Medievalism: Two Different Responses
he novelist Charles Kingsley and the poet and politician John James Robert Manners, 7th Duke of Rutland, inherited and shared a similar structure of Anglican religious faith. But each responded to the medieval revivalism of the age in his own way. Unlike Manners, Kingsley did not simply invoke divine aid, which might turn his thoughts to the past and inspire him to uphold traditional values; as a Muscular Christian, he called robustly for human effort as a key element in the necessary future renewal of a world changing rapidly as a result of industrialization.
To many of the Victorian thinkers like Manners who were drawn to the medieval past, Britain’s Industrial Revolution seemed to have produced a new harsh and unwelcome irreligious industrialization and commercialism, which had displaced a traditional religious and agrarian feudal order. Manners published the first of his two books of poetry, England's Trust and Other Poems, in 1841. It would be followed by English Ballads and Other Poems in 1850. In these works he could express his deepest feelings. From the former comes his well-known couplet, "Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die,/ But leave us still our old Nobility!"[ll. 551-52).
When Manners expressed this appeal in a representative passage from the book, he was in the vicinity of Saint Alban’s Cathedral and Abbey Church, and here he sets the quiet of contemplation against the frenzies of contemporary life:
Beneath your shade, in days of haste and toil
‘Mid struggling factions, and through parties’ broil.
When thoughtful men half-scared begin to view
In the fierce throes of changing ever-new,
‘Mid hopes and scare in wild confusion hurled,
Signs of the coming evening of the world;-
I love to snatch a contemplative hour
From vain pursuit of pleasure, fame, or power,
And from the ever-changing clouds of life.
Now bright in sunshine, and now dark in strife;
Lured by the solemn quiet of this shrine,
Its sacred spells, and influence divine;
Turn my gaze to some time-hallowed page
That sadly tells of a nobler age.
When men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith,
Shrunk from dishonour rather than from death; 
This is quintessentially Manners the Medievalist. He invokes angels’ aid to protect the world against the factions which struggle, and the parties which embroil themselves in confused fighting in a contemporary life characterized by "haste and toil" and "the fierce throes of changings ever-new," a time in which all "hopes and fears" are "in wild confusion hurled." To resist what he perceives to be the crisis of contemporary England, he invokes "influence divine" which can return people's thoughts to a better past, "a nobler age" when "men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith" shrank from dishonour.
Kingsley's difference from him at once becomes apparent. Not sharing this nostalgia for a nobler age, he looked forward to a better one. He makes this clear in the tour de force opening to "The Science of Life," an essay based mainly on a lecture he gave at the Midland Institute in Birmingham in 1872. His view of "our forefathers" is not of Manner’s "stalwart men." For Kingsley, they were "hardy" but in the same manner in which "savages" are, "because none but the hardy lived." They may have been able to say of themselves: "What comyn (i.e., common) folk of all the world may compare with the comyns of England, in riches, freedom, liberty, welfare, and all prosperity? What comyn folk is so mighty, and so strong in the felde, as the comyns of England?" Yet, fed on "great shins of beef," they were not so much noble as, to use Benvenuto Cellini's description, "the English wild beasts." Those who survived were indeed, Kingsley felt, the "hardiest," who slowly, perhaps very slowly indeed, increased in numbers for centuries. But were they any more than constitutionally strong?
"The Survival of the Fittest"
Kingsley is able to propose that "none but the hardy lived" because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was comfortable with Darwinist evolutionist theses, as he demonstrates here. Ten years before "The Science of Life," Herbert Spencer in Principles of Biology had interpreted Darwin’s "multiplication of the fittest" as "the survival of the fittest"(§164) and Kingsley had already moved into Spencerian mode. He called "the terrible laws of natural selection" the "survival of the fittest," a process which, he explained to his audience, eliminated the less fit in every generation, principally by infantile disease, but often by wholesale famine and disease. This left, on the whole, "only those of the strongest constitutions" to perpetuate the race ("The Science of Life," 1).
Medievalism and Impiety
Unlike nostalgic adherents to the medieval age, Kingsley hailed the new industrial and commercial world as an event "for which God is to be thanked." Certainly, the blessing was mixed. "New vices and new dangers" have accompanied "new comforts, new noblenesses, new generosities, new conceptions of duty, and of how that duty should be done" (1). On this basis, Kingsley arrived at a conclusion unusual in the work of writers protesting against industrialization. Unlike Manners, or Sir Walter Scott — or indeed the French critic Alexis-François Rio, who did so much at this time to kindle a new interest in medieval art — he did not idealize the pre-industrial feudal ages. "It is childish to regret the old times, when our soot-grimed manufacturing districts were green with lonely farms" (1), he wrote. He sharply contradicted the nostalgic pastoralism which featured so strongly in medievalist responses to urban industrialization, and justified his argument on the ultimate authority which he could cite: to regret the Industrial Revolution would be, he said, "to murmur at the will of Him without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground." In short, it would be impious. He clarifies this by recourse to the following lines from Tennyson's Morte D'Arthur: "The old order changeth, yielding place to the new, / And God fulfils himself in many ways, / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world." "Our duty," Kingsley comments, is not to long for the good old ways, but to take care that no new custom should "corrupt the world."
Providential Design for Organic Renewal
In "The Forming Form," a sermon which Kingsley preached on 2 October 1861, he celebrated the natural forces which God has appointed to sustain natural life:
As the acorn, because God has given it "a forming form," and life after its kind, bears within it not only the builder oak but shade for many a herd, food for countless animals, and at last the gallant ship itself, and the materials of every use to which Nature or Art can put it, and its descendants after it, throughout all time, so does every good deed contain within itself endless and unexpected possibilities of other good, which may and will grow and multiply for ever, in the genial light of Him whose eternal mind conceived it, and whose eternal spirit will for ever quicken it, with that life of which He is the Giver and the Lord. [Town and Country Sermons, 38].
For all its forward-thinking, Kingsley’s mission "to take care of the good new custom" was deeply conservative. He believed that social reform could not happen without God and the Church of England. As a Christian, who in 1873 became a canon of Westminster Abbey, he believed that God’s mercy, God-given natural forces and human effort were all indispensable to the salvation of the world:
What so maddening as the new motion of our age — the rush of the express train, when the live iron pants and leaps and roars through the long chalk cutting, and white mounds gleam cold a moment against the sky and vanish; and rocks and grass and bushes fleet by in dim blended lines; and the long hedges revolve like the spokes of a gigantic wheel; and far below meadows and streams and homesteads, with all their lazy old-world life, open for an instant, and then flee away; while awestruck, silent, choked with the mingled sense of pride and helplessness, we are swept on by that great pulse of England's life-blood rushing down her iron veins; and dimly out of the future looms the fulfilment of our primeval mission to conquer and subdue the earth, and space too, and time, and all things--even hardest of all tasks, yourselves, my cunning brothers; ever learning some fresh lesson, except the hardest one of all, that it is the Spirit of God which giveth you understanding?... Yes, great railroads, and great railroad age, who would exchange you, with all your sins, for any other time? For swiftly as rushes matter, more swiftly rushes mind; more swiftly still rushes the heavenly dawn up the eastern sky. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand ... Blessed is the servant whom his Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching." [Prose Idylls Old and New, 79; my italics].
There was, of course, some common ground with Manners, whose hopes for the future did also include the role of human beings. But whereas Manners contents himself with three lines to issue a call to duty ("No! let each earnest-minded man prepare / To make some duty his peculiar care / Work out with humbleness of head and heart"), Kingsley makes human endeavour vital to the project. For him, not doing any harm and leaving the "rest to Faith," as Manners puts it in his long poem (l. 642), was not an option. Kingsley scorned the kind of English pastoral nostalgia expressed by Manners. It may seem ironic that he used the example of the acorn, the fruit of a traditional English icon, the oak tree, to exemplify the divine forces of a future renewal. But his rejection of nostalgia and his hopes for the future were modern and consistent with the very latest thinking in the related field of evolutionary studies to which he refers.
In a vision broader than Manners’, Kingsley’s "unstoppable" forces of the natural world result in an unstoppable organic renewal:
OLD AND NEW: A PARABLE
See how the autumn leaves float by, decaying
Down the red whirls of yon rain-swollen stream.
So fleet the works of men, back to their earth again.
Ancient and holy things fade like a dream.
Nay! See the spring-blossoms steal forth a-maying,
Clothing with tender hues orchard and glen;
So, though old forms go by, ne’er can their spirit die.
Look! England’s bare boughs show green leaf again!
Kingsley’s vision is altogether grander than Manner’s. Both men felt that their contemporaries must be alert to the industrial changes emanating from "that great pulse of England's life-blood rushing down her iron veins," and both appeal to their Christian faith, believing that if human beings persevere in a true Christian spirit of humility and patience, then they will be capable of the highest achievement. But Kingsley goes much further than Manners. He puts the onus on man to achieve God's will.
Neither the ancient feudal order that Manners' idealised, nor the divinely inspired Utopian renewal which Kingsley envisaged, has materialised. Manners's dream persists only in the genteel world represented by English Heritage, which offers an escape from urban living conditions. But this is generally (and ironically) facilitated by financial success in the urban context, and the result, often enough, is some kind of commercial exploitation. An example of this can be found in the modern management of Manners’ own birthplace, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. He himself retired to his estate "in feudal style - the benevolent landlord and an aristocrat who opened his gardens and galleries to visitors gratis," enjoying the pleasure that this gave to others. During a debate on "Museums of Art" in the House of Commons on 6 March 1845, he described his many visitors as both respectful and responsive. But the estate is now turned over to commercial ventures, for example as a film location (Young Victoria was filmed there in 2007). As for Kingsley's dearly-held hopes, the future is now threatened by the effects of climate change, something which he could never have envisaged. To overcome this, human will and enterprise are today more desperately needed than ever.
- The Medieval Revival, An Influential Movement that First Met Opposition
- [Review of]The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Medievalism, ed. Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner
- William Morris's Medievalism
- Dickens Satirises the Medieval Revival
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Created 10 August 2021