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.
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.
 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.