U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Whatever Happened to “Medievalism”?

While reading F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West (about which I blogged a few weeks ago), I came across a familiar, mid-twentieth-century American intellectual trope: the notion that then present-day Catholicism represented an expression of medieval values.

This idea was common among a very wide range of thinkers, including (relatively high-minded) anti-Catholics, Catholics themselves, and non-Catholics sympathetic to Catholicism. For his part, Northrop (who was not Catholic) devotes a chapter to “Roman Catholic Culture and Greek Science.”  Northrup sees “the philosophical foundations of Roman Catholic culture,” which he associates with Aquinas and Aristotle, as being “exceedingly important at the present moment” (i.e. 1946).  Northrop sees a growing influence of Roman Catholic culture around the world and cites a variety of contemporary American thinkers as examples of this phenomenon, including Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, and Scott Buchanan (none of whom, Northrop notes, “was initially a Roman Catholic”).  These American expressions, Northrop suggests, are but a small part of an international revival of Catholic thought, which reflects “inescapable inadequacies” of “each of the traditional modern attempts to give philosophical expression and meaning to the facts of nature and human experience.”  “Disillusioned by the modern world,” writes Northrop, “men have turned to the Middle Ages.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here: the positing of a unified medieval worldview, the association of that worldview with Aquinas and Aristotle, the sense that this worldview constituted (for better or worse) a living option (in the Jamesian sense) that was gaining popularity in some surprising quarters, and the association of this all with Catholicism. What interests me about this topos is both how common it once was and how rare it became by the late 20th century.[1] 

As partial evidence for this point, here’s a google n-gram of appearances of the word “medievalism”—frequently associated with these ideas–in American books over the course of the 20th century (Northrop, for his part, uses “medievalism” in The Meeting of East and West, though he does so infrequently):

The term peaks in 1934, rises again during the first half of the 1940s, before falling a bit in that decade’s second half and then dropping off rapidly in the second half of the ‘60s.

What accounts for the apparent decline of these ideas?  A number of things, I think. First, the place (imagined and real) of Catholicism in American life changed rapidly following World War II, as Catholics began to be seen as part of a dominant Judaeo-Christian tradition, rather than as the Protestant Establishment’s most significant Other.  Secondly, in the 1960s, Vatican II made the once easy association of Catholicism with a simple rejection of modernity much more difficult to maintain.  Third, scholarly and popular understandings of the Middle Ages and their relationship to the modern world became more complicated and polyvocal. Medievalists like Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie began to draw more attention to Cathars and other heretics. And Barbara Tuchman made a bestseller out of the proposition that, far from representing modernity’s opposite, the 14th century constituted A Distant Mirror of the 20th.  Fourth, the idea of modernity itself began to fracture (somebody should write a book about that….). Finally, alongside these things, the leading culturally conservative voices in America, unlike many traditionalist conservatives of the middle decades of the twentieth century, most often tried to reach an accommodation with capitalism and modernity, rather attempting to reject them.

Of course, all of that is very general and falls well short of a history of the rise and fall of the idea of medievalism in this sense.  But, as I often feel about blog posts, it’s a start.


[1] I was going to add as an example here that Adler and his Great Books idea remained a topic of much cultural conversation in the late 20th century, but, certainly by the 1980s, neither Adler nor the Great Books idea were frequently described as instantiating a return to “medieval values.” But then I realized I should run this idea by Tim first. In lieu of doing so, I’m throwing it in a footnote…and Tim can correct me if I’m wrong.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Ben. At different places in my book, The Right of the Protestant Left, I discus the formation and circulation of a liberal Protestant variant of medievalism, involving everything from gothic architecture to explicit praise for the Middle Ages. The “secular theology” of the 1960s was largely a rejection of that medievalist element.

    • Thanks, Mark. I almost said something about such folks in the post…the one who popped to mind was Ralph Adams Cram. I know about them mainly from Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace.

    • I see Protestant medievalism (a very spotty phenomenon, although Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man could be read as a premier statement of it) as a result of Liberal, mainline, and ecumenical interest in Catholicism, which itself was a result of widespread feeling that evangelicalism of the individualistic Dwight Moody sort was ineffectual and an aid to secularization. In other words, Protestant medievalism was a part of what was called for a time “evangelical Catholicism.”

      Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (1993) is good on mid-century medievalism, although he barely discusses Christopher Dawson, who I thought was one of the most prominent medievalists of the century, but maybe I’m mistaken.

  2. A brilliant post, and some truly arresting questions. I am compelled by all the suggestions you make for the fairly rapid decline of the term, but I’d add one more.

    We might think about not only “medievalism” as a trope, but also “feudalism,” which clearly does not have identical valences, but which certainly has some overlapping ones. “Feudalism” also declines in usage around the late 1930s through the late 1950s, although it then spikes up (maybe because of the transition to capitalism debate?).

    At any rate, what we might see in this similar pattern is the real working out of a transition in imagined alternatives to the present: while the main (non-socialist) alternative to capitalism seemed to many to be, for the first third of the century, a reversion to a simpler, “traditional” society, after the mid-1930s (with, if we follow Arno Mayer, the liquidation of most remaining actually existing feudal arrangements) the alternative to 20th century capitalism seems more likely to be a return to the petty proprietor capitalism of the 18th or 19th century.

    Similarly, critiques of “backward” societies stop referring (so often) to “medievalism” or “feudalism” and move on to the terms “pre-modern” or “underdeveloped”–again, as the imagined other to the capitalist present shifts forward.

  3. My sense is that the accusations of medievalism in relation to Adler, Hutchins, and the great books idea died down *significantly* by the 1950s, if not a bit sooner. It reached a high point in the early 1940s, when everyone who was anyone (e.g. Sidney Hook, Dwight Macdonald, etc.) could talk about the University of Chicago and Adler-Hutchins without the medieval qualifier.

    I refer to this in my book, but there’s a passage in Harold Rugg’s Foundations of Education (1947) where he calls Adler a member of the “pseudo-Thomist counter-revolution.” So might find some more instances of medieval-esque accusations if you widen the search to terms like ‘scholasticism’ or Thomistic and its variants. With a quick search I found a passage in Macdonald’s 1956 book on the Ford Foundation where he makes the Adler-medieval association. Here’s an excerpt (from p. 54):

    “One of the most fascinating, though possibly not the most important, investments made by the Fund for the Advancement of Education is the $640,000 it has put into the Institute for Philosophical Research, which is headed by Mortimer J. Adler. … At the beginning, in 1952, Dr. Adler talked in terms of a “Summa Dialectica” of modern thought, comparable to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica of medieval thought, and set the year 2002 as the final deadline for its completion.”

    So it’s not a direct accusation of medievalism, but…

    This is hypothesis, but I’m guessing that the popular associations died when:

    (a) Adler and Hutchins advocated for a world federal government and the United Nations (though Hutchins wrote a lecture, published as a book, titled St. Thomas and the World State!). I wrote about this topic for the 2009 S-USIH conference.
    (b) When Adler gave up using Aquinas for his works in the 1950s. He discusses this in his autobiography, but in that decade he began calling himself an Aristotelian and stopped attending meetings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

    Apart from Adler, I remember no serious association between the great books idea and medieval thought in the 1980s, even during the heights of the Culture Wars canon debates. That would’ve most likely occurred in either 1990 (when Britannica’s 2nd ed of GBWW was released), or in Rubin’s or Levine’s books (1992 and 1997, respectively), but I don’t think either historian went medieval on Adler or the great books idea. – TL

  4. In A Catholic Brain Trust: The History of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, 1945-1965, your humble writer found categories such as “medieval Catholicism” about as wanting as “conservative” or “liberal” Catholicism. Catholics were by the late 1930s utterly ensconced, if not dominant, in three major sectors of American life (especially in cities): conveyance (moving items from A to B, such as postal letters), public safety (show me a New York cop or firefighter and I’ll show you a member of the Holy Name Society), and building. Their political influence was increasing. When the war came, their assimilation into American society was well nigh complete and their overwhelming disfavor of the United States’ entrance into the European conflict was something President Roosevelt could not ignore. What matters for this discussion, though, is this shop worn term that even Catholics at mid-century had found of little use. One could be a neo-Thomist (and proudly self-identify) without being “medieval.” Fr. George Tyrell’s book, Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier (1908), attempted to create a pathway for this and was read by all the literati then on the rise. Tyrell and others who were deemed (mostly by reactionaries) “modernist” helped to push the global church past a malaise that stood like a pall covering much of Catholic Europe for the previous four decades. That their influence was felt on such later thinkers as Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson is perhaps obvious, but it is not immediately apparent how Robert Hutchins or Mortimer Adler took up the Thomist thread or otherwise earned for themselves a reputation as not-so-subtle crypto-Thomists. What is interesting to me about this post is the set of responses it got, especially the alliances generated among some members of the Protestant left or how the epithet “medieval” could somehow be usurped or prove to be an antidote to Dwight Moody’s brand of evangelicalism. I daresay, Thomas and his heirs never saw that coming!

    • Wilhelm Pauck, an American theologian associated with Karl Barth, complained that Reinhold Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man was simply a repetition of what he called the “Thomist ambiguity.” Lewis Mumford saw Niebuhr’s lectures as coincident with Thomism as well. Liberal Protestant Thomists? Fear of the loss of “Western Christian civilization” does funny things to people.

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