Middle Ages to the French Revolution and Beyond
Culture wars during the Middle Ages to the French Revolution and beyond:
Five issues or challenges between the Middle Ages and the French Revolution that will shed light on a contemporary problem faced by society today
Much has been said about the so-called ‘culture war,’ or divide between red and blue states America. Conventional wisdom suggests that there is a growing chasm between conservative and liberal individuals within the American nation. These culture wars regarding the role of religion, the individual, the role of the state in curtailing the abuses of capitalism, the role of women, and the role of nationalism are not new. Rather, such issues can be traced far back in history, back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment concepts that gave birth to the conceptual founding of the America ‘experiment’ in the first place.
Perhaps most foundational to the development of these conflicts is the role of religion. The role of the Church and State was a contentious issue from even before the Middle Ages, extended well into the French Revolution, and beyond the eventual end of France’s New Regime. Until the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the only formal religious institution in Europe. The Almighty Church could make kings bend to its will, and the question of which institution had greater power, that of the monarch or that of the king was continually debated between the reigning Popes and the reigning kings of Europe. The idea that kings ruled by the will of God through divine right reinforced the importance of religion in society, as kings could not ignore the power of the Church when making policy (Hooker, 1996, The divine right).
However, kings could also come into conflict with the Church, as in the case of Henry VIII of England, when he demanded a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry ultimately withdrew his nation from the authority of the Roman Church, and the Church of England was to form its own branch of Christianity, as distinct from Continental, Lutheran Protestantism. The balance of power of Protestant and Catholic monarchs, and the role of the individual’s spirituality in relationship to the state became even more fraught as some Protestant sects tried to opt out of civic obligations entirely (like radical Puritans in England). In other nations, such as in France, the Church had a formal role in the government — it was known as the First Estate of the Old Regime, and thus came under attack along with the rest of the inequalities of society when the revolution occurred in France. “Not only did God bestow power on certain monarchsbut the bestowal of this power legitimated autocracy (rule by one person). The king ruled by virtue of God’s authority; therefore he should be obeyed in all things. No group, whether they be nobles, or a parliament, or the people in the street, have a right to participate in this rule; to question or oppose the monarch was to rebel against God’s purpose. This doctrine of absolutism would follow a tortured course through the eighteenth century culminating in the French Revolution of 1789-1792 and the beheading of Louis XVI, the king of France” (Hooker, 1996, The divine right).
Today, the question of what constitutes a truly secular society is a topic of intense debate. People argue that America is founded upon a Judeo-Christian ethic, and use this to support the teaching of creationism in science class, and school prayer. But does a secular society prohibit students from establishing their own independent Bible study groups on school grounds? Is it wrong for a citizen to take a candidate’s religious views into consideration before voting? Does secularism constitute a religion in and of itself? Do some societies, such as France, fight too hard to exclude religion from civic institutions, by banning Muslim headscarves, for example?
The right of the individual and his or her responsibility to society is also a contentious question. In the Middle Ages, the rights of the individual were inconsequential. People could be forced to go to war by their lords, for example, or compelled by their families to marry or enter monasteries if they were despised second sons or unmarriageable daughters. Later, the development of the modern, centralized nation-state did not immediately generate a more elevated role for the individual in society — men and women could have their property or liberty taken away quite arbitrarily by the strong sovereign authority through prohibitive taxation or conscription into the army. Philosophers such as John Locke and the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution demanded that the rights of the individual be acknowledged by the leading social governing body. But even today, the balance between the rights of the individual and the state is an imperfect one: to what degree do individuals have a right to critique the government, to set their own moral terms of the private behavior, and what ethical as well as legal obligations does the individual have to the community? America’s intense individualism tends to deemphasize the obligations of citizens to others.
A third controversial development during this period was the development of capitalism. Before capitalism, the self-sustaining farm or fiefdom was the predominant economic mode. However, mechanized and specialized labor that took the form of wage labor where “humans work for wages rather than for product” became more common (Hooker, 1996, capitalism). Arguably, in a Marxist understanding of capitalism, the wage slave toils, while the capitalist owner does not, and merely profits from owning the factory — thus the idea of collective ownership of property to prevent exploitation. Today, there is an imperfect system in place: we live under a balance between pure capitalism and Marxism. Modern industrialized nations endorse and protect private ownership, but prohibit certain abuses by employers, and extend state benefits such as pensions for the elderly, and in some nations, healthcare.
The role of women in society as workers and citizens continues to be debated today — although the common conception of women in the Middle Ages is that they were ‘second class citizens,’ this picture does not tell the whole truth. Women often administered property when their husbands were away on Crusades. Although nuns lacked the institutional authority of monks, priests, and the higher-level clergy, they often created works of lasting artistic value, and many women were active in the development of the proto-mercantilist capitalist system. Yet even during the French Revolution, the most radical of all revolutions to sweep Europe, the rights of women were separately defined from those of men. Women, although active in the revolution in their support of its leaders and as symbols, did not ascend to full equality. In the United States’ permanent, radical social upheaval during the Enlightenment, American women did not win the right to vote until the 20th century, and only in the 1970s did women begin to assume a fully, legally equal role with men in elite educational and social institutions such as the Ivy League, Congress, and the military.
Finally, the question of nationalism, and the role of the nation-state continues to be debated. Does the U.S. have an enforcing role in the world community? Are there inalienable human rights that transcend national borders? The nation-state is historically a relatively new, modern invention, as once upon a time, monarchies were fairly decentralized, until the Enlightenment. Gradually, formerly fractious conglomerations of city-states came under the control of a central ruler. Even during the 19th century in the U.S., the question of whether the U.S. was a confederation of states or a federal organization with states subservient to a national government was open for debate. Did states exist based upon shared national identity, upon the right of a collective investment of faith or democratic authority in a ruler, or the arbitrarily given (and withdrawn) consent of the governed? “Monarchies began to slowly erode as democratic sentiments rose and this led to serious doubts about the nature of human political institutions, and a variety of philosophical answers were produced to meet these doubts. Among these answers was the idea that states were governed by natural laws; these laws were immutable, rational, and understandable by human reason” (Hooker, 1996, Social contract). Today, within the international community, of which the U.S. is a vital component part, the question of what constitutes a nation-state, a people, and a democracy remains undecided, and the President’s interpretation of the concepts of democracy and nation-states inevitably affects how the U.S. responds to international questions of legitimacy in other nations.
Hooker, Richard. (1996). Capitalism. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/CAPITAL.htm
Hooker, Richard. (1996). The divine right of kings. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/DIVRIGHT.htm
Hooker, Richard. (1996). Social contract. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/SOCCON.HTM
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