“Yes, Virginia, there is a usable Medieval past”: G K Chesterton as medievalist

As I was preparing to teach “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry” last year, I went in search of modern authors who find the medieval period still useful for us today. I quickly discovered that some of my favorite authors–Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others–had been avid “miners” of the Middle Ages–spelunking for wisdom that the modern age so desperately needs. One particularly useful essay in my search is a piece by Ian Boyd, “Chesterton’s Medievalism,” published in Studies in Medievalism: Inklings and Others and German Medievalism III n. 304 (Winter/Spring 1991): 243-255.

Though this is a scholarly essay with all the appurtenances, it proved readable, useful, and stimulating to this non-specialist (I am neither a medievalist nor an expert in Chesterton, or indeed literature!) I hope you’ll find it so as wellat least the bits of it that I took notes on.

The central insight of Chesterton’s that Boyd describes is golden: we must be neither romantic about the Middle Ages (“seeing them by moonlight,” as Chesterton said) nor dismiss them as hopelessly pre-modern. But it is appropriate and helpful to read the Middle Ages through our own modern (and we could add, postmodern) questions, so long as we recognize that the resulting portrait will be a sort of partly modern, partly medieval hybrid. This is, in fact, what the word “medievalism” in this journal’s title means: any appropriation and re-imagining, by folks from a later time, of the ways and means, look and feel, highways and by-ways of the Middle Ages.

So, here we go with Boyd on Chesterton on the Middle Ages (in note form):

First point: GKC’s medievalism is not as romantic and unconditional as critics sometimes have said.

Second point: what distinguished a bad from a good medievalist in GKC’s view was their ability to understand and engage with the problems of their own day: “He insists on the paradox that genuine medievalism is closely connected to contemporary political issues, declaring roundly that medieval history is useless unless it is also modern history, and mocking both the romantic [247] antiquarian who haunts Melrose by moonlight and the Don Quixote figure who fails to understand his own age. But always C insists that the sign of genuine medievalism is an ability to see the contemporary world with fresh vision. In C’s view, Cobbett, Carlyle, Hood, Ruskin, and Kenelm Digby are true medievalists, because when they look to a medieval past, whether real or imaginary, they look to it only in order to understand better their own age. The false medievalist is recognized by his blindness to the problems of his own day.” (246-7)

A corollary of this view is that it matters much less to GKC whether the historiography of the period is accurate than that the modern medievalist has been inspired by the period:

“Consequently, it does not ultimately matter whether or not the real M.A. were as virtuous as Kenelm Digby imagined them to be. In C’s opinion, what matters are the examples of virtue that Digby discovered in his medieval historical vision. Medievalism provided him with a perspective from which he understood the iniquities of his own age.” 247 (etc., with quotes following).

C spoke of the stages which a medievalist must move through, first quoting GKC:

“He writes that, in the consideration of the romance of the M.A., a thinking man must go through three stages before obtaining the right viewpoint about them: ‘In the first stage we act merely on instinct; and are sometimes right. In the second stage we act merely on reason, and are frequently wrong. In the third and most reasonable stage we use our reason until we understand our instincts. And if we do that with romance we shall come pretty near reality.’ (‘Robert Bruce and His Age,’ The Glass Walking-Stick, p. 108).” (247)

Then concluding:

“But if the medievalist fails to move through all three stages—from naïve idealism to realism, and from this almost cynical realism to a final and well-balanced understanding—his work is dangerous as well as incomplete. That is Chesterton’s fundamental quarrel both with the nineteenth-century romantic medievalists, with whom he has been so frequently identified, and with the school of modern scientific medievalists, who wrote refutations of the work of their naïve colleagues. In C’s opinion, neither sort of medievalist was wise, because neither understood the medieval balance which C regarded as the greatest of the medieval achievements. For C, medievalism was a state of mind which was always seeking to balance varied elements in an existing social order. . . .” (248)

What was that “balance?” GKC called it “ ‘a framework of unity’ (‘Baroque and Gothic,’ The Glass Walking-Stick, p. 103). The dream medievalism of the romantics is false, precisely because it ignores the complex sand sacred materiality of ordinary human life: by preferring their historical idea to the material reality of true history, it is as though they are denying the Incarnation. The realists, on the other hand, ignore the transcendental element which gives unity and meaning to even the most limited and backward of historical times: in doing so, they are denying the heavenly vision without which a people perishes.” (248)

Boyd goes on to argue that C admired most about the M.A. its balance between many sides and many philosophies. He says that “C’s novels and short stories are full of accounts of the wars between characters who represent isolated virtues. C believed that the ideological fanaticisms of the modern age are largely a result of a failure to achieve a synthesis of many virtues. In his novels, the synthesis is painfully achieved. At the end of each work of fiction, the Chestertonian social vision is presented as a complex and carefully balanced thing. No single character possesses the complete truth. Always, the Chesterton viewpoint is inclusive rather than exclusive. Everyone has something valuable and necessary to contribute to his elaborately balanced philosophy.” (249)

Boyd says Chesterton’s fiction finally fails, almost always, to present that balance. The characters who are supposed to have achieved it “are themselves often curiously static, wraith-like, and theoretical.” (249). But What C was arguing still holds true. Of the M.A., he said “ ‘The spirit of that society . . . was making for a balance; a balance like that of the two eyes of a man; or that which gives two scales even to Justice blind.’ [Chaucer (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p. 275.] Because the universe is ‘a many-sided thing’ (Chaucer, p. 269), it can be described only by a many-sided philosophy.” (250)

He then provides a quotation that solidifies the point. Of the M.A. he said:

“‘the philosophy considered as a philosophy, and even the theology considered as a theology, was one which aimed at a certain equilibrium, achieved by giving so much weight to one thing and so much less or more to another. I know all about the harsher side of it, as it affects the humanitarians of our own time; that it believed in devils; that it defended itself by inquisitors. But that has nothing whatever to do with the present point, about the nature of the thing defended. That thing was a posed and proportioned thing; thought out and thrashed out, by the comparison of many thoughts; not a single thing or a simple thing, in the sense of the isolation of one thought.’ (Chaucer, pp. 267-8).”

Note here the consistency of Boyd’s argument—that GKC valued “balance” above all in medieval thought—with GKC’s argument in the 2nd & 3rd chapters of Orthodoxy, that the madness of modernity was the madness of “the clean, well-lit room of one idea”: extending a single idea in a totalitarian direction. Like all historical heresies!

On GKC’s own competency (this is very important) to pronounce on medievalism, Boyd says:

“Although C’s claims for medievalism may not be based on detailed knowledge of medieval times, he does have some knowledge of medieval writing. In evaluating what he says, it should always be remembered that he is a literary critic who wrote a book about Chaucer; a poet who translated a fragment from Dante; and an author who wrote a book about Saint Thomas Aquinas—a book which the great Etienne Gilson described as being ‘without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas.’ [See Maisie Ward, G. K. Chesterton (London: Sheed and Ward, 1943), p. 526.]” (250)

“Chesterton himself was convinced that the inclusiveness and balance which characterized the medieval spirit was best illustrated in the books of that age. In his book on Chaucer, he writes:

“‘Consider only one ordinary possibility, which in the case of Chaucer amounts to a probability. Suppose at some time some medieval man had only three medieval books. And suppose those three were first, some version of the works of Aristotle and his philosophy; second, the Divine Comedy of Dante; and third, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is not to possess books but to possess worlds. They are three universes of thoughts and things; or rather three aspects of the same universe; the one positive and [251] rationalist; the other imaginative and pictorial; the third moral and mystical, but still inherently logical. (Chaucer, p. 267)’”

And finally, this veneration of “medieval balance” culminated in GKC’s religious sense that only the RC church—and RC-rooted culture—itself contained this balance. “ ‘Not Nestorius, nor Mahomet nor Calvin nor Lenin have cured, nor will cure, the real evils of Christendom; for the severed hand does not heal the whole body . . . . within the body of the Christian world, there was a perpetual and centripetal movement woards the discovery of a just balance of all these ideas. All those who broke away were centrifugal and not centripetal; they went away into deserts to develop a solitary doctrine. But medieval philosophy and culture, with all the crimes and errors of its exponents, was always seeking equilibrium within. It can be seen in every line of its rhythmic and balanced art, in every sentence of its carefully qualified and self-questioning philosophy.’ (Chaucer, p. 227).” (251)

Now Boyd links this sense of medieval balance to GKC’s sacramentalism; helpful:

“As a writer, C’s chief concern is to discover the divine reality behind ordinary events. As a sacramental Christian, he interprets the sacred significance of apparently profane realities. Every material reality, especially every small material reality, is a sacramental sign of God:

‘Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.

‘God Almighty, and with Him,
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity—
Adonai Elohim.’

(“The Holy of Holies,” Collected Poems, 344) (252 in the Boyd article)

“But the greatest of the sacramental signs is that of the incarnation; and, for Chesterton, it is the Incarnation which gives final meaning to medievalism. Christ is the Everlasting Man who lives his life mystically from age to age in the Christian community which is the sacramental sign of his presence. The Incarnation presents the solution to an age-old problem of which the problem of medievalism is only a single instance: how to reconcile the human dream for perfection with the human experience of limitation and disappointment. The movement from idealism to realism and from realism back to a rational idealism is ultimately possible only because of Christ who is both the ideal human being, the ‘Desired of all Nations,’ and the supremely real human being, ‘truly God and truly Man.’ The medieval dream is but one of many human dreams that were never perfectly embodied in any human epoch; the Incarnation is the one instance in human history in which a material reality was also the embodiment of the spiritual idea.” (252)

A quotation from Everlasting Man, p. 310 of the 1974 Greenwood Press edition, ends Boyd’s argument. And he concludes:

“C’s final view of medievalism is, therefore, complex indeed. He does regard medievalism as an ideal and as a model. In that sense, he is a romantic. On the other hand, he does not believe that the modern world ought to attempt to return to medieval social conditions: that is an endeavor which he consistently satirizes. In that sense, he is a realist. Nevertheless, he does believe that the modern world ought to return to the transcendent religious faith which unified the medieval age. In his opinion, only that faith would enable the modern world to recognize in signs and symbols the Holy One, who transcends all ages, and who, in every age, stands unseen in the midst of the children of men, creating unity and harmony between their transcendent dreams and the sad limits of their everyday existence. Because the Incarnate God is the God of the living and not of the dead, He is alive in every passing moment of human history; and in Him, the entire past, including the medieval past and the medieval dream, are made present and actual.” (254)

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