Page 13, 13th July 2007

13th July 2007
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Page 13, 13th July 2007 — Catholicism and the cult of Merrie England

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Catholicism and the cult of Merrie England

The 19th-century love affair with medieval England raised some tricky questions about religion, as David Twiston Davies discovers in this absorbing study Medievalism: the Middle Ages in Modem England by Michael Alexander, Yale £25 In a world where "medieval" is frequently employed as a sneer word to attack anything our political masters wish to pull down, Michael Alexander offers a refreshing account of the revival of interest in the culture of the Middle Ages. He begins in the mid-18th century, when the official record of the Reformation was unquestioned (except by that dubious minority known as papists) and memories of the 17th century's civil wars had been shuffled under the carpet. Of course there was unease about the German monarchs on the throne, and the rise of Wesleyanism indicated dissatisfaction with the official spiritual state of the country. Antiquarians had started delving into the past and the Anglican Bishop Thomas Percy was collecting old verse when a prime minister's son, Horace Walpole, ignited the public's low taste for sensationalism by writing The Castle of Otranto; supposedly first published in 1529, it begins with a gigantic helmet falling on a hapless Italian. The greatest blow to the complacent rationalism of the 18th century, however, was the orgy of destruction loosed by the French Revolution. From then on readers began to recognise the attractions of a simpler age when people were assured in their beliefs and valued as individuals.

In tracing the resulting growth of interest in the medieval past Professor Alexander looks at architecture, painting, politics, social theory and religion but concentrates. above all, on literature. The greatest influence was Sir Walter Scott, an Edinburgh lawyer who wrote a highly popular 3.000-line long poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. He then started writing prose fiction about Scottish Jacobitism in the previous century before penning Ivanhoe, a prose romance set in the age of Richard H. Evoking a Merry England full of chivalrous knights and honest Saxon peasants, with a guest appearance by Robin Hood, it captured not only British readers but the imagination of all Europe by the way it opened up the past, though historians were later to show how events, names and attitudes were confused. Despite his enthusiasm for the Catholic centuries, however, Scott never compromised his unquestioning Protestant prejudices by probing the truth of the faith.

The first Catholic to appear in Professor Alexander's pages is Augustus Welby Pugin, the convert son of a French refugee who became the leading champion of Gothic architecture. which summoned up the footfalls of the cloister. When it was decided to rebuild the Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834 Pugin was involved in almost every aspect of its design from finials to inkwells, but without attention being drawn to him at first. In his writings he pointed out the practical value of the arch, but also swept a critical eye over 19th-century society, comparing a utilitarian poor house with a single all-seeing warder, designed by Jeremy Bentham, and the more humane attitudes reflected in a pre-Reformation Gothic building set in a leafy landscape.

Another trenchant and percipient observer was the future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose novel Sybil boldly portrayed a Catholic family dispossessed of their lands at the Reformation. Of course contemporary religion could not be excluded from the ferment of debate. John Henry Newman fuelled uproar in the Church of England by showing how the 39 Articles could be interpreted in a Catholic light, though he was careful to dissociate himself from Pugin's claim that Gothic was the Christian style of architecture.

Since English Protestantism had no tradition of religious art, the first natural pictures by the PreRaphaelites Millais and Rossetti, showing the boy Jesus in the carpenter's shop and the teenaged Virgin Mary shrinking from the angel Gabriel, rang alarm bells for the public. The former kept traditional symbolism to a minimum, prompting Charles Dickens to denounce it for portraying "a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a night-gown", while John Ruskin voiced doubts about the artists' Romanist tendencies. Soon Dante Gabriel Rossetti distracted attention elsewhere by his obsessive portrayals of female sensuousness, which fed on a fascination with the theme of adultery in Chaucer and Le Morte D'Arthur. Burne-Jones and William Morris came up with an acceptable compromise in their stained glass for churches that fell short of the outright allurements of sex or Rome. Ford Madox Brown's painting of drains being laid in Hampstead went with a new interest in labour, which led to questions about social conditions and the heady subject of Communism.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his interest in the medieval poet Piers Langland, concern for the working poor led to Christ in Nature; but more were interested in the drift towards Decadence.

It was just as the Victorian interest in medievalism was dying out that G K Chesterton hove into view, bubbling over with humour, hyperbole and paradox, to do battle with those attempting to exclude God from modem life. His spirited optimism, which had led men to recite his Lepanto in the trenches early in the First World War, lost its appeal in the mud and destruction long before the Armistice.

But the medievalism that inspired him was to be found in the modernist verse of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound. As the 20th century advanced it was Christianity, not just Catholicism, that was recognised as the concern of a struggling minority.

Nevertheless, the Christian inheritance was highly visible in David Jones's long poem about the trenches, In Parenthesis, as well as in the work of W H Auden and Geoffrey Hill, to say nothing of Evelyn Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust, which has a grotesque ending that brings to mind the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. It was also clear in the carving of Eric Gill and in the Gothic churches which continued to be built in the 1950s. to emphasise the link with the medieval past, until checked by the Vatican Council.

professor Alexander's essay is enlivened by his preference for quoting original sources rather than plunging into the quarrels of his fellow academics; and I. for one, feel inspired to go back to those works. Understandably he feels overcast by the threat posed to literary culture by today's electronic mass media. Yet he might perhaps have made more of The Lord of the Rings, which has enjoyed enormous popularity as a film while adhering surprisingly closely to the medievalist J R R Tolkien's three-volume romance. Written for the author's children, it contains a powerful message for a Western society which is reluctantly facing up to external threat. The significance will not be lost on the intemet generation.

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