Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A New Medievalism

Today I made a claim that Ralph Adams Cram's early twentieth century New Medievalism has purchase for the early twenty-first century as well.  (Cram, incidentally, is a far cry from the sloppy neo-medievalism criticized by Bruce Holsinger, and might even be considered its necessary antidote.) A few quotes from Cram's address on the subject, The New Middle Ages (1934) will, I hope, give an idea of what I mean.
Of course at the root of the whole matter lies the diametrical difference between the Mediaeval and the modern industrial principle. Until about a century ago consumption determined production, the demand created the supply; now the revers is the case. Supply, production, having been increased an hundred fold though recently discovered and developed mechanical means and the resulting mass-production and standardization must find its market, since its whole object is profits which can be distributed amongst inactive stock-holders and highly paid management, or turned back into capital to magnify still further the productive operations and to increase the output which must find a still larger market. To achieve this end "high pressure" salesmanship, colossal advertising campaigns and the installment system of payments have been devised to magnify the natural cupidity of mankind and induce those who cannot afford them to buy the tings they do not need and frequently do not want. The result has of course been the present actual, though hardly admitted, bankruptcy of national, state and municipal governments, and also of great numbers of people at large.
This is not a critique of the free market in principle as much as it is a Christian critique of that market's abuse, one that fits the 2008 fiscal crisis rather well. And here's Cram, a few lines later, on technology: "To use what we have now, not, as now, to be used, is our problem, and out of this, our immediate past of the Middle Ages, we may, I am convinced, find much that will lighten our way."

I might also add that Cram, like many other religiously inspired thinkers recently mentioned, anticipated postmodern critiques of rationality:
The philosophy of Mediaevalism, that of Hugh of St. Victor, St. Thomas Aquinas [etc.] was the antithesis of post-Cartesian philosophy as this has taken form under the influence of Kant, Comte, the German metaphysicians and the evolutionary dogmatists of the XIXth century. It was based on certain postulates: the absolute limitation of man's mental processes... the sacramental basis of all life, and the communication through the Catholic Sacraments of enough of the divine life to enable him measurably to resist evil, measurably to accomplish the good.
One does not, however, need to share Cram's faith to agree on the need for a New Medievalism. The eminent late twentieth century scholar Norman Cantor, while highly critical of anyone who might (like Cram) romanticize the Middle Ages, argued for his own brand of limited government "retromedievalism."
In the [medieval] model of civil society, most good and important things take place below the universal level of the state: the family, the arts, learning, and science; business enterprise and technological process. These are the work of individuals and groups, and the involvement of the state is remote and disengaged. It is the rule of law that screens out the state's insatiable aggressiveness and corruption and gives freedom to civil society below the level of the state. It so happens that the medieval world was one in which men and women worked out their destinies with little or no involvement of the state most of the time. A retromedieval world is one that has consciously turned back the welfare and regulatory state from impinging drastically upon, or even in totalitarian fashion swallowing up, society in the corrosive belly of the brackish public whale represented by its self-serving bureaucrats.... Retromedievalism means personal sentiment shaped and controlled by formal traditions as well as institutions and structures that recognized the privilege of private feeling and personal love.
And people wonder why we study the Middle Ages.