English Literature- The Medievalism of John Ruskin.
Sample Essay on The Medievalism of John Ruskin.
Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.
Medievalism featured very saliently in the literature of the Victorian era. This phenomenon in part developed as a reaction to the sweeping and destabilizing changes in British society engendered by the Industrial revolution. Nothing, during this period of flux and change, remained certain, as traditional social roles and hierarchy were being blurred and challenged. At the same time, the brutal exploitation of the working masses was becoming more and more obvious, and to many, more and more of an unbearable moral injustice. John Ruskin, although belonging to the upper echelons of the British class hierarchy system, bore a remarkable level of empathy for the laboring masses. His medievalism embodies a curious mixture of the apprehension brought about by the destruction of established hierarchical social relations, with the moral outrage inspired by the capitalist exploitation of the masses.
John Ruskin, along with many of his fellow medievalists, saw in the social relations and work ethic of the Medieval Ages, a kind of social model which could serve as a remedy to the litany of abuses encouraged by the Industrial era. However, unlike Ruskin, there were segments of Victorian society who saw Medievalism only as means of using the past to affirm the values of the present. In addition, there were Medievalists who, although opposed to the inequality and abuses of Victorian industrialization, differed in many ways with Ruskin, although heavily influenced by him. This essay attempts to examine how his medievalism influenced Ruskin’s notion of the ideal relationship between the worker and his work or the worker and his employer, while comparing the kind of Medievalism espoused by Ruskin with that held by his Victorian contemporaries.
Medievalism, of course, did not originate in the Victorian era. From the 16th century, an appeal to the Middle Ages was exploited, in order to support the continuity of authority in a new dynasty and a reformed Church. However, the 18th century, with its revival of interest in old and forgotten poetry, and often seen as a precursor to the Romantic Movement, bears the distinction of creating or starting a steady development, which eventually culminated into the medievalism of the Romantic era(Chapman, 33). Notably, it is the influence of Sir Walter Scott of the Romantic era which had a profound influence on the medievalism of Ruskin and other Victorian writers, such as Carlyle and Morris. Scott’s novels, set in the Middle Ages, were an essential part of the Romantic Movement. His popular novels and the ideals which they embodied represented a growing sense of the importance of history. The Romantics turned to history for a variety of reasons, chief among these reasons being the concept of lost innocence or the existential metaphor of childhood, which was often extended to include the childhood of the race or nation(Chapman, 27—29). Similarly, Ruskin’s work was often inspired by the idea of an ideal medieval world, where the relationship between the worker and his work or the worker and his employer was much more dignified and humane than that which prevailed in his own era.
The concept of the childhood of the race or nation and its consequent racial nationalism also led to a number of racialist ideas about the superiority of the Medieval ancestors of England, and by extension, Europe. Carlyle for instance believed and promoted the idea of a superior Teutonic race, which included the Scandinavians, Germans, Dutch and, of course, the English. He also raised the Medieval heroes of that culture to the same heroic status of Homeric heroes such as Achilles or Odysseus (John & Jenkins, 66). This attitude often sought to reverse the traditional view of Germanic nomads as the barbarians who destroyed Rome, and in some instances portrayed Rome as a decadent and effeminate civilization which deserved and needed to be destroyed and replaced by a more manly and vigorous culture. A good example of this would be the attitude of the Victorian historian, Edward Freeman, who writing in a children’s book about the Anglo-Saxon oppression and expulsion of Romano-Britons, claimed:
“..it has turned out much better in the end that our forefathers did thus kill or drive out nearly all the people whom they found in the land … [since otherwise] I cannot think that we should ever have been so great and free a people as we have been for many ages “(Perkins,5).
Kingsley shared similar and somewhat more anti-Roman views in his Cambridge lectures entitled “The Roman and the Teuton”. In these lectures, he portrays “Those wild tribes” as containing the seeds of a future Christendom superior to the decadent and effete world of a collapsing Rome. These nomadic tribes are variously described as possessing, ” a comparative purity of morals, sacred respect for women, family life, law , equal justice, individual fredoom…untainted by hereditary effeminacy”, all of which, of course, were utterly lacking in either the Western or Eastern Roman Empire (John and Jenkins, 68).
Ruskin in his celebrated “The Stones of Venice” does compare the Roman character to the medieval character. However, instead of resorting to the racialism of Kingsley, he makes reference to a kind of environmental determinism to help explain the different sensibilities of these two nations. His writing sounds more like an apology on behalf of the Northern tribes as opposed to a boast of their inherent superiority over Rome. He begins by contrasting a grand and panoramic view of the landscape and flora of the Mediterranean world with that of the Northern World of the Gothic culture, and draws the conclusion that the architecture and artistic character of either region is obviously influenced by the environment, inherited by the purveyors of that art:
…contrast the Arabian horse with the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey: and then, submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice at the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth (Greenbalt, 1342-1352).
Not all the medievalists saw the Middle Ages as a culture or society superior to that of the Victorian era. Rather, they saw it as a source or affirmation of Victorian values. It was portrayed as bearing the seeds which led to the ideals of human progress and liberty which Victorian values was portrayed as ideally representing. These would have included historians such as Freeman, Green, and Stubbs. This attitude led Cardinal Manning, for instance, to declare, while describing the democratic reforms of a small Saxon town, that the franchise and the admission of nearly two-thirds of male adults into adult suffrage as “a real return to the spirit of our old Saxon monarchy”(Chapman, 36). This contrasted with the other more critical strain of medievalism represented by the likes of Ruskin. He saw the Middle Ages as a means of escaping a host of intractable problems created by the Industrial revolution. These problems included overgrown towns, plagued by housing and public health problems, as well as far-reaching economic changes, leading to unemployment and oppressive and unsanitary conditions for many. Medievalism, in that regard, served as a protest against the spirit of the age, and as a model for the reform which “threatened otherwise to be both violent and radical” (chapman, 38).
Medievalists like Ruskin saw in the work ethos of the industrial era, not simply the physical deprivation and oppression of the worker but also his spiritual death. He claimed:
It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread….[T]hey feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men(Greenbalt, 1342-1352).
Ruskin saw the feudalistic work and social relations of the Middle Ages, along with the inspiration of Gothic architecture, as a solution to this problem. Gothic architecture, as far as Ruskin was concerned, was based on the Christian principle of “the original sin” or “the fallen or imperfect man.” Since Christianity acknowledged man as imperfect, there was no need for the craftsman to aspire to the perfection of Roman architecture or the fine finish encouraged by the “Division of labor” in the new industrial and Capitalistic culture of the Victorian era. Gothic architecture, since it was fueled by this Christian ethos, allowed the Gothic school of architecture to “receive the results of the labor of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection…raise up a stately and unaccusable whole” (Greenblatt, 1342-1352). This also meant that the ordinary man would be able to take a certain level of joy, as well as a sense of completeness or satisfaction in his work.
There’s a peculiar and remarkable passage in “The Stones of Venice”, where Ruskin makes reference to a noble character in one of Scott’s novels who sacrifices his life and that of his seven sons for his master or landlord. Ruskin praised such action as being nobler than the Irish peasant waiting for his English landlord, “with his musket muzzle thrust through the ragged hedge”(Greenbalt, 1348). Such a sentiment clearly reveals a staunchly conservative view, where traditional social feudal relationships are morally superior to the new social relationships, which modern capitalism threatened to obliterate the old order with. According to Ruskin, “to yield reverence to another, to hold ourselves and lives at his disposal is not slavery…it is the noblest state in which man can live in this world”(Greenbalt, 1347). Ruskin, in short, subscribed to a vision of society where the working class masses would be content with their lot, while not being spiritually degraded.
This makes an interesting contrast with one of the disciples of Ruskin himself, William Morris. William Morris believed very much in Ruskin’s philosophy that man ought to take joy in his work, art or craft, and that modern industrial values were all antithetical to that concept and served only to dehumanize men and make machines out of them. Nonetheless, Morris was much more of a radical. He counted himself as a socialist and was heavily influenced by Karl Marx on his views of the Middle Ages. Whereas Ruskin remained interested in only partial reform, Morris believed instead in a much more radical approach or complete reform of society. Ruskin, while adoring the work ethos, art, and craftsmanship of the Medieval Ages, remained bothered by the Roman Catholic religious culture which produced it, while at the same time seeing the Middle Ages as some kind of Golden age. The Roman Catholic church was a nasty scar across the image on the Medieval age, which Ruskin had constructed. Morris, on the other hand, dismissed the negative aspects of medieval religious culture as irrelevant to his cause. Influenced heavily by Karl Marx, Morris also saw the Middle Ages as being more complex, plagued by its own evils and actually part of a grand historical movement. In addition, he saw the Medieval Ages as actually bearing the seeds of the industrial nightmare which came into fruition by the Victorian age (Chapman, 63-72).
According to Morris:
Life was often rough and evil enough, beset by violence, superstition, ignorance, slavery; yet I cannot help thinking that sorely as folks needed a solace, they did not altogether lack one, and that solace was pleasure in work. (Chapman, 71)
This reads starkly different to Ruskin’s notion that yielding reverence was not slavery but rather “the noblest state in which man can live in this world.” Here Morris does not run away from admitting the existence of oppression, misery, and so many of the other ugly realities which blight the Middle Ages.
Ruskin, in explaining his frequent mental breakdowns, claims: “I went mad because nothing came of my work… because after I got [my manuscripts] published, nobody believed a word of them” (Greenblatt, 1336). Perhaps, one may also add that Ruskin’s traditional conservatism stood in the way of the practical realization of many of his dreams, leading to some of his disappointment and mental distractions. There are at least two instances where attempts to achieve his medieval vision ended in failure. As Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford, he impressed a number of undergraduates into building a road over a patch of marshy ground for the villagers of Lower and Upper Hinskey. Oscar Wilde, who took part in the experiment explains “Like a bad lecture it ended abruptly–in the middle of the swamp.” A second attempt, setting up the Guild of St. George, ended similarly in failure. The plan attempted to provide land, which was to be worked for self-maintenance, to young families. The Guild of St. Matthew, on the other hand, set up by a Christian Socialist priest, Stewart Headlam, and more radical in the championship of the poor and unemployed and less idealistic, achieved greater success (Chapman, 67-68).
William Morris, in comparison and in the words of Bernard Shaw, was “a complete artist”(Greenblatt, 1513). He was able to some extent live the life he preached and so passionately believed in. He owned a successful firm which manufactured art and craft products, which lived up to the high moral and artistic standards advocated by Ruskin and which Morris had adopted. His craft and design principles remained relevant up to the present; although during his time, his expensive art and craft products would have served only a niche market of wealthy consumers, as opposed to the ordinary men and women whose cause he championed so fervently. Ruskin, by contrast, unable to rid himself of his deep-rooted conservatism, remained too conflicted. On the one hand, he revered too dearly the old feudalistic social relations; while on the other hand, he recoiled in moral outrage and indignation at the dehumanization of the modern worker by industrialization.
So while Ruskin differed in many ways from the self-congratulatory and uncritical strain of Victorian Medievalism which saw the Middle Ages as a means to affirm the values of the present, he nonetheless managed to reflect these very values, by sticking to a social and class hierarchy, inherited from the Middle Ages, which he would have loved to see preserved. Nonetheless, he stands out as a result of his eloquent and passionate defense of the dignity of the working man, whom he saw being reduced and dehumanized into a mere machine, or even a mere cog in a machine, for the sake of profit.
Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press.2005. Print.
Chapman, Raymond. The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature. Surry Hills: Croom Helm Austrailia Pty Ltd. 1986. Print.
Jenkins, Alice & John, Juliet. Rethinking Victorian Culture. New York: St. Martin’s press, Inc. 2000. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.