One of the most vital insights of modern social thought is the importance of mediating institutions–churches, schools, fraternal organizations, professional associations, and even clubs–for a free society. Not only are they effective, sometimes crucial, in providing services of all sorts, they are, as Tocqueville pointed out, a bulwark of freedom against the encroaching power of the state. The recognition of the consequence of these associations is especially significant for Americans because we have been particularly adept at forming them. As Tocqueville observed more than a hundred years ago, Americans “carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires.” While America has been very fortunate in the establishment of such institutions, perhaps surprisingly, another society not often held in high regard in America–that of medieval Europe–was more successful.
Two contradictory myths concerning the social organization of medieval Europe inhabit the popular mind. The first is that the European Middle Ages were dark ages, a time of chaos and lack of social order. The other myth is that they were a period of unyielding hierarchy. The truth, however, is to be found somewhere in between.
Hierarchy was indeed a feature of medieval society, but it was hardly monolithic. In fact, the hierarchies that existed were often in competition with each other. Charlemagne’s plan for a universal empire was exceptional, and it eventually failed. The subsequent reforms of Pope Gregory VII succeeded in freeing the church from secular control and in hobbling the absolutist idea in Western political thought. The empire ended up living side by side with the church as well as with the “national” monarchies and other principalities, free cities and towns, and the ecclesiastical states.
And that is not even to mention the innumerable organizations that operated below the political level and that were undoubtedly more important in day-to-day life: the cathedrals and parochial churches, the guilds of tradesmen and artisans, the charitable confraternities, the monastic and other religious orders, the schools and colleges, and even hospitals and leprosaria. Those social services that to moderns seem the inevitable preserve of the state were usually provided by these private organizations. No clearer example can be found than that of education. While today the state typically wields a near-monopoly over schools, the opposite was the case in the Middle Ages. The great universities of the thirteenth century, for example, were not state institutions but rather, independent guilds of students or masters who associated to organize their affairs and preserve their rights (the term universitas, in fact, referred originally to guild). Those who see only chaos in medieval Europe are prejudiced with the false idea that social order and the common good flow only from the state. In his new book,Inventing the Middle Ages, distinguished medievalist Norman Cantor challenges this idea with his hope for a world influenced by “retromedievalism,” whereby the study of the Middle Ages will contribute to a resuscitation of those best aspects of the medieval world:
“In the model of a civil society, most good and important things take place below the universal level of the state: the family, the arts, learning, and science; business enterprise and technological progress. These are the work of individuals and groups, and the involvement of the state is remote and disengaged. It is the rule of law that screens out the state’s insatiable aggressiveness and corruption and gives freedom to civil society below the level of the state. It so happens that the medieval world was one in which men and women worked out their destinies with little or no involvement of the state most of the time. A retromedieval world is one that has consciously turned back the welfare and regulatory state from impinging drastically upon, or even in totalitarian fashion, swallowing up society in the corrosive belly of the brackish public whale represented by its self-serving bureaucrats.”