The whitewashing of England’s Catholic history

from: The Catholic Herald:  http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/06/16/

A 19th century view of Magna Carta

The invention of liberty, literacy and prosperity have all been wrongly portrayed as Protestant developments

Last week I was writing about Magna Carta and how the Catholic Church’s role has been written out, in particular the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.

But the same could also be said about much of English history from 600AD to 1600; from the very first law code written in English, which begins with a clause protecting Church property, to the intellectual flourishing of the 13th century, led by churchmen such as Roger Bacon, the Franciscan friar who foresaw air travel.

However, the whitewashing of English Catholic history is mainly seen in three areas: political liberty, economic prosperity and literacy, all of which are seen as being linked to Protestantism.

Yet not only was Magna Carta overseen by churchmen, but Parliament was created by religious Catholics, including its de facto founder, Simon de Montfort – in fact not just devout but a fanatic who was so bigoted he made even his nephew Edward I look like Oskar Schindler in comparison. De Montfort called the rebellious barons ‘the Army of God’ and at Lewes in 1264 said they were fighting for England, God, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the Church. Likewise Robert Fitzwalter, leader of the rebels of 1215, had modestly declared himself to be ‘Marshal of the Army of God and the Holy Church’.

De Montfort ended up losing to the crown and having his testicles hung around his nose, but most of their demands were confirmed under Edward I, as was Magna Carta. And under his grandson Edward III the so-called ‘six statutes’ spelled out the idea of due process of law, which became perhaps the most important plank of freedom in the English-speaking world. All the institutions that would culminate with the political liberties of 1689 were well in place before Luther.

Likewise literacy, which hugely increased in the 16th century and is often attributed to the Protestant attachment to the word, was already increasing in the 15th and the rate of growth did not change after Henry VIII made the break with Rome.

As for the economy and the “Protestant work ethic”, well the English economy was already “Protestant” long before the Reformation. As one study puts it:

By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the ‘West’ begins its more famous split from ‘the rest’. [W]e can pin point the beginning of this ‘little divergence’ with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time.

In fact GDP per capita in England actually decreased under the Tudors, and would not match its pre-Reformation levels until the late 17th century.

There are of course many more examples of this whitewashing of Catholicism, but the main ideas associated with Protestant England – literacy, political freedom and prosperity – were all clearly in place before the Reformation.

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30 Responses to The whitewashing of England’s Catholic history

  1. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    This is a very interesting article, especially since one doesn’t think that much about Catholic contributions to British economy, political liberty, and literacy.

  2. Tom Fisher says:

    A much needed corrective from Ed West!

    Magna Carta’s well and good, though I’d rather commemorate the spirit of 1381😉

  3. toadspittle says:

    “King John, who was so openly bored by church he once sent three notes to a bishop presiding over Mass to hurry up so he could have lunch. “ …or, as Brecht put it: “Grub first, then ethics.”

    I suppose I’m doing my usual contrarian bit, but I really don’t see much solid evidence presented here that the concepts of “… literacy, political freedom and prosperity,” …owe anything much specifically to either Protestantism or Catholicism.
    Just politics, really.
    “Parliament was created by religious Catholics,” ..well, who else was there?

  4. Tom Fisher says:

    According to chronicler Matthew Paris, King John also explored the idea of converting England to Islam following his excommunication, though that is unconfirmed speculation.

  5. Tom Fisher says:

    I think it’s a useful corrective to the idea that all was darkness before the reformation bathed England in the light of liberty and truth. – And that belief still exists.

  6. GC says:

    So a nebulous something called “politics” inevitably leads to literacy, political freedom and prosperity all on its own? Oh right. Thanks.

  7. Tom Fisher says:

    literacy, political freedom and prosperity

    Surely the attempt to credit the Reformation with any of the above is ridiculous. – With the very limited exception of literacy. The notion that scripture should be read in the vernacular by the laity as a matter of course was a great innovation. But as Ed West says, the growing prosperity of Atlantic Europe began long before the Reformation. And political freedom in any meaningful sense is such a modern notion that it is an entirely separate issue. Half the population of the UK was banned from voting till after the First World War. Neither traditional Protestant or Catholic societies were especially enamored of political freedom per se.

  8. toadspittle says:

    Everything is politics.

  9. Michael says:

    Granting the truth of that statement (which needs quite a lot of qualification before one could assent to or dissent from it), do you not then see how different kinds of political structures emerge from different cultures, and that it was precisely a Christian view of the world that gave birth to so many of the things we take for granted now?

  10. Tom Fisher says:

    Everything is politics.

    Everything is economics. Class. Sex. &c.

  11. Tom Fisher says:

    different kinds of political structures emerge from different cultures, and that it was precisely a Christian view of the world that gave birth to so many of the things we take for granted now?

    What do you have in mind Michael? If we exclude pre-Christian pagan thought, and post-Christian modern thought, what do we take for granted that is irreducibly a product of Christianity?

  12. Michael says:

    If we exclude pre-Christian pagan thought, and post-Christian modern thought, what do we take for granted that is irreducibly a product of Christianity?

    I’d be reluctant to say that anything is irreducibly a product of anything – life is far too complicated for that. But I think we can say, with some confidence, that things like the separation between Church and State* is a distinctively Christian contribution to Western culture (from the very beginning, in the words of Our Lord regarding the paying of taxes to Caesar, but also reaffirmed in the Investiture Controversies), and also the accountability of rulers to a higher law. Prior to this, the state itself was sacral, acting as the guarantee of religious/moral values, and thus it was very difficult to provide a robust religio-moral critique of it. The Christian insight that the Kingdom of God is not of this world created a space for things like authentic protest later on. You could also say that, in a way, there could be no real sense of the secular without Christianity.

    Also, prior to the Protestant Reformation, when faith and reason were severed, and (contrary to popular belief, which sees these as distinctly medieval phenomena) things like the practice of magic and popular belief in the potency of witchcraft started to become popular again, the advent of Christianity enabled people to look at creation from, as it were, a distance. It purged the popular mind of superstitious ideas that we might be able to exert control over the world in a domineering sense, but also, by saying steadfastly that the world is not itself divine but made by God who transcends it, made it possible for us to investigate it critically and objectively, eventually giving birth to the scientific method in the high Middle Ages.

    Most important of all though is Christian anthropology, which sees man as made in the image and likeness of God, and thus as of infinite value. This is something manifestly not believed by the pagan societies that came before, and is what provides the justification for all our beliefs about the rights of the individual and the freedom of the will. Since the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries though, our idea of human rights and human freedom have become radically atenuated, seen only in terms of a freedom from external obstacles instead of a freedom for goodness and truth. I by no means wish to imply here that the Middle Ages were an unparalleled period of individual liberty or anything like that (we will never know what would have happened, had the ruptures of the Reformation not set us on a different course); I only wish to point out that what is distinctive in our ideas about rights and liberty actually has its foundation in these clearly Christian ideas about the human person, and that the Modern Period, whilst giving more attention to these concepts in some respects, actually ended up by reducing them in scope.

    *It is noteworthy that in the Christian East, where the role of the papacy was increasingly downplayed, and a unified, authoritative voice was not available to remind the State of this, that these distinctions collapsed somewhat, and something of the old fusion between the religious and the political (with preference often given to the latter) continued.

  13. Michael says:

    If we exclude pre-Christian pagan thought, and post-Christian modern thought

    P.S. It is precisely part of my contention here that modern thought is thoroughly post-Christian, i.e.; it rests upon the legacy of ideas that are, in large part, born of a Christian worldview. There is very little in modern thought that can be said to be truly original, and a lot that can be said to be (for want of a better word) parasitic upon Christian insights. As we are seeing now, when that Christian foundation is increasingly sidelined or rejected, we in the West struggle more and more to give an account of why we hold to any of the values we do.

  14. toadspittle says:

    “Prior to this, the state itself was sacral, acting as the guarantee of religious/moral values,”
    A pretty fair description of The Dear Old Generalissimo’s National Catholicism, so beloved of millions of Catholics in Spain today – eh, Michael? And not too far from the situation in Ireland, until quite recently?

  15. Tom Fisher says:

    There is very little in modern thought that can be said to be truly original, and a lot that can be said to be (for want of a better word) parasitic upon Christian insights.

    We probably agree on the essential facts, but I think parasitic is too pejorative a term. Every culture builds on what came before it. Christianity wasn’t “parasitic” upon Classical and Jewish thought; however they provided the foundation upon which it was built.

  16. Michael says:

    Not sure what your point is Toad. I’m not denying that the Church has got too close to the State (and almost always to its detriment) in the past, and quite probably will do again. What I was saying is that in the pagan world, separation between the two was not even conceivable, let alone possible, and that Christianity introduced a new possibility in this respect.

  17. Michael says:

    We probably agree on the essential facts, but I think parasitic is too pejorative a term. Every culture builds on what came before it. Christianity wasn’t “parasitic” upon Classical and Jewish thought; however they provided the foundation upon which it was built.

    Yes, as I said, it was for want of a better word!🙂 But I do think there is a big difference between building upon what came before, which involves making your own positive contributions and absorbing what is good from the previous culture; and the process we see in modernity, which seems to only take what is good from the prior contributions without adding anything of genuinely lasting value itself. It does seem that modern ‘values’ (such as they are) are but a stripped-down, re-configured version of what went before, without any proper fusion of those prior contributions with any original positive insights, and it’s becoming apparent that this is not a sustainable project.

  18. Tom Fisher says:

    we can say, with some confidence, that things like the separation between Church and State* is a distinctively Christian contribution to Western culture… Prior to this, the state itself was sacral, acting as the guarantee of religious/moral values, and thus it was very difficult to provide a robust religio-moral critique of it.

    I don’t agree; Isaiah,and Jeremiah both gave pretty robust religio-moral critique’s of the state. If it’s to be seen as a distinctive contribution to Western culture, then I’d chalk it up to Judaism.

  19. Michael says:

    Yes, that’s fair enough. I guess in this case one could add that the prophetic tradition was perfected (and its implications for our relation to the state) in Christ, but yes, this is something I think we can attribute to both Judaism and Christianity.

    As an aside, the issue of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ is an interesting question in itself of course, given that Christianity, as the inheritor of Israel’s role as light to the nations, etc, brought a lot of things already present in Jewish tradition into Western thought, but through the Church. How much of what Judaism brought to the table (like, as you say, the prophetic critique of the state) only achieved the prominence it did in our culture because of Christianity, and how much not so? We’ll never know of course, given the course of events as they actually occurred, but interesting to consider nevertheless.

  20. toadspittle says:

    Good point Michael. I’m not qualified to even suggest that, possibly, in some pagan worlds – Periclean Athens, say – religion was treated with a fairly large gain of salt, by some. …So I won’t.

  21. Tom Fisher says:

    the advent of Christianity enabled people to look at creation from, as it were, a distance. It purged the popular mind of superstitious ideas that we might be able to exert control over the world in a domineering sense, but also, by saying steadfastly that the world is not itself divine but made by God who transcends it, made it possible for us to investigate it critically and objectively

    True; — although I’d qualify that by saying that the late antique world was developing in that direction independently (Lucretius & Plotinus are interesting here). And also that Christianity didn’t ‘purge the popular mind’. I long ago learnt from my Grandmother that my Great-Grandmother — although very devout — lived her life enmeshed in customs and beliefs that reflected an essentially magical view of the world, to an extent that is hard to imagine these days. And that after 1400(then) years of Christianity in Ireland. – But I do take your point!

  22. toadspittle says:

    “..that it was precisely a Christian view of the world that gave birth to so many of the things we take for granted now?”
    No doubt at all. Judeo-Christian.
    And in Spain, where I live the same can be said for Islam. And, in Britain, also from Norse sources. All in the melting pot.

  23. Michael says:

    religion was treated with a fairly large gain of salt, by some

    Again, what is your point? That some people were sceptics at some points in history even when the existence of the gods was widely taken for granted doesn’t really say much about the influence of culture and the roots of ideas held by a particular culture on politics.

  24. Michael says:

    All in the melting pot

    Ah, the melting pot – where everything is relative, and no ingredient makes a more distinctive contribution than any other? If that is what is being implied, I think it very hard to justify.

  25. Tom Fisher says:

    I think this reply was meant for Toad not me?🙂

  26. Michael says:

    Yes, perhaps ‘purging the popular mind’ was too comprehensive a statement. All I meant is that whereas in the pagan world one had popular religion and all things spiritual (both good and bad) on one hand, and reason on the other, and not much in the way of an attempt to bring them together, in the Christian world we start to see the joining together of faith and reason, as well as a stripping away of some of the more problematic elements of pagan religion. Magic, for example, was steadfastly preached against by the teaching Church, and it is not until the early Modern period that attempts to exert that sort of control over nature become popular again. This is not to say of course that belief in such things went away completely; more that they were kept at bay for quite a long time, and that it was made quite clear that, whatever may have persisted, magic and such things were not compatible with the new Faith.

  27. Michael says:

    Yes, indeed it was, not sure how that happened! Nevertheless, it does give me an opportunity to use a very contentious word again. Oops!🙂

  28. Tom Fisher says:

    BTW, I’m sorry if my responses seem too much like nit-picking! It’s only because I thought your initial comment was particularly interesting.

    Re oops: As every school boy knows — just add up the number of days since the last full moon, subtract the number of months remaining in the year. If the result is a prime number, Capitalize. Unless of course it’s a Wednesday. In which case consult a horoscope.

  29. Michael says:

    Haha, yes, one must always be careful to observe the correct procedures for such things🙂

    No problem at all re your responses – they’ve helped to clarify my original comments (which, for obvious reasons, involved a lot of generalisation and condensing of what are very complex points of argument) and have (hopefully) opened up the debate even more.

  30. GC says:

    Deacon Nick Donnelly drew our attention to Dominic Lawson’s review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: The West and the Rest in the Sunday Times in 2011.

    Concerning the West’s “success”, the review refers to a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who apparently said:

    One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

    Sounds a bit like “he said that she said that they said . . .”, but the quote has been doing the rounds of the blogosphere ever since. I haven’t been able to find any original Chinese report on it, not for want of trying.

    A rather (surprisingly) unambiguous Chinese view, anyway.

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