November 15, 2005

Medieval Origins of Anglospheric Freedom

From an American standpoint, what is most relevant about the medieval period is the experience of England, since this was the proximate source of our ideas and institutions. English and continental politics of the Middle Ages had much in common, but differed sharply at the outset of the modern era. On the continent, far from advancing the cause of freedom, the Renaissance ideas of kingship and related institutional changes almost destroyed it. In France and Spain, the chiefly German "Holy Roman Empire" and the city-states of Italy, neopagan concepts of absolute authority came to the forefront, denying the medieval view that there were, or should be, limits on the secular power. In England alone, the struggle would produce the opposite verdict.

We are used to thinking of England as the home of representative government; less familiar is the idea that England enjoyed free institutions at the on-set of the modern era because it had retained them from the preceding era. While Renaissance notions were triumphing on the continent, the English experienced, in Maitland's phrase "a marvelous resuscitation of the medieval law." That they did so was in large measure the doing of the church, which in Britain produced a remarkable series of statesman/clerics -- from Becket and John of Salisbury in the reign of Henry II to Langton, Grosseteste and Bracton in the century to follow. The doctrine that they imprinted on English constitutional theory was that "the King is under God -- and under the law," and not entitled to rule by personal edict. This was the essence of Christian teaching about the state and it became the guiding precept of England's common lawyers.

M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom

Cross-posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Posted by Lexington Green at November 15, 2005 05:20 PM


Interesting and I concour but what role do you ascribe to the reconquistia in Spain, the interminable civil wars in France, the vulnerabilities of both the Germanies and Italian city state to external invaison couple with the common continential vice of the aristocrats abusing their authourity shape the demand for a strong central authourity?

So how come England was spared? Was it because it was an island so the neopagan influences naturall slowed down when crossing the channel?

Posted by: xavier at November 15, 2005 06:18 PM

Xavier, all of the points you mention are part of the story. The English did not build a massive land army, the way the continental powers did, so they did not bankrupt themselves or put an sword of despotism in the King's hand in the form of a huge army. England was an Island, but so was Ireland -- fat lot of good it did them. England was an Island, yes -- and it was an Island with the political and financial means to build and maintain a first-rate navy. For centuries.

The "neopagan" influence, in the form of Roman law did not succeed in crossing the Channel with a conquering army. The Tudors and Stuarts tried to impose a despotic type of rule, but the common law judges and lawyers kept thwarting them. As Maitland put it, the common law tradition was "too tough a weed" to uproot. Of course, it could have gone differently, but the English monarchs never got the type of control some of them wanted.

Incidentally I only got that book today and flipped through it and it looks great and the bibliographic essay shows that Evans is reading almost all the right stuff -- though no Fischer or Macfarlane. But: Acton, Burke, Tocqueville, Hayek -- we'll forgive him.

Posted by: Lex at November 15, 2005 09:17 PM

Thanks for the update. OK here's an interesting question: if the English were able to preserve their freedoms thanks to the church's role; then how come the church leaders under Henry VIII pretty much caved in (with a few notable exceptions)and broke with Rome?
Reading through that tumltuous period, it strikes me that England succumbed to a similar kind of authouritarianism.

Posted by: xavier at November 16, 2005 05:44 AM

Any thoughts on how the Lithuanian/Polish/Ukrainian Commonwealth avoids the prevailing absolutism and comes out of the Renaissance with an elected king (usually foreign born) and an army strong enough to raise the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683?

Electing kings comes with its own set of problems and you can argue that it made the Commonwealth vunerable to strong neighbors like Catherine "The Great" of Russia and Frederick "The Great" of Prussia, who partitioned Poland for the first time in 1772 with the backing of Austria.

I do find it interesting that Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine have been much in the news the last 20 years for their democratic initiatives during the break up of the Soviet Empire.

There is an Anglosphere tie in to all this too. The first partition of Poland is in 1772. Tadeusz Kosciuszko joins the Continental Army in Oct. of 1776. He is made an American citizen in 1784. He is made a citizen of the First French Republic in 1792. He leads the Polish Rebellion of 1794. Sort of a Polish Lafayette. Thomas Jefferson said of him, "He was as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known."

"So how come England was spared? Was it because it was an island so the neopagan influences naturall slowed down when crossing the channel?"

Xavier, the traditional answer to that question is because the Anglo-Saxon legal system wasn't extinquished by the Norman-French. By the time the Tudors come along, it's too well intrenched to be torn up root and branch. I'm not sure in my own mind if that's really the answer, but it might be at least part of the answer. Ireland gets a watered down version of the Norman/Saxon culture, and only inside the Pale. Ireland and Scotland also become staging grounds for Continental supporters of the Jacobin pretenders during the 17th century. It is not necessary to go through England to get to Ireland from France.

Lex mentions, "and it was an Island with the political and financial means to build and maintain a first-rate navy. For centuries." A large part of that financial means in the Middle Ages comes from trading with the Dutch and Flemish. There is a reason there is still a wool sack in the House of Lords. The English are doing a lot of the same things the Dutch are doing in the 16th century.

Regarding the church, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is a fairly late Medieval phenomenon. Medieval English bishops were pretty used to doing what they wanted. For example the Germans were converted to Christianity in the 8th century by English Saxon missionaries. Nothing that Henry VIII does beats the French king kidnapping the Pope in 1305 and burning the Knights Templars in 1307. The Church has lots and lots of money and that attracts royal thieves. Same reason everyone picks on the Jews: because of medieval usery laws that's were the money is. (Which is why European anti-semitism is fundamentally different from American racism. Nazi propaganda posters depict Jews as fat men in top hats beating factory workers. American racist propaganda depicts blacks as half-naked monkeys. The Nazis think Jews are evil and need to be eliminated from the face of the earth. American racists think blacks just need to be kept in their place, like misbehaving horses or dogs. The purpose of lynching is not genocide, it is to teach the survivors a lesson.) Greed and envy also explain why Henry VIII can get away with his dissolution of the monastaries. Many English people already feel like the Church is corrupt, run by foreigners, has too much wealth and power, and needs to be taken down a notch. (See Chaucer's parodies of clerics c. 1400) Toss in some Lutherans and you've got a solid base of support for expropriation as well as a body of native-born, reformist clergy happy to step into the new ecclesiastical hierarchy. I don't think supporters of the crown saw this as caving in as much as a stripping away of modern decadence and foreign influence.

By the way, the nature of usery laws is another difference between England and the Continent. England expels the Jews in the 12th century, so a native class of bankers springs up to fill the void. Richard Whittington, Lord Major of London during the reign of Henry V is the archetype of the poor boy who makes good in foreign trade and ends up lending huge sums of money to the Crown, and then forgives the debts in an act of patriotism and personal friendship to the king. The rags-to-riches story of Dick Whittington and his cat is a classic 600-year old cultural myth in the Anglosphere.

Posted by: Paul K at November 16, 2005 10:06 AM

Thank for the detailed response. I disagree with you that there was widepread support for Henry's reformation, from what I've gleaned from Eamon's Dufffy's book Stripping the altars. I any case, you've given lots to think about.
Thanks again.


Posted by: xavier at November 16, 2005 10:15 AM


The English reformation was considerably more complex and more exceptional than many of the northern Continental reformations. There was a very considerable minority who were theological protestants and wanted a "purified" Bible-oriented church with no bishops. There was a harder-to-quantify minority that wanted conplete conformity with Roman practice, some on theological grounds, many from a Burkean preference for things as they were. Those in between, probably a substantial majority of the country, wanted a church whose liturgy and practice was pretty much what it had always been, except in English (there seemed to have been a lot of support for an English Bible and prayer book.) There was a lot of resentment against the clergy for abuse of privilege, which didn't neccesarily translate into support for a completee break with Rome. And there was a lot of resentment against the Papacy on political grounds, particularly the suspicion that the Pope was acting out of obligation to his Spanish patrons rather than out of purely theological motivations. Whatever the theological validity of Henry's argument for an annulment, most politically conscious English were quite aware of the need for a stable, acceptable succession, particularly with the memory of the Wars of the Roses still fresh. There was a lot of resentment and frustration with such an important matter being in foreign hands, and a suspicion that the Papacy would have readily granted such a reasonable accommodation of state to Spain had it been needed. So while the stripping of the altars was probably not acceptable to a majority of the English people, the Act of Supremacy almost certainly was. Just as the joke goes that what Quebecois want is a sovereign Quebec in a strong Canada, most English probably wanted their traditional Church loyal to a Pope who would leave them alone to do what they wanted.

The automonous Latin Church of the medieval period certainly helped the development and entrenchment of medieval constitutionalism in England, and created the space between Church and State that allowed civil society to develop. We must conclude that it had grown strong enough by Reformation days that it was able to maintain its independence from the state even after the bulwark of Church autonomy was removed, since that is what in fact happened.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 16, 2005 01:23 PM

Thanks for the detailed response. I suppose that if England had stayed Catholic, the bishops would've faced the most resistance to the post Tridentine reforms. I wish I had a copy of Huizigna's Waning of the middle ages to understand the late medieval period.
Beside Eammon Duffy's book, what other book would you recommend to better understand this period?

One last question, how come the continential civil societies couldn't resist the neocentralizing period of the 1200? What role did war against Islam weaken civil society in Spain and Portugal? while in Italy and Germany how did their divisions and vulnerability to foreign interference do the same?
Thanks again


Posted by: xavier at November 16, 2005 05:03 PM

Since I've been reading on the English/British peerage today on a different matter, one think struck me as valid to this discussion. The peers of England/Britain were not members of a "noble" caste, and their families are legally-commoners in the eyes of society and the courts. Add to that the amazing social-mobility afforded by the English system of peerage and rewards.

No worries about four- or eight-quarters of "noble blood" as a pre-qualification; just elevate that able general, magnate or administrator to the House of Lords. Or by the 18th-century award a Knighthood. The King or the Government can just co-opt the will and the able into the system; where in other system they would be locked-out...or have emigrated to the New World.

And the reverse is also true. Several generations-on, the younger sons and daughters have lose their rank...and have to angle for ways to earn or marry back up-wards. The Army, the Church, emigration and the "fortunate marriage" also provided mobility up and down the ladder. You could go from the colliery to "Coal Baron" in one or two generations, or vicar's son to Earl.

That instills a vitality that blood-line obsessions and castes can't overcome.

Posted by: Ted B. at November 16, 2005 07:07 PM

Ted B:
Interesting but be careful about the extent of social mobility within the British aristocracy. By the post Napoleonic times, it becaome pretty much closed and it was hard for a commoner to come in- look at the Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas hardy novels. Also don't foget that there was a rigid docial structure by the late 19th/early 20th century. During WW I, many Canadian and Aussie soldiers were struck by the overly differential behaviour of the lower rants towards theofficers. The Canadians and Aussies were contemptous of the rigid social stratification.
Indeed, one of the common themes was about WWI was that thanks to Commonwealth armies, they saved Britian from defeat. The Commonwealth soldiers show much greater initiative, openness to new ideas and meritocracy than the British units.Also they fought hard to maintain their operational indpendence which lead to the 1931 Westminister conference


Posted by: xavier at November 16, 2005 08:26 PM

Yes, pre-modern England seems stratified and immobile by our standards, but by European standards in general it was far more mobile than the Continent. Until the revolution, an officer in the army or navy needed to be of noble blood in France, but not in Britain -- and to be a naval officer in Britain, you had to pass a test in celestial navigation, thanks to Samuel Pepys . Toqcueville thought that the fact that nobles in England could and did marry commoners was a highly significant factor. As Maitland pointed out, a son of a noble in England could be a commoner one day, and the next, upon inheriting the title, he could be transformed into a noble -- so obviously nobility was not a "quality of blood." What matter was being a "gentleman" or "gentlewoman", which could be acquired. When the title-less Elizabeth Bennett (no relation!) said to Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, "You are a gentleman, and I am a gentleman's daughter; in this we are equal" it was hardly jacobin egalitarianism, but it was profoundly different from the sensibility of the Continental aristocracy.

American media and popular literature has always characterized British aristocracy as if it were Continental; these distinctions and their implications have become almost totally misunderstood in the US.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 16, 2005 08:58 PM

Very true, but I'm thinking of the formative centuries before where the Anglospheric traditions were formed, and spread through the various English-speaking lands. By the Hanoverian Regency and the Victorian-period, the rot was already setting-in, but the seeds had been planted in the Americas and the Colonies...even in India.

Posted by: Ted B. at November 16, 2005 09:04 PM

Xavier says "The Commonwealth soldiers show much greater initiative, openness to new ideas and meritocracy than the British units." I'd like to see James McCormick's comments on that point, also Lex's.

It's true that the British aristocracy got defensive, and therefore more rigid in the 19th century, partly as the Industrial Revolution created so much new wealth that it rather devalued the power of the old landed aristos. (It also devalued the power of the vulgar rich of the 18th Century, the West Indian sugar planters, which is one reason abolition triumphed peacefully in Britain.) It also literally devalued the titles as so many industrial millionaires bought titles. But this was also nothing new; the sugar nabobs bought titles, as did the rich during Charles II's time -- if they'd had E-Bay, Charles would have auctioned titles on it. And I saw an analysis that claimed that the median British aristocrat today (excluding life peers) probably is the great-grandson of a biscuit-maker who gave a lot of money to the Tories in the 1920s.

And remember, as I mentioned in my last comment, Jane Austen had her non-titled heroine marry a member of a great family, and made the hero's aunt look like an old fud for opposing it -- she was representing the opinion of her contemporaries in doing so.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 16, 2005 11:17 PM

While it is really a topic for another day, it is a generally accepted fact that the Canadians and Australians in World War I adapted better and more rapidly than the British to the harsh, new and unanticipated conditions. But, the British adapted better than they are usually given credit for, too. A historical comparison of the Anglospheric military services, to identify influences, commonalities and divergences, would be a very valuable project to undertake. For example, the United States military, to a surpsising degree, was deeply influenced by its exposure to French military practices in World War I. Moreover, the rise of the American military is often seen in a vacuum, and a study of the English ideas which underlay its origins needs to be done. Military history is a much-plowed field, so the data is probably all out there, just not organized in a way that allows an "Anglospheric analysis." This is true of many fields of study -- Law, especially Constitutional law, is another field which is in dire need of a scholarly pan-Anglospheric overview. We are not going to make any sense of ourselves until we see ourselves in this more complete view.

Posted by: Lex at November 17, 2005 09:31 AM
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