Tuesday, April 19, 2016

With Chesterton on the Middle Ages

Preparing for my presentation for the Catholic Culture Conference this weekend at the Spiritual Life Center ("Cobbett and Chesterton on Merry Old England"), I've been reading books and essays by Chesterton. Registration closes today at noon, so you'd better call in now!

Throughout his Short History of England, his study of Chaucer, and many essays in which he mentions the Middle Ages, Chesterton notes that the twentieth century Englishman (or woman) knows nothing about the Middle Ages except what prejudices he or she has received about the darkness and obscurity of that Catholic era. As an example, The American Chesterton Society posts this essay from the Illustrated London News, November 15, 1913, "Getting to Know the Middle Ages":

It is quite natural that the prosperous people in our time should know no history. If they did know it, they would know the highly unedifying history of how they became prosperous. It is quite natural, I say, that they should not know history: but why do they think they do? Here is a sentence taken at random from a book written by one of the most cultivated of our younger critics, very well written and most reliable on its own subject, which is a modern one. The writer says: “There was little social or political advance in the Middle Ages” until the Reformation and the Renaissance. Now I might just as well say that there was little advance in science and invention in the nineteenth century until the coming of William Morris: and then excuse myself by saying that I am not personally interested in spinning-jennies and jelly-fish – which is indeed the case. For that is all that the writer really means: he means he is not personally interested in heralds or mitred abbots. That is all right; but why, when writing about something that did not exist in the Middle Ages, should he dogmatise about a story that he has evidently never heard? Yet it might be made a very interesting story.

A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as our own were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organised into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics as proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critic calls “little social or political advance.” There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from the college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.

Read the rest there.

Also from The American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist writes about Chesterton on Chaucer:

Chesterton has often been dismissed for blindly idealizing the Middle Ages, but the real problem is quite the opposite. The modern world automatically attacks the Middle Ages as something backwards, dark, and superstitious, the enemy of reason and liberty. Chesterton merely defended the truth that reason and liberty enjoyed a high point in medieval times that the world has not really seen since. He acknowledged that there were still problems in those times, and there are certainly many things that we can rightfully regard as improvements. But history is not a story of progress. Our fortunes move both backward and forward. While technology provides a kind of liberty, it also provides a kind of slavery. While the experts are useful as servants, they are unbearable as masters.

In the Middle Ages the peasant class, according to Chesterton, was still successfully fighting off the rise of the Aristocratic state. He refers to a famous peasant uprising where they “killed the lawyers; a comprehensible and (relatively) even commendable course; though they also showed some disposition to hang anybody who could read or write; which is perhaps carrying the distrust of professionalism too far.”

The most difficult thing for us to understand about that culture is that it was purely Catholic, there were no Reformers or Rebels to contend with. The theology was solid and widespread. The criticisms of the Church came in the form of making fun of stuffy Roman officialism, or, in the case of Geoffrey Chaucer, making fun of friars.

As I recall, though dimmed by years, when I studied The Canterbury Tales in college, it was as if the Reformation had already happened in Chaucer's time: the Church was corrupt; Indulgences were for sale; we were as anti-clerical as Lollards or Voltaire; Martin Luther came far too late to the ball! After this project, I think I need to read Chesterton on Chaucer and then re-read The Canterbury Tales without jaundice. After all, April is not over yet!

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for the seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

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