic world. It upsets values, and creates a kind of cruel rush. 

We need not go far for instances quite apart from the instances of religion. When the modern doctrines of brotherhood and liberty were preached in France in the eighteenth century the time was ripe for them, the educated classes everywhere had been growing towards them, the world to a very considerable extend welcomed them. And yet all that preparation and openness were unable to prevent the burst of anger and agony which greets anything good. And if the slow and polite preaching of rational fraternity in a rational age ended in the massacres of September, what an a fortiori is here! What would be likely to be the effect of the sudden dropping into a dreadfully evil century of a dreadfully perfect truth? What would happen if a world baser than the world of Sade were confronted with a gospel purer than the gospel of Rousseau? 

The mere flinging of the polished pebble of Republican Idealism into the artificial lake of eighteenth century Europe produced a splash that seemed to splash the heavens, and a storm that drowned ten thousand men. What would happen if a star from heaven really fell into the slimy and bloody pool of a hopeless and decaying humanity? Men swept a city with the guillotine, a continent with the sabre, because Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were too precious to be lost. How if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious? 

But why should we labour the point when One who knew human nature as it can really be learnt, from fishermen and women and natural people, saw from his quiet village the track of this truth across history, and, in saying that He came to bring not peace but a sword, set up eternally His colossal realism against the eternal sentimentality of the Secularist? 

Thus, then, in the third instance, when the learned sceptic says: "Christianity produced wars and persecutions," we shall reply: "Naturally." 

And, lastly, let me take an example which leads me on directly to the general matter I wish to discuss for the remaining space of the articles at my command. The Secularist constantly points out that the Hebrew and Christian religions began as local things; that their god was a tribal god; that they gave him material form, and attached him to particular places. 

This is an excellent example of one of the things that if I were conducting a detailed campaign I should use as an argument for the validity of Biblical experience. For if there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they in some strange ways, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that the rude people should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I should have suspected "priestcraft" and forgeries and third-century Gnosticism 

If there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke to a child in the garden the child would, of course, say that God lived in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that. If the child said: "God is everywhere: an impalpable essence pervading and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike"―if, I say, the infant addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely to have been with the governess than with God. 

So if Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary. For whatever be the Divine Secret, and whether or no it has (as all people have believed) sometimes broken bounds and surged into our work, at least it lies on the side furthest away from pedants and their definitions, and nearest to the silver souls of quiet people, to the beauty of bushes, and the love of one's native place. 

Thus, then in our last instance (out of hundreds that might be taken), we conclude in the same way. When the learned sceptic says: "The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque," we shall answer: "Of course. They were genuine." 

Thus, as I said at the beginning, I find myself, to start with, face to face with the difficulty that to mention the reasons that I have for believing in Christianity is, in very many cases, to repeat those arguments which Mr. Blatchford, in some strange way, seems to regard as arguments against it. His book is really rich and powerful. He has undoubtedly set up these four great guns of which I have spoken. I have nothing to say against the size and ammunition of the guns. I only say that by some accident of arrangement he has set up those four pieces of artillery with the tails pointing at me and the mouths pointing at himself. If I were not so humane, I should say: "Gentlemen of the Secularist Guard, fire first." 

But there is more to be said. Mr. Blatchford, for some reason or other (possibly want of space), has neglected to urge all the arguments for Christianity. And, oddly enough, the two or three arguments he has omitted to state are the really vital and essential ones. Without them, even the excellent four facts which he and I have respectively explained may appear superficially unintelligible. 

Why will many of you not accept my four explanations? Obviously, in mere logic, they are as logical as Mr. Blatchford's. It is as reasonable, in the abstract, that a truth should be distorted as that a lie should be distorted; it is as reasonable, in the abstract, that men should starve and sin for a real benefit as for an unreal one. You will not believe it because you are armed to the teeth, and buttoned up to the chin with the great Agnostic Orthodoxy, perhaps the most placid and perfect of all the orthodoxies of mean. You could sooner believe that Socrates was a Government spy than believe that he heard a voice from his God. You could more easily think that Christ murdered His mother, than that He had a psychic energy of which we know nothing. I approach you with the reverence and the courage due to a bench of bishops.

~G.K. Chesterton

See additional essays by Chesterton in Religious Doubts and Democracy.


The Decline of the West

ALMOST immediately after the end of the Great War a German wrote a highly successful or widely boomed book called “The Decline of the West.” [by Oswald Spengler, 1880-1936] The most human inference (in the opinion of many) was that the German, having assisted at the spectacle of the Decline and Fall of the German Empire, naturally wanted all the rest of us to decline and fall with him. He felt it would be obviously a breach of taste and tact for any nation to flourish if Germany had declined; if indeed, he was even aware of the existence of such fringes of his Empire as France or Flanders or England. Anyhow, he applied his doctrine to all that is most active in our civilisation, whether we are so constituted as to call it the Indo-Germanic race or prefer to call it Christendom. But there was more in this theory of his about a general collapse; which was also a theory of a recurrent collapse. In this, indeed, and in his general idea of a modern phase of decline, his view was quite reasonable and very persuasively stated. But there was bound up with it another set of ideas which are not necessarily any part of the theory, either that civilisations periodically weaken or that our civilisation has weakened in our period. Those two theses may quite well be true; but the thesis of the book was false.

For me, at least, it was false because it was fatalist; false because it was unhistoric; and false because it involved a particular falsity about the very spirit of the great culture which the critic criticised. It is the whole point of that culture that it has been continuous; it was the whole point of the critic that it have been discontinuous and disconnected. He was not content to say that civilisations revolve in separate cycles, in the sense in which we might be said to belong to a different civilisation from the Druids. He cut up ordinary European history into chunks, that were supposed to have no more to do with each other than Chinese history and Aztec history. He chopped ordinary Christian history in two in the middle, in order to deny that either part of it was Christian. So far as I remember, he attributed the first half of it to entirely to the Moslem Arabs, because they were not Christians; and the second half of it to people of the type of Faust, because they were rather fishy sort of Christians, and Germans as well. And he talked about these divisions as they were like the abysses that might separate a stratum full of primordial crystals from a stratum, aeons afterwards, containing the first fantastic traces of marsupial life.

Now, I am quite certain, as a matter of mere common sense, that the history of Christendom, or even the history of Europe, was never so fragmentary as that. We are much more connected with the ancient Greeks than the German writer would allow us to be with the later mediaevals, or even the earlier moderns. The sort of distinction he suggested only happens when a cycle of civilisation really dies, and then fossilises and remains as inscrutable as an ammonite. We have no idea what was the religion of the Cro-Magnons, though we infer from certain pictures of ritual dances (as well as from our own common sense) that they had one. We do not know the significance of the Cup and Ring Stones, though the fortunate and civilised of us still use rings, as in the case of wedding-rings, or cups even in the sense of wine-cups. We do not even know if we interpret the signs rightly, or whether they are signs at all. Now, the Greek gods have never died in that fashion; and the Roman Empire has never dies at all. Of the most modern industrial cities in England, many have in their very names the title of the Roman Camp; and wherever there stood the Roman Camp, there stood afterwards the Christian Cathedral. There was never one moment, in the long history from Herodotus to Herr Spengler, when all the men who counted in any age did not count The Fall of Troy; there was never a generation when young poets did not make that old tale a topic for new poems. I wonder whether a poem by Heredia about Antony, or a poem by Morris about Arthur, belongs to the dead Greek period or the dead Arabic period? There was never a generation of poets that did not invoke Virgil, if only to imitate him. There was never a generation in which philosophers did not refer to Aristotle, if only to contradict him. The thread of our cultural continuity has never been broken.

I think the fact worth recording at the moment for two reasons. The first is that the same energetic German author has just launched another book, of much less dignity and of much more dogmatism, reaffirming his theory, and especially the most gloomy and barbaric parts of it. The other is that there is a horrible possibility that what he says falsely about our past may be said truly about our future. I mean that, hitherto, the men of our ancient tradition have done everything except forget. Whatever might be fanatical or ill-balanced about their religions or their revolutions, they have each, in turn, taken particular care to remember the deeds of their fathers. Even when they poisoned the purer Paganism if Homer and Pindar, they did not destroy it; they left it standing for ever against them as a reproach. Even when they dethroned the Greek gods they did not dismiss them; in the first just fury they denounced them as devils, but in the long run they let them remain as elves. They let them remain as fanciful and fabulous figures, for literary metaphor or plastic decoration, so that Christendom has left the nymph in poetry or the cupid in sculpture. It is true that now, for the first time, the race that always remembered is invited on every side to forget.

Yes; it is true that to-day, for the first time, our newspapers and our new politicians have asked us to forget, not what happened a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago, but what happened twenty years ago. When it is a question of shifting a policy or rehabilitating a politician, they will ask us to forget what happened two years ago or two months ago. Here, indeed, we have the great Spengler System, of total separation of one historical episode from another. Here is the true trick of regarding ourselves as divided by aeons and abysses not only from our fathers, but from ourselves. Thus, by reading the daily paper every day, and forgetting everything that it said on the previous day, we can divide human history into self-contained cycles; each consisting, not of five hundred years, but of twenty-four hours. By this means we can consider the slogans and swaggering policies which we ourselves cheered only recently, as if they were hieroglyphics as unintelligible as the Cup and Ring of Stones. This new quality of forgetfulness, in our current culture, does give some justification to the pessimism of the German professor; and if we accept such oblivion, then doubtless our “cycle” will really curl up like a worm on the floor and lie still for ever.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, September 3, 1932.