Hilaire Belloc

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

It is not surprising that, in a culture fascinated with the concept of “one’s place in history,” there should be a profusion of names for the present age. The 1980’s is an “after time”—postmodern, post-Christian, postindustrial, or even postliterate. Alternatively, the epoch is described in relation to specific technological developments: Cybernetic Society, the Nuclear Era, the Space Age. One could assemble a miscellaneous category, including such titles as late-capitalist, secular, pluralist, or the American century. This list of characterizations shows not only how many crypto-Hegelians there are around but also what dedicated progressivists we all unconsciously remain. For the emphasis here is mostly on the superiority of the present over the past. How fine to belong to the Information Age! What a pity to have grown up before the wiring together of Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village. Alvin Toffler’s “Third Wave” sweeps in and carries one up away from the agricultural and industrial past.

Be they “vulgar” or “critical,” progressivist assumptions usually cause one to overlook or misinterpret all sorts of odd and tantalizing facts about the present. One such fact is the emergence of fundamentalist movements, not only in religion but also in all parts of the social order, from education to architecture. Another such fact (the two may be related) is the curious attraction which the European Middle Ages is once again exercising on our imagination. Examples of this very surprising turn of fashion are everywhere. In music, there is the explosion of interest in “early music” and monophony, symbolized by the career of Andrea von Ram; more striking still is the ascendency of Celtic and Appalachian traditional music, both rooted firmly in the late Middle Ages. Recent cinema is obsessed with feudal themes and images, The Neverending Story (1984) being only the most obvious example. The Star Wars saga is thoroughly Arthurian and reminds viewers of the curious interplay of feudal-chivalrous sensibility and the mythography of recent science fiction.

Contemporary medievalism is, however, as much an intellectual as an artistic preoccupation. History, sociology, and political thought have all undergone transformations whose origins lie in a fresh appreciation of the social patterns and values of medieval people. The monstrous crimes committed in the name of the sovereign nation-state in the twentieth century have prompted a reconsideration of that form of political existence; in the Middle Ages, scholars find less “statist” political models. Further, since 1968, most welfare-state systems have witnessed a reaction against centralizing, “giantistic” tendencies of all sorts. “Small is beautiful” has become a rallying cry for more than merely the proponents of “Intermediate Technology”; it also expresses the aspirations of philosophically committed regionalists, ecologists, and opponents of nuclear energy. Significantly, E. F. Schumacher’s much-neglected A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) attempts to restore the reputation of that most medieval of philosophic conceptions, the Great Chain of Being.

A. N. Wilson’s Hilaire Belloc is a work whose appearance and appeal must be explained in terms of this resurgent interest in the Middle Ages, for Belloc was (one is tempted to say preeminently) an apologist for the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was an idealized image of the Middle Ages which inspired all he had to say about economic and political reform in Great Britain. His vast intellectual and artistic program was guided by a single motive: the defense of Roman Catholicism against her secularist enemies and their Protestant forebears. Which Roman church, however, should be defended? The tolerant Church of European Christian Democracy and Leo XIII? The radically conservative, fascist-monarchist church of Francisco Franco? There are many Roman Catholic churches, including, in the post-Vatican II period, the Christian-Marxist fusion church of the Latin American liberation theologians.

While Belloc would have been utterly horrified by most of the developments in Roman Catholicism since the historic council, in a curious way some of his most cherished notions are echoed (distortedly perhaps) by such people as Gustavo Gutierrez and the other apostles of revolutionary transformation. At the same time, since Belloc offered essentially a restorationist solution (a return to the Christendom of pre-Reformation Europe), he can appeal to Christian social romantics for whom the present age is...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)