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There is very little in our modern life that is more muddle-headed than the view that most moderns have of the Middle Ages. For most moderns the Middle Ages are dismissed as being barbaric and violent, whereas, of course, our own enlightened and progressive times are, by comparison, civilized and peaceful. One thinks, for instance, of those modern ideologies, each of which traces its roots to the anti-mediaeval Enlightenment, which have blessed us with the Guillotine, the Gulag and the Gas Chamber, or perhaps we are reminded of the modern cult of hedonistic consumerism which systematically kills unborn babies in the name of “freedom.” Is it not it a relief to know that we have progressed beyond the barbarism of the Middle Ages to the glories of our enlightened present?

It is not that we should defend the Middle Ages, which, being human, was certainly far from perfect. One need only look at what the Middle Ages says about itself to know that there was no golden age in the past. Take, for instance, the host of hedonistic individuals that Dante places in Hell, or the mottled motley of flawed characters that comprise Chaucer’s human menagerie en route to Canterbury. The fairest and most objective way of judging the Middle Ages is to let it judge itself, seeing its flaws and its strengths through the eyes of its protagonists. In order to do this, we have to be fair enough to want to know the people whom we are judging. In short, we need to know a little about history and the real people who populated it.

And let us be blunt about this. Anyone who condemns the Middle Ages without knowing anything about mediaeval history is little different from the racist who condemns foreigners because he presumes that other cultures are inferior to his own. With this in mind, I was heartened to read an article by Giles Fraser in The Guardian which confronts the de facto racism of anti-mediaeval moderns.

Fraser’s thesis is encapsulated in the title of his article, “Our secular salvation myth distances us from reality,” and by its subtitle: “We are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers.”

Commencing with the supercilious arrogance of those anthropologists who “used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview,” Fraser equates their implicit racism with the chronological snobbery of modern journalists:

But it is not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval.” Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other”—little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion—though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.

For the historian Julia McClure, this messianic modernism, which sees itself as the source of salvation, is blinded by its own arrogance: “Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.”

The grim irony is that this progressive myopia refuses to see that the barbarism of the Guillotine, Gulag, Gas Chamber and Abortion Mill are all products of the “Enlightenment” and its rupture from religion. The philosophers who have laid the foundations for these multifarious manifestations of modern barbarism are all impeccably anti-mediaeval: Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, et cetera. It is for this reason that Chesterton, in The Man Who was Thursday and elsewhere in his writings, accuses such modern philosophers as being far more deadly than any common murderer.

It is a sad and sometimes confusing fact that myopic progressivism is not the sole preserve of liberal progressives but is also advocated by some conservatives. This was evident in a recent book in which the author, whom we will call Mr. Muddle, attacked Chesterton and Belloc for their alleged idealization of the Middle Ages. “Nonetheless,” Mr. Muddle opined, “historians now recognize that the typical life of the medieval European, and Englishman, was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’” This is a perfect example of the chronological snobbery of which Fraser writes and the arrogance to which McClure alludes, as is illustrated by the fact that Mr. Muddle, as a conservative modernist, chooses one of the Founding Fathers of the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes, to pass judgment on the Middle Ages. Hobbes was a nominalist, a proto-relativist, a de facto materialist and a determinist, and was an avowed enemy of scholastic philosophy and orthodox religion. Quoting Hobbes on the Middle Ages is like quoting Hitler on the Jews. His is not an impartial or trustworthy voice!

In order to buttress his case against the Middle Ages, Mr. Muddle then quotes two historians, Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, who appear to put the anti-mediaeval case with a bludgeoning bluntness: “The romantic view that workers in pre-Industrial Europe lived well may safely be dismissed as pure fantasy…. The early factories were able to attract workers with low wages because the wages were still … better than anything available elsewhere to an impoverished agricultural population.” The problem is that Mr. Muddle has conflated “pre-industrial Europe” with mediaeval Europe, an example of the ignorance that the arrogance of modernism spawns and of the “Tom fool history” that Belloc spent his life debunking. In The Servile State, a book which Mr. Muddle dismisses absurdly as being “strikingly similar” to The Communist Manifesto, Hilaire Belloc illustrates how the workers in the mid-eighteenth century, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, were impoverished because of the plutocratic tyranny that followed in the wake of the Henrician Reformation more than two hundred years earlier:

The seeds of the disaster were sown in the sixteenth century. Its first apparent effects came to light in the seventeenth. During the eighteenth century England came to be finally, though insecurely, established upon a proletarian basis, that is, it had already become a society of rich men possessed of the means of production on the one hand, and a majority dispossessed of those means upon the other.

In other words, and let us get this clear, the “impoverished agricultural population” of England in the mid-eighteenth century, i.e. about three hundred years after the end of the Middle Ages, had been proletarianized by the plutocratic tyranny established by Henry VIII more than two hundred years earlier, with its grabbing and enclosing of the common land on which the rural population depended. It was this proletarianized and dispossessed rural population, many generations removed from their ancestors in the Middle Ages, that was forced to uproot itself from its native shire and seek for work in the dark satanic mills of Mordor.

A further and final indication of the modernist prejudices of Mr. Muddle is his choice of historians. The quote he chooses to employ against the Middle Ages is from How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, a book by Rosenberg and Birdsell which idolizes the benefits of the connection between economic growth and the rise of technology. Although technology has ushered in many good things, it has ushered in many evil things also. Apart from the weapons of mass destruction which terrorize our times, it also provides government with ways of spying on the individual citizen that would make George Orwell’s Big Brother positively envious.

Let us conclude with J. R. R. Tolkien, who took the wisdom of the Middle Ages to teach priceless lessons to the modern world. In The Hobbit he tells us that “goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted” and that they “make no beautiful things, but … many clever ones”:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.

The problem that idolizers of progress (“as it is called”) seem to forget, at their peril and ours, is that there is a huge difference between the cleverness of a modern scientist and the wisdom of a mediaeval philosopher. If you force me to choose between Richard Dawkins and Thomas Aquinas, I would not have much difficulty in choosing the latter, nor, for that matter, would J. R. R. Tolkien.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Well at least the Middle Ages didn’t give us gas chambers, though it did give us the triptych “the Lady and the Unicorn”. It was Chesterton who said the people of the modern age think themselves the cream of civilization and their time it’s apex. A trip to the museum might give them pause.

  2. This article sent me looking for one of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking People’s”, regarding the fight between Henry II and Thomas Becket.

    “What claim have we to vaunt a superior civilization to Henry II’s time? We are sunk in a barbarism all the deeper because it is tolerated by moral lethargy and covered with a veneer of scientific conveniences.”

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