Many Catholics treat the High Middle Ages as a veritable ideal of civilization. But the medieval period produced problematic ideas about aesthetics, eccentric theories of economics, and dangerous assumptions about politics.
Over a decade ago a then-acquaintance of mine inquired as to my economic views, my response being that I was “a distributist by default.” Such a phrase accurately captures the ambivalence that I had towards that economic theory until the time when I decided to break with it entirely. How I ever came to have leanings in that direction is easily explained. It is a popular enough theory within particular circles of Catholics. I had, and continue to have, a preference for small local businesses. I confused capitalism as such with particular forms of capitalism with which I had, and with which I continue to have, disagreements. And my interest in economic matters has been sufficiently minor for it to take some time for me to think through these issues, an admission which may seem surprising from a writer who has only recently addressed the economic teachings of Pope Leo XIII and is now addressing the topic of distributism—but an admission which is perfectly accurate. It is so accurate in fact that if the reader is hoping for a critique of distributism on economic or philosophical grounds, he must prepare himself for disappointment, as I fully intend to remain within my more natural milieu, analyzing the broad cultural history which served as an influence on the development of distributism.
I suppose that many of us have encountered those Catholics who treat the High Middle Ages as a veritable ideal of civilization. Those of my coreligionists who hold such beliefs often give the impression of assuming, in all sincerity, that such has historically been the normal attitude among the adherents of our faith; but in reality this medievalist position is approximately two centuries old. There were, to be sure, certain aspects of human existence that a Catholic will believe came closest to perfection during the medieval period, even those aspects of life that a Catholic will consider most important. But in regard to the majority of life it was normal for Catholics to embrace developments out of and away from medieval realities. The Renaissance, for example, was initiated as a movement of Christian humanism under the influence thinkers such as Petrarch—this Christian humanism being preserved throughout that period by such saints as Thomas More and Francis de Sales. Renaissance art and architecture were embraced by the Church, while the Baroque rose to cultural prominence under ecclesial influence. The question of whether the Renaissance was predominantly a movement of Christian humanism or predominantly one of neo-pagan and secular humanism is irrelevant to the fact that for centuries Catholics embraced as a positive development the Christian conception of the Renaissance, rather than endorsing medievalism. Similar points can be made in regard to many of the social, political, and economic changes that occurred as Europe developed out of the Middle Ages.
This all changed in the early nineteenth century after elements within the Romantic Movement began to exalt their own idealized image of the medieval. The literature novels of Sir Walter Scott became the most important expression of romantic medievalism. His Ivanhoe was so influential in promoting the Romantics’ notion of chivalry in the American south that Mark Twain considered it a partial cause of the Civil War. High Anglicans battled with Roman Catholics over whose religion was the authentic successor to the medieval English church. The Middles Ages became an important influence on architects and on artists, on monarchists and even on some Marxists.
The leading light of the romantic neo-Gothic architectural movement was Catholic convert Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Perhaps no man has even taken medievalism to a greater extreme. His goal was nothing less than a restoration of England not just to Catholicism, but to a medieval English Catholicism as part of a restoration to what he considered to be an overall medieval way of life. Late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth-century Gothic was to him both an apogee of architectural development and a permanent set of canons for particular categories of buildings. Such structures as railway stations that lacked a medieval precedent were to be designed upon the basis of “Gothic principles.” Priests were to be clad in Gothic vestments while celebrating Mass. When Blessed John Henry Newman planned an introduction of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri into England, Pugin objected on the grounds that the Oratorians had always been Italian with no historical connection to England and were grounded in the spirituality of the Counter-Reformation rather than in any way medieval. Upon visiting Rome, Pugin found himself detesting perhaps the greatest achievements of Catholic art and architecture in history—the Renaissance and the Baroque of the great basilicas—due to their ornate beauty and because he, in all seriousness, considered them to be pagan.
To articulate his vision for English society, Pugin published Contrasts, contrasting scenes from early industrial England with what he believed to be his country’s medieval past. He went far beyond pointing out that life for many in the Middle Ages was in fact more tolerable than life in the early factories. Medieval life was depicted as all but idyllic, his own age as an absolute disaster. Some of the contrasts in the book propagandistically showed a medieval town with rising (Gothic) church spires next to a nineteenth-century town with rising factory chimneys. In other cases, images of Gothic and neo-classical churches were placed next to each other on what must have been the assumption that the reader would inevitably consider the former to be the more beautiful. And, of course, Gothic architecture and its influence on peoples’ minds was alleged to be an essential element of creating a desirable state of society.
The next leading neo-Gothic architect, John Ruskin, also combined with that profession the role of social critic. Unlike Pugin, he abandoned any form of traditional Christianity, though he was closely associated with, and a significant influence on, early Christian socialists. He taught at a Christian-socialist-dominated educational institute for working class men and was among the founders of the utopian Guild of Saint George. His other associations included leading members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an organization of painters who, as their name suggests, rejected the elaborate aesthetic of the Mannerists and of whose artistic style Ruskin was an advocate.
Another important figure linked to the pre-Raphaelites and influenced by Ruskin was William Morris, who together with that architect was among the most important influences on the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris was influenced by communism, was a founder of the Socialist League and wished to create a society of small craftsmen organized in guilds, for which he considered the social and economic organization of the Middle Ages to be a model. Adherents of the Arts of Crafts movement were largely of socialist inclinations, founding guilds that combined socialism with medievalism. They embraced an aesthetic that was, if not strictly medieval, of clear medieval inspiration and at times quite plain, even drab. Among the more reasonable purposes of these craft guilds was a return to handcrafting in place of factory production, in part due to a decline in quality that has occurred together with industrialization; but such concerns cannot be isolated from the movement’s broader political and aesthetic elements.
The later years of the Arts and Crafts movement overlapped with the lives of G.K. Chesterton and of Hillaire Belloc. Both were, in fact, directly influenced by the thought of Morris. Belloc’s interpretation of medieval life would seem to have more in common with Contrasts than with actual history. The desire to create a social and economic system based upon guilds of small craftsmen was in continuity with the ideas of Ruskin and of Morris. Some of the more extreme of the early distributists even founded the utopian Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic. One of its leading figures, Eric Gill, had been a member of the socialist Fabian Society and took opposition to an elaborate aesthetic to an extreme, writing that art has nothing to do with beauty.
Similar trends continue among the distributists of today. Thomas Storck has not only embraced Gill’s anti-aesthetic theories in a recent book but has gone so far as to condemn classical concert music. His reason for the latter is that it does not serve any function but exists purely for aesthetic enjoyment—an idea comparable to Pugin’s insistence that nothing in architecture should exist for the sake of its beauty alone but should have a function and purpose as well as aesthetic appeal. He also, inevitably, presents an idealized vision of the Middle Ages. English distributist Phillip Blond has endorsed the Labour Party’s “Red Ed” Miliband, who has professed adherence to socialism. The Distributist Review endorses the economically far-left Houston Catholic Worker and its major inspiration, Dorothy Day, without demur, while voicing unambiguous opposition to the less dangerous problems found in libertarian economics.
The great Monsignor Ronald Knox, though an admirer of Chesterton, once dismissed distributism as no more than Chesterton’s reaction to the world. Unfortunately, it is much, much more than an eccentric economic theory of a highly eccentric and largely admirable essayist. Neither is it, what its adherents often claim, merely a name for the economic doctrines of the Catholic Church. It originated, rather, as an interpretation and attempted application of such doctrines through the distorting lens of nineteenth-century romantic medievalism, one often linked to problematic ideas about aesthetics and dangerous theories of politics.
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The featured image is ” The Fight between Carnival and Lent” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.