Britain begins with the Romans, for whom Britain was essentially the end of the world, since there is not a whole lot beyond the British Isles. Britain was Roman for 400 years (almost as long as it has been Protestant), long enough to be proud of being Roman. As the empire fell fell apart, Britain began to decivilize, beginning at the borders. The effect was that everything became more local, and those who had once been slaves, now became attached to the land, which is actually less restrictive. You can tell a slave to do something, but to serf you can only tell him to stay here.

In the Dark Ages, the past was the golden age, so conservatives then would be like progressives now. Thus the literature from the Dark Ages is about fighting against the barbian to hold on to civilization. “The central pillar which has sustained the storied house of our imagination ever since has been the idea of the civilized knight amid the savage enchantments; the adventures of a man still sane in a world gone mad.” Instead of fighting barbarians, they fight goblins, and the people have become magnified in the legend, but you only make someone larger than life if the were pretty impressive in life. Also, in this time period we get the beginnings of the Medievalism: there is equality at the round table.

Christianity came into a land of small areas ruled by Teutons. There were two centers of Christianity, one at Avalon in the west (where Joseph of Arimathea supposed brought the cup used at the Last Supper) and one in Canterbury that was where St. Augustine started. The Augustines won. In the process, the monks preserved civilization: they kept the diary of the world, treated the sick, taught technical arts, preserved the pagan books, and preserved the poor through charity. In Ireland, Christianity also created the Irish people. Britain was almost conquered by the Danes, one of whom ended up ruling it, but they ended up themselves being conquered by Christianity.

Feudalism, the system of paying rent by military service developed after this. In theory, the king was above everyone through divine right, but in practice, travel was difficult and you were loyal to the lord nearest you, who might be rebelling against the king. Or perhaps the king was fighting to deliver you from your lord. Government was personal, unlike France where it became absolute. Battles were pretty even, and alliances frequently shifted, especially on the battlefield.

During the early medieval years, Europe considered itself one family called “Christendom.” So when the Muslims invaded Jerusalem, the mother of the faith, there was a spontaneous volunteering of people to liberate it. Richard the Lionheart’s going on the Crusades was the Right Thing to Do (similar to volunteering for the army in WWII—you were somewhat suspicious if you didn’t volunteer). Everyone volunteered, even families and children. The interaction with the Muslims in the Crusades had several interesting results. Art reacted against the Islamic ban of images, and icons and sculpture flourished, bringing about the medieval grotesques. The honoring of women through Chivalry was a reaction against Muslim oppression of women, who viewed them as not even having souls. The Guilds grew because of the organization of the Crusades, and Europe learned from the Islamic science and technology. Finally, because of Richard the Lionhearted’s military skill and his prestige, England became viewed as the leading edge of Chivalry for the next 400 years.

“The first fact about the Church was that it created a machinery of pardon, where the State could only work with a machinery of punishment.” As a result, the Archbishop stood for the people. St. Thomas a Becket wanted to create a Christian Utopia, so he wanted the clergy to be subject only to the church, not the state. This did not sit well with King Henry, who eventually had Becket killed. He eventually did penance by wailing loudly with 80 monks beating him. His penance is quite incomprehensible to modern people, but lies in medieval thought: “The Catholics of that age were driven by two dominant thoughts: the all-importance of penitence as an answer to sin, and the all-importance of vivid and evident external acts as a proof of penitence. Extravagent humiliation after extravagant pride for them restored the balance of sanity.” Still, it put the Crown intagibly in the wrong. His successor, John concretely put the Crown in the wrong, partly due to the fact that England was in receivorship to the Pope, who needed money for the Crusades, resulting in heavy taxes. This resulted in the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the king, preventing England from become autocratic like France. It resulted in a strong value of Liberty, although not Equality or Fraternity as in France. The Magna Carta was not, however, a step towards democracy, merely a step away from despotism.

This was the height of the Medieval Era, which had been slowly created from the Roman slave-state. It was created without leaders, but by the value system of the Church. “The Catholic type of Christianity was not merely an element, it was a climate; and in that climate the slave would not grow.” As the Church gradually accumulated land, it became increasingly likely that a peasant’s lord was an abbot, whose Christian values usually resulted in a lighter burden. The fact that the peasant was tied to the land gave him security: people were not trying to out-compete him all the time. Plus, a lot of land was held in common, intentionally reserved so that people could fall back on that land if they needed to. The guilds fixed the price of goods and insisted on high quality, so even everyday items had an element of beauty to them. Collectively, the society of the Middle Ages was quite wealthy.

In the Middle Ages, kings had a right to rule, even badly, just as voters have the right to vote. This meant that the aristocracy was limited in its ambitions: it could not aspire to the Throne. In 1381, the peasants revolted as a result of excessive taxes and enforcement of laws, no longer conforming to social practice, that peasants were tied to their land. They marched on London and had the government in a tight spot. King Richard II, 14 at the time, came out and promised to change the laws. The peasants left, but Parliament forced the king to renege, showing that already the aristocracy had the power. When Henry deposed Richard, it opened up the possibility that one could aspire even to the Throne. The resulting War of the Roses pitted the House of Lancaster, which viewed the king as sitting atop powerful bishops and nobles, against the House of York, which saw the king’s power arising from the common man. Lancaster eventually won.

At this same time, the nobility began to dismantle the structure of the Middle Ages. Originally the lords were not too much different from the commoners—one Lady wrote to her husband that she could not come for some time because her horses were being used for plowing, and hence unavailable for travel. The nobility gradually annexed the common lands, enriching themselves while leaving the poor nothing to fall back on. They convinced the rich monasteries that the smaller ones were unnecessary and plundered them. When the rich monasteries were isolated, the nobility plundered them as well. Mary tried to restore what had been taken from the church, but the aristocracy had grown too powerful.

On a larger scale, while Europe had once been united in a common feeling of Christendom, now localities became more important. Before, people fighting each other under different patron saints did not imagine that the saints were antagonistic towards each other. Now they started to dislike people who were farther away from them, or different, ultimately culminating in nationalism when entire countries were disliked. And so, with the securities of the poor from the monasteries and the common lands gone, and the common Christendom-feeling ended, the Middle Ages was dead.

Chesterton continues with modern history, but the theme is the same: the aristocracy continued to run the country and resist anything that brought more equality. So, the oligarchy was fairly sympathetic with the American Colonies and would have given them all their demands, except for the demand of equality. “Chatham might have compromised with Washington, because Washington was a gentleman, but Chatham could hardly have conceived a country not governed by gentlmen.” In the 19th century, voting reform was passed, but the poor were disenfranchised and since only the rich could afford to win an election, letting the middle class vote was not an effective change.

Social reform in the 19th century was modelled after Germany, which took a top-down approach. Because the aristocracy had plundered the monasteries which provided food for the needy, they had to create workhouses to deal with all the needy. Employers realized that they needed to improve working conditions, but they did so “after the manner of wages,” that is, things like pensions and insurance that workers could claim as a result of their work, but keeping a distinct difference between employer and employee. The result, in Chesterton’s opinion, was that “Under all its mask of machinery and instruction, the German regimentation of the poor was the relapse of barbarians into slavery.”

Chesterton seems to be essentially saying two things with his history. First, the aristocracy rules the country, not the people. They created a great nation that loves Liberty, but not one that has Equality or Fraternity, because they stole their way to power. Second, he seems to feel that Middle Ages represented a high point in society. There was provision for the poor, who could live on the common land. The guilds provided better protection that modern trade unions, enforced high craftsmanship, and provided for their people better. The result was that even everyday items were beautiful, society was rich, and inequality was low. As the Middle Ages progressed, even the peasant became less tied to the land in social custom, thus effectively ending the slave state of Rome.

As an American, I found this history to be helpful in understanding the British. It was a little hard to read because Chesterton does not actually refer to any events directly, but alludes to them. I often had no idea what he was alluding to and had to read about it on Wikipedia. However, the narrative that Britain is essentially an oligarchy explains many things. I had assumed that it was democratic like the U.S. because it hold elections. But in every British book I have read there seems to be this element of upper class in it somewhere. Even C.S. Lewis’ books occasionally talk about the desire to be in the right circles. It explains the stiff elegance I see in some of my British friends, as a way of seeming to take part in the aristocracy. In the U.S., the right circles help make things happen, but are ultimately not essential. If, in Britain, some things are actually impossible outside the aristocracy, who keep the door closed, then a focus on class makes a little more sense.

I would say that this is not one of Chesterton’s best works. It is interesting, and it presents a unusual style of history. It gives a view of medieval culture that I have never seen before. However, it assumes a thorough understanding of British history. At least a brief explanation of the actual events would be helpful. Also, Chesterton’s trademark contrasts get kind of old. Everywhere he demeans modern values (modern being the early 19th century when he wrote the book) in contrasts. Often I find the contrasts witty and insightful (and I even have a similar view of modern values), but it gets rather monotonous. Still, I like his narrative of history as the motives behind the history.
Review: 7
Well-written, but jumps around a lot, and requires a very solid knowledge of British history. I’m sure that the allusions are very witty and literary if you know the events, but difficult to follow otherwise. It also feels very strongly like a polemic against the aristocracy and for the Christian values expressed in the Middle Ages. While I am sympathetic to that view as a Christian, I dislike polemics, even ones that advocate my views. Persuasive arguments, yes, but argument by witty contrast is not really very compelling.