Medieval Society and the Importance of Custom

In my last post, I considered the question of which worldview – the secular or the Christian – could best give an account of our commitment to certain values, such as freedom, human dignity, and tolerance. In examining this question, in which I believe a very good case can be made that only Christianity has the resources and inner logic to truly do justice to the values we hold dear in the West, many of those values were seen to have their roots in aspects of Europe’s High Medieval culture. In today’s post, I would like to take a look at one particular aspect of that culture – that of custom – and ask what lessons we might be able to draw from it for today.

In the Middles Ages (broadly speaking, between 500 and 1500 AD) society was ordered according to a feudal system, which was not something set in stone, but a broad range of social interactions and traditions built around an agreed framework of hierarchy and local self-government. By the ‘high’ period I would like to consider (roughly between 1000 and 1300 AD), this system had become more regularised, and towards its end, the impact of urban culture was beginning to impact a little more on the mainly rural, self-governing systems of lords and tenants, but the importance of custom remained.

This situation is described well in the book Those Terrible Middle Ages, by Regine Pernoud, where she makes the case (one thankfully being recognised more and more now) that the medieval period was not some benighted period of repression and ignorance, such as we see in so many Hollywood films, but one of rich plurality of traditions, great learning, freedom of ideas, and a society where absolute power was mitigated by strong local bonds:

The authority that Charlemagne sought to restore could do scarcely more than sanction an established fact: which is to say that the power formerly concentrated in a precise place, the expression of a determined will, no longer existed. Only local powers reigned; what was referred to as public power was fragmented and spread into a multitude of cells that could be called independent if that term did not signify for us the faculty of acting according to individual whim. Now, in fact, all individual will was limited and determined by what was the great force of the feudal age: custom. We will never understand what that society was if we fail to understand custom, which is to say, that collection of usages born of concrete acts and drawing their power from the times that hallowed them; its dynamic was that of tradition: a given, but a living given, not fixed, ever susceptible to change without ever being submitted to a particular will.

Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (2000), p.69, Ignatius Press.

            The idea that certain practices might not only be perpetuated but also valued purely because they were time-honoured and traditional – i.e.; that they have been found effectual and enriching by previous generations, and, handed down to subsequent generations, also passed on a particular way of life bound up with them – is not one that gains much currency nowadays. In fact, we are more likely to reject something precisely because it is ‘traditional’, which is seen as the polar opposite of ‘progressive’ – the latter being a shibboleth that guarantees acceptance of almost any idea in our age.

The use of custom as an underlying structural element in medieval society was instead seen as something that liberated individuals and communities from torrents of change that might be imposed upon them from outside. Holding to practices that had worked for generations and that received wide acceptance because of their efficacy protected people from any ‘progressive’ movements that the whims of leaders – who recognised the importance and legitimacy of custom for their subjects – might impose upon them.

Furthermore, these customs were not set in stone – it was not a case of tradition for tradition’s sake, but one of recognition that previous ages might know better than ours what is good for our society’s flourishing. The customs that were passed down had been tried and tested by preceding generations, and medieval people trusted in the wisdom of their forebears. On top of this, established customs acted as protection not just against distant rulers, but against the desire of one’s lord to change his mind on rental agreements, etc:

…usages were introduced under the pressure of circumstances; some of them fell into disuse; others were immediately fought, others in the end were accepted or merely tolerated by the group as a whole and soon acquired the force of custom. It was thus that rents, for example, were very early fixed in very diverse ways according to domain. Now, once accepted on both sides and collected for a certain time, there could no longer be a question of abolishing them: it was necessary to wait for them to disappear of themselves. Custom, usage that was lived and tacitly approved, governed the life of the human group and constituted obstacles to individual caprices.

ibid, p.70.

            Underpinning all these agreements was the issue of the oath – a solemn mutual agreement between two people, or two families even, that would set boundaries seen as beneficial to both parties. Essentially, in this cultural situation, someone’s word was seen as binding, and breaking of an oath was seen as a severe crime, leading to the loss of protections originally laid out in the oath, or of exclusion from the community:

The one would benefit from a guarantee, the other, the lord, senior, the elder, the master to whom he had applied, would find himself more wealthy, more powerful, and thus all the more capable of exercising the protection expected of him. Finally, even as a stopgap measure imposed by difficult circumstances, the transaction, in principle, would benefit both parties involved. It was a man-to-man action, a mutual contract that higher authorities did not approve, and for good reason, but which was concluded under oath at a time when an oath, sacramentum, had a religious value…

…this same society rested on personal connections, of man to man; one committed oneself to a particular lord. If some incident occurred, it was necessary to renew the agreement that had been made. In this way the history of feudal times unfolded, made up of games of alliances that were formed and then dissolved; here it was a vassal – a word of Celtic origin, we should note in passing – who swore homage to his lord, but then who proved guilty of infidelity; there it was another who, having sworn homage to the father, refused to do as much for the son.

ibid, pp.67&71.

            Essentially, what seems to have made such a system possible, and for it to work so well, was the value people placed on honesty and integrity. This is not to say that dishonest tenants or unscrupulous landlords did not exist in medieval times, but only that there was more of a stigma attached to such behaviour, and that it had the weight of both community recognition and religious sanction. In an age such as ours, where morality is seen as something negotiable, able to be adapted for one’s own purposes, values like honesty and integrity have inevitably diminished in practical acceptance and application.

Much of the breakdown in our communities could be said to be linked to a breakdown in honesty and trust, and whilst I would not suggest a wholesale return to medieval life (though, God knows, sometimes in my weaker moments I do yearn to be transported back to the 13th Century), as the benefits of modern life are plain for all to see, I would suggest a re-appraisal of what certain aspects of medieval living can teach us. From the examples above, I would first suggest that putting individual character – especially in terms of honesty and integrity – above how useful or efficient people are, would be a great boon to our societies, especially at the local level (which is where everything starts after all).

Secondly, I think a re-appreciation for the virtues of tradition is something that must be initiated. Again, this is not tradition for its own sake, but a simple recognition that (to paraphrase Chesterton) true democracy means giving a voice to the dead as well as the living – previous ages have much wisdom to give us, if only we would listen. If we are ever to truly ‘progress’, we must be willing to admit that this sometimes means facing the mistakes we have made, especially in being so quick to get rid of things just because they didn’t fit a particular ideological paradigm. A little humility can go a long way.


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