21 August, 2014
Distributism and Medieval Romanticism
With its emphasis on local economy, local markets, local farms, local government and, maybe most of all, guilds, would it be fair to say that distributists are longing for a return to the way things were in the medieval era? Are distributists merely a group of anachronistic dreamers with romantic views of medieval life, not only separated from the real world of today, but even from the realities of the medieval world?
Life in medieval Europe was very different than it is today. However it was not as "dark" as most people seem to believe. Even making that statement can be difficult because we really need to be more specific about what time during the Middle Ages we are discussing. However, even though there were significant differences in the economic and social structure, the people were essentially the same and had the same types of needs and wants in relation to their time as we do to ours.
The Medieval period is generally considered to have lasted about one thousand years. During that time, there was a great deal of social upheaval and change. It started with the collapse of the Roman Empire and its centralized authority over most of Europe. Local communities had to reorganize, eventually establishing city states and kingdoms. There were many periods of invasions and raids that resulted in the loss of a wealth of knowledge when libraries and monastery records were destroyed, and then there was the plague that wiped out one third of the population. These things, and the way they occurred all contributed to establishing a social structure which is very foreign to our modern sensibilities.
Society was divided into three basic classes, known as the Three Estates, during most of the Medieval period. They were the nobles, the clergy, and the serfs. These "estates" were based on the function they fulfilled in society. The nobles were those who fought. The clergy were those who prayed. The serfs were those who produced. Toward the end of the time, a fourth class emerged. This was the merchant class. Another change that took place was the gradual elevation of serfs to become peasants.
People today bristle at the idea of being a peasant, but that is because they don't really understand what a peasant was. A serf was bound not only to his lord (the local noble), but also to that lord's land. He was not free to move somewhere else. The lord was required to defend his serfs and also had to assign land on which they would live and grow their own food. In return, the serfs were required to remain on the lord's land and to spend a certain amount of time tending his fields and livestock to provide for the needs of the lord and his army. The serf was not a slave in the same sense that Africans were enslaved in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century America, but he was certainly not free. He could not leave the lord's land without permission, but he also could not be evicted. The peasant was a free person, not bound to a lord's land and not required to work the lord's fields. However, as most of the land belonged to lords, he often ended up having to work those fields or perform some other service to the lord as a rent or tax wherever he lived. Some peasants owned their own property, but they were a minority.
Distributists are not saying that we need to return to this type of system. However, the changes in medieval society basically have two sources. Both of these sources are the underlying philosophical views that were the foundation of these changes. Yes, there was definitely a religious factor, but I believe it was the change in philosophical view that ultimately undermined both the social and religious order of that age.
In examining the Middle Ages, you cannot merely focus on one period of the era and then move on to another as though it was independent. You must look at the overall changes in society as the impact of its philosophy took root and then blossomed over time. From the Ninth to the Fourteenth Centuries, true slavery morphed into serfdom and serfdom had started to morph into a free peasantry. Women were no longer considered the equivalent to property in regard to their husbands and they could own and inherit land and hold jobs. Universities were established and were open to both men and women. In those cases where men and women were not allowed to attend the same university, usually as a result of some scandal that occurred, there were still universities for women.
Aspects of medieval society that are typically brought up by distributists include the development of the concept of subsidiarity and the protection of property and businesses provided by the guilds. Most people today simply do not understand that the power of our modern democratic republics far exceeds the monarchies of the Middle Ages, which operated under an increasing understanding of subsidiarity, and even the more powerful monarchies that followed including that of George III of England.
The guilds are also greatly misunderstood by modern thinkers. While not exactly the same, the requirements to belong to a guild and the levels of mastery used by the craft guilds are very similar to the licensing requirements established by city, county and state governments today. The levels of mastery - apprentice, journeyman, and master - protected the customer by ensuring the quality of work, and was in some ways more effective at this than modern licensing requirements. The requirement to live locally to be a member of the guild protected local businesses from predatory economic behavior, but the level of journeyman provided the ability to bring in skilled workers from outside the area when needed for large projects. I discuss this in greater details in other articles. The initial rise of the merchant class, giving peasants the ability to change their social status and improve their lifestyle was also an important development of medieval society.
The change in philosophical outlook that took place at the end of the Middle Ages and began the transition to the Early Modern Age dismantled these things which protected the good of both political and economic society. Monarchies were relieved of the limitations of subsidiarity and became more and more absolute. Those in business who wished to engage in predatory practices manipulated the power of government to disband the guilds that were preventing them from doing so. This enabled the new merchant class to increase both its economic and political power until even kings effectively became subject to them. Women lost many of the gains they had in society as they were deprived of property, jobs, and eventually kicked out of the universities. Slavery was reintroduced into society.
Distributists are not suffering from medieval romanticism. We do, however, believe that society "threw the baby out with the bath water" as it transitioned from the medieval era to the modern. The rejection of those philosophical sciences that had resulted in the advancement of the common good in societies, replacing them with new philosophies, ultimately reversed many of those advancements. Our children are taught the falsehood that these new philosophies, which resulted in political and economic revolution, are the reason that people were able to change their social status, that we were "finally" able to achieve economic prosperity, that we were able to fight to eventually end slavery, that women were eventually given the right to have jobs, own property, and attend university. The reality is that the new philosophies led to the reestablishment of the social ills that had been eliminated, or at least mitigated during the Middle Ages, and society has had to fight against those philosophies to undo that damage.
Distributism is not about reestablishing medieval society, it is about establishing justice in both the political and economic order. In doing this, we are willing to look at the past in order to find ways to relieve the injustices in our current political and economic order. When we have found things in medieval society that can help accomplish this, we promote them without including the baggage of those aspects of medieval society that don't apply to the world today.