Tag Archives: history of religion

Victorians and the Medieval World

As I’ve done my work in New Orleans and read about the 19th century, I keep running into the Medieval past.  This was surprising to me initially.  With all the emphasis on progress and industrialization going on in 19th century America, why would the Medieval world, with its connotations of darkness and backwardness, have resonance?

In my career prior to Goddard, I was a religious studies scholar, and I primarily worked on American Catholicism.  I was keenly interested in how religion gave immigrants and other minority groups a sense of identity and the psychological bulwark to resist forces of oppression and assimilation.  (These are admittedly still interests of mine, but I’ve come to realise that religion as boundary maintenance is a universal phenomenon, not one limited to the modern period.)  One of the things Catholicism had working for it as an immigrant faith was its emphasis on the continuity of authority and tradition.  The 19th century saw a vast shift in social, political, and economic realities with the emergence of industrialisation, nationalism, and the ongoing development of imperialism in the West.  As these shifts came, the Roman Catholic Church responded in a variety of ways, some better than others, and two features became prominent: ultramontanism and revitalized devotionalism.

The devotional revolution of the 19th century is usually spoken of in terms of Irish response to the Famine of the mid 1840s and the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as a source of identity and stability as Ireland re-formed itself culturally and socially.  However, given the prominence of Irish priests and religious in the Church in English-speaking territories, especially the United States, including priests of other nationalities trained at All Hollow’s in Ireland, it is fair to say that the Irish devotional revolution applies to vast swaths of the Church in the West.  The devotional revolution saw a rise in Marian devotions, as well as novenas and other acts of personal piety.  Many of these echoed in some way the envisioned medieval past, the moment of the Church ascendant, when the whole West was united under one Latin Church.  The Marian devotions in particular harkened back to the emergence of the Marian cult in the High Middle Ages, just after the First Crusade.  As social and cultural factors were in the midst of fast-paced shifts (consider how much happened in the long 12th century), the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary offered stability and comfort.  It is no wonder it was revitalized in the 19th century and became a highly visible part of the Church.

Ultramontanism is the other factor at play here.  As the Church responded to the challenges of the 19th century, there was an increasing emphasis on the Pope’s authority.  Ultramontanists were those who saw the Church as supreme, rather than moderate lay Catholics who were willing to eschew Catholic traditions in order for Catholics to be able to function in modern, nationalist societies.  (Ultramontanism coming from the phrase “beyond the mountains,” being a reference to the Pope’s position in Rome — beyond the Alps, as far as the rest of Europe was concerned.)  This position put an emphasis on the Church as the only true arbiter of matters of faith and appealed to its long traditions as proof.  This is the movement that gave us the First Vatican Council in the late 1860s with its doctrine of papal infallibility, the height of ultramontanist achievements.  This two-pronged emphasis on tradition and authority saw the revival of neo-Thomistic thought — that is to say, the revival of Thomas Aquinas as the ultimate theologian of the Church.  This theology began to ask questions like, “What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about railroads?  What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about factories?”  These questions were intended to interpret the modern world according to timeless theological principles: those of the Middle Ages.

In this appeal to neo-Thomistic thought and traditional authority, the 19th century Church appealed, essentially, to its medieval past.  It placed itself squarely in the tradition of the medieval Church, and utilised elements like neo-Gothic architecture and a revitalization of the university movements of the High Middle Ages to create Catholic universities.  (I should know, I attended one that was founded, neo-Gothic buildings and all, in 1887.)  It created Catholic churches across the United States that drew from the great cathedrals of Europe.  It appealed to the medieval past, to a vision of order and spiritual authority that trickled down from God to the Pope to anointed kings, all in proper order, as if the Protestant Reformation and the push towards nationalism and democracy had never occurred.  The medieval past to which the Church appealed was largely a fabricated one, but it was an orderly fabrication — the same one to which the emergent Antiquarian movement appealed.  Just like the Church, the Antiquarians saw value in the orderly medieval past where the social bonds between lord and vassal, between Church and faithful were intact and governed by a spiritual awareness of duty and obligation, a sharp contrast to the mercenary, alienating industrial present of the 19th century.  It pitted green country and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest against the black smoke of factories and the squalor of urban slums.  It appealed to the satisfying ideas of chivalry and nobility against capitalism and greed.  Hand-in-hand, the Catholic Church and the Antiquarians created a Victorian vision of the medieval world that said more about the 19th century than it did about the 12th.

The medieval world for the Victorians represented something orderly.  It represented a more spiritual, more pure age in which authority was God-given and unquestioned — as if the Anarchy never happened — and everyone knew their social duty and performed it. It represented a sort of pastoralism, as well as a world in which faith was unquestioned and piety an unqualified good.  For the Church, it was a time of imagined unlimited, unchallenged authority, and a time in which heads of state were loyal subjects to God’s will.  For immigrants, strangers in a strange land, this vision of the Church’s medieval grandeur placed them safely within a tradition that had greater meaning an authority than the strange country with odd laws and untrustworthy institutions in which they found themselves.  The Church was rock solid, enduring, and safe.  It would come to their rescue like knights in shining armour.  Or so the images seem to suggest.

I saw a great many of these images in New Orleans, which should come as no surprise, given how Catholic of a city New Orleans is, and its named association with one of the great medieval cities of France, Orléans.  In the windows of St Louis Cathedral, I saw beautiful 19th century stained glass depicting not, as is most common, a plethora of saints chosen by donors, but rather, the complete visual history of the life of St Louis IX, complete with scenes of him on the Eighth Crusade.

The stained glass depiction of knights carrying the coffin of St Louis IX of France, draped with a cloth bearing the red Crusader’s cross.

The medieval past sits out in the open in New Orleans, and all through 19th century America.  It is fascinating, and speaks to not only the 19th century vision of the Middle Ages, but as well, the vision of the Middle Ages that the period itself left us to interpret and find meaningful.  I’m still teasing out this idea, but I suspect it will keep taking me backwards, into the foundational places in which the medieval world gave birth to the modern one.

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