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Democratic Myths in Victorian Medievalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Extract

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.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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References

NOTES

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.

4. Kliger, Samuel, The Goths in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. See Faverty, Frederic, Matthew Arnold the Ethnologist (1951; rpt. New York: AMS, 1968)Google Scholar, for the broader dimensions of Teutonism, and also its many contradictions. Absolutism was presumably made necessary by the penchant for anarchy also identified with Celticism. This allowed the revolutionary upheavals which plagued France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be attributed to its Celtic heritage as well. See Faverty, pp. 140f.

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.

7. Oldfield, Thomas Hinton Burley, The Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland, 2 vols. (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1816), i, 90.Google Scholar

8. Hamberger, Joseph, Macaulay and the Whig Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 112.Google Scholar

9. The label is coined by Gooch, G. P., History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rpt. Boston: Beacon, 1959), chap. xvii.Google Scholar

10. Works and editions consulted in the survey of the Whig view include: Freeman, Edward A., Comparative Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1874)Google Scholar, Four Oxford Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1888)Google Scholar, The Growth of the English Constitution from the Earliest Times (London: Macmillan, 1876)Google Scholar, “The Continuity of English History,” in Historical Essays: First Series, 4th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1886)Google Scholar, and The History of the Norman Conquest of England (London: Macmillan, 18671879)Google Scholar; Green, John Richard, The Conquest of England, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1884)Google Scholar, The Making of England (New York: Harper, n.d.)Google Scholar, and A Short History of the English People (New York: Harper, 1875)Google Scholar; Hallam, Henry, Constitutional History of England from Henry VIII to George II (New York: Harper, 1856)Google Scholar, and History of Europe During the Middle Ages, rev. ed., 3 vols. (New York: Colonial Press, 1900)Google Scholar; Kemble, John Mitchell, The Saxons in England, rev. ed., 2 vols. (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1876)Google Scholar; Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Mirabeau,” Critical and Historical Essays, and The History of England from the Accession of James I in The Works of Lord Macaulay, ed. Trevelyan, Lady, 8 vols. (London: Longmans, 1866), v and iivGoogle Scholar, respectively; Stubbs, William, Lectures on Early English History, ed. Hassall, Arthur (London: Longmans, 1906)Google Scholar and The Constitutional History of England, 3 vols. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1874).Google Scholar

11. Turner, Sharon, The History of the Anglo-Saxons, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), 1, 33.Google Scholar

12. Cited by Stubbs, , Constitutional History, i, 248Google Scholar, from Frederick the Great. This is not to deny that their moral character made a broadly defined Teutonic race the object of Carlyle's enthusiastic hero-worship. See Faverty, , pp. 1415Google Scholar and passim.

13. See, e.g., Kemble, II, 238–40Google Scholar, and Green, , Making of England, p. 170.Google Scholar

14. Anderson, , A Liberal State at War: English Politics and Economics during the Crimean War (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 131.Google Scholar

15. Hill, Christopher, “The Norman Yoke,” in Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958), pp. 8889.Google Scholar

16. Butterfield, , Englishman and His History, p. 79.Google Scholar A scholarly consensus on the Whig view has not yet been achieved. Hill defends the general truth behind its analysis of Anglo-Saxon liberties (“Norman Yoke,” p. 113). Clark, George Kitson uses the Whig view as an example of historical “myths” in his The Critical Historian (New York: Basic Books, 1967), pp. 99111Google Scholar; Trevor-Roper, Hugh handles Macaulay's appeal to the ancient constitution in the same way: “Macaulay and the Glorious Revolution,” Men and Events: Historical Essays (New York: Harper, 1957), pp. 249–53.Google Scholar According to Cantor, Norman, Richardson, H. G. and Sayles, G. O.'s The Governance of Medieval England (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963)Google Scholar, devoted to demolishing Stubbs's interpretations of medieval history, has gained only qualified acceptance. Cantor, finds their own view quite close to Stubbs's at some crucial points: “Introduction,” William Stubbs on the English Constitution (New York: Crowell, 1966), p. 2.Google Scholar For F. A. Hayek, the Whig, 's “beneficial effects in creating the essentially liberal atmosphere of the nineteenth century is beyond doubt and certainly not due to any misrepresentation of facts”: Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 203.Google Scholar Butterfield and Hinton agree that its usefulness to English politics was the direct result of the Whig view's misconstruction of the facts.

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.

19. Hyndman, Henry M., The Historical Basis of Socialism in England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1883), p. viii.Google Scholar

20. See Thompson, E. P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon, 1977), pp. 2739Google Scholar, for Morris's similarities and differences with respect to Carlyle and Ruskin.

21. The Collected Works of William Morris, 24 vols. (London: Longmans, 19101915), xxiii, 279. Hereafter cited as cw.Google Scholar

22. Morris, William and Bax, E. Belfort, Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (Chicago: Kerr, 1912), p. 12.Google Scholar

23. Morris, May, William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, 2 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966), i, 126.Google Scholar Hereafter cited as aws. Green and Freeman were both led to historical study by their interest in archeology and architecture. Freeman devotes a substantial portion of the History of the Norman Conquest, v, to the effects of the Conquest on language, literature, and art.

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

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