Many believe that Christendom was a rigid and brutal order. In medieval times, we are told that tyranny ruled, and the Church and the nascent State were constant rivals in the pursuit of dominance.
So many modern historians have cynically reduced this period when Christianity prevailed to a time of cultural darkness and violent power struggles. Such people fail to understand the Christian order since they equate it with tyranny. They judge Christendom from the premises of our present disorders, in which people only seek their self-interest...
That is the problem with those who criticize Christendom. They look rigidly upon the past with modern mechanistic criteria. They cannot think outside our Enlightenment box. Hence, they accuse anyone who thinks otherwise of idealizing the past.
Dr. Jones is far from idealizing the medieval past, but he does present a vision of Christendom beyond the oversimplified charts that box in our vision. We get a glimpse of the real Christian order. When properly understood, this Christian order is very appealing and refreshing.
Dr. Jones constructs a vision of how medieval society worked. Instead of tyranny, we find subsidiarity. There is an order wonderfully adjusted to the needs of society. We witness a harmony and peace that cannot be understood, but is nevertheless so desperately needed by our fragmented, postmodern world that has separated what should be united, and made everything relative, deconstructed and uncertain.
Our historian’s central thesis is simply stated: “I argue that thirteenth century France was not a world of the secular and religious vying for position and power, but a world in which the material and the spiritual were totally dependent on each other and penetrated one another at every level.”
He claims medieval society offered “a coherent vision of the whole in which mankind moved through grace from the lesser to the greater, from the fallen to the redeemed. It was an integral vision which included all of social reality and it was removed from our own.”
Indeed, he invites us to see the secular and religious powers operating in “a single legal universe.” Both powers worked toward building the peace, each in its sphere, and often together. He introduces us to social processes based on custom, uses and liberties that create an order that was “temporal, differentiated, and ultimately peaceful.” The result was not strife but an astonishing social harmony.
As an historian with academic degrees in medieval studies (B.A.) and history of Christianity, with a focus on early and medieval Christianity (M.T.S.), I have long been frustrated with those who see the Middle Ages as a time of tyranny, oppression, and stultification. This is not at all the impression one gets from reading the primary sources, or even older (and less “politically corrected”) scholarly interpretations! So it is indeed refreshing to see a contemporary scholar rigorously and convincingly challenging the modernist and postmodernist misconceptions.
As a student of current events, it is also refreshing to see clear and convincing evidence of an alternative to today’s chaotic mish-mash of narcissistic self-absorption, and iconoclastic attacks on anything that smacks of tradition, heritage, and cultural continuity (unless that culture is emphatically non-Western, and especially non-European).
I have long been opposed to the Leftist assertion that “multiculturalism is a strength.” Yes, openness to experiencing and learning from other cultures can be a strength, if pursued from a basis of strength and solidity on the firm base of one’s own culture. But in the context of fragmentation and repudiation of that base culture, it not only not a strength, but is in fact a distinct weakness.
Carried to extremes – and particularly if it is expressed through embracing and attempting to uncritically incorporate other cultural norms into one’s own – it can lead to the destruction of one’s own cultural heritage, present identity, and future flowering. We see this happening in Europe, and even here in the United States, we are dancing on the edge of the chasm, to our great peril.
I have also for many years made the assertion that there are certain factors that serve as a sort of sine qua non for cultural cohesion and long-term stability. Think of them as the pillars of a building: one or more may, perhaps, be sacrificed without collapse, but remove too many of them, and downfall is likely, if not assured.
Among these are a common language, a common religion (at least in broad terms – an established Church is not necessary, but the further one gets from, say, a common basis in Trinitarian Christianity, the shakier this pillar becomes), commonly accepted forms of government and jurisprudence, respect for common institutions and traditions, and a widely-shared respect for the common historical narrative of one’s people and culture… and perhaps most controversial, but also arguably most key, a common ethnic or ancestral background, at least for the majority of the population.
There may be others, but these are the ones that seem to me to be most key. Now, as I say, it is not necessary to have every single one of these for a culture to survive and thrive. But the more of them are sacrificed, the more tenuous becomes the stability of that culture. Again, think of the image of pillars holding up a building. If most or all of them are attacked, and particularly if most or all of them begin to fail, how long can one imagine that the building – or the culture – can stand?
Yet this is precisely what is happening in today’s Western culture, both in Europe and America (and presumably elsewhere in the European diaspora, as well). Indeed, every single one of these “support pillars” is under attack; most are tottering, and some have already fallen. Is it any wonder that Western civilization itself seems to be on the ropes?
The model of medieval Europe – European Christendom, if you will, before the forces of Reformation and Enlightenment (neither of these all negative, by any means, but each carrying within itself some seeds of destruction) – points to the truths that an alternative is possible, that this alternative in fact existed… and if it existed once, it could exist again.
Now, of course we cannot simple return to or reconstruct medieval Christendom in the 21st century, however much some of us would like to do so. The wheel of history turns, and it never returns to precisely the same spot twice. Even attempting to reconstruct present society to the precise pattern of the past would be unsuccessful; an artificial, antiquarian effort that could only be maintained, if at all, by brute force, which is the antithesis of the medieval synthesis itself.
What the medieval model can and does provide for us is inspiration, encouragement, and perhaps a blueprint – or more correctly, a recipe, albeit without precise measurements – for the sorts of things we might look for, and work towards, as we seek to rebuild a culture which is organic, holistic, integrated, and harmonious enough to have stability and staying power.
Will we have the openness and humility to overcome our seemingly instinctive neophilia (literally “love of the new,” the belief that what is newer is always and necessarily better than what is older) and be wiling to look to the past, as inspiration for the future? That is a good question – and I will be frank, the lessons of the recent past do not give me a great deal of confidence in that regard! But the lessons are there, the model is there, should we be willing to make use of it.
And I will offer this warning: as I have commented before, societies and cultures have this in common with plants: cut off from their roots, they wither and die. Conversely, plants – and cultures and societies – which are deeply rooted are often able to weather all sort of adversities. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!