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Democratic Myths in Victorian Medievalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008


Critical attention to the dominant tradition of Victorian medievalism has stressed its essentially conservative tendencies. For representative proponents of this tradition – Carlyle, Ruskin, Young England – the imaginative value of the Middle Ages lay in their contrast with the political and social disorder of the present. The antidote to those modern poisons – laissez faire capitalism, Utilitarian ethics, Liberal individualism – lay in a resuscitation of medieval hierarchy, one which called on the Captains of Industry to form a new aristocracy, and the state to assume control over the economy and social welfare. For such thinkers, the spiritual health and organic order of medieval society depended upon its essentially undemocratic structure. The prominence of this analysis has unfortunately overshadowed the importance of two alternative treatments of Victorian medievalism, the Whig and the Socialist. While opposed in fundamental ways to one another, these interpretations are opposed in more significant ways to that dominant conservative tradition in that they created alternative myths of the Middle Ages to justify a more – not less – democratic society in the present and future. Such myths assisted the development of class consciousness by using the authority of history to sanction a social order which drew its moral and political strengths not from the ideals of the aristocracy, but from those of the middle and working classes, respectively. However, the following demonstration of the way similar historical points of departure can lead investigators to radically different conclusions ultimately reinforces the central characteristic of Victorian medievalism: that it represented less an attempt to recapture the past “as it really was” than a projection of current ideals back into time.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1. E.g., Chandler, Alice, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 111Google Scholar; see also Houghton, Walter, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp. 325–31.Google Scholar

2. While making no reference to the use of history, Perkins, Harold, in The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780–1880 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969)Google Scholar, gives a full analysis of the role played by class ideals in the emergence of Victorian class consciousness. See especially chap. vii.

3. Butterfield, Herbert, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), p. 2Google Scholar, points out that there is nothing “worth the name of ‘the Tory intepretation of English history’”; the Whig view “is really the ‘English’ interpretation,” one that played a major role in shaping English political development. His earlier The Whig Interpretation of History (1931; rpt. New York: Norton, 1965)Google Scholar analyzes the methodological assumptions of a Whig view. See also Hinton, R. W., “History Yesterday: Five Points about Whig History,” History Today, 9 (1959), 720–28Google Scholar, for the uses of Whig history.

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6. There were opposing views. Turner, Sharon's History of the Anglo-Saxons (17991801)Google Scholar assumed the same racial stereotypes as the Whigs, but shaped its interpretation of law according to the essentially Tory sympathies of its author. (See Chandler, , pp. 8586.)Google Scholar Sir Palgrave, Francis's Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth (1832)Google Scholar and History of Normandy and England (18511861)Google Scholar both insisted on the dominance of Roman influence in English institutions. By and large, however, the Whig view held the field by mid-century.

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17. Cobbett, William, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, new ed. (London: Art and Book Co., 1905)Google Scholar; first published 1824–27.

18. Rogers, James E. Thorold, Six Centuries of Work and Wages: The History of English Labour, 5 vols. (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1884), i, 326.Google ScholarRogers, 's The Economic Interpretation of History (New York: Putnam's, 1888)Google Scholar, from lectures delivered at Oxford, presents conclusions similar to those of his other two works.

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24. The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends, ed. Henderson, Philip (London: Longmans, 1950), p. 377.Google Scholar See also p. 85 for a similar point.

25. The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. LeMire, Eugene (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969), p. 81.Google Scholar Hereafter cited as ul.

26. See Thompson, , pp. 179–91Google Scholar, on Morris's Icelandic phase.

27. ul, pp. 57,176, Socialism, p. 50.Google Scholar Freeman agreed about the corruption of the Teutonic tongue (Norman Conquest, v, 56).Google Scholar

28. For Morris's selective use and modifications of his sources, see Kegel, Charles, “William Morris's A Dream of John Ball: A Study in Reactionary Liberalism,” Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Art, and Letters, 40 (1955), 305–15.Google Scholar