Tuesday, 15 July 2014

in The Catholic Herald, July 11, 2014

The year that propelled Britain into the future
In 1846 the country was on the cusp of modernity, but have we really changed that much, asks Patrick West
Penny Loaves & Butter Cheap, Britain in 1846

The recent European elections highlighted a significant divide in this country, of that between London and the rest of England, between a liberal metropolitan class and a UKIP-voting middle-class and lower-middle class uneasy with mass immigration and the European Union. We had grown accustomed to the notion that Britain was becoming an ever more disparate country - what with the spectre of Scottish independence - yet now there was the realisation that London is a very different place to the rest of England, what with its moneyed aristocracy and low-paid workforce from overseas.

As Stephen Bates new publication, 1846, explains, there was a comparable conflict between an uncouth bourgeoisie and a nobility in the mid-part of the 19th century - one that pitted the landed gentry against uppity northern industrialists. If debate today often centres on the influx and movement of people, in the 1840s it was the importation of food, and more specifically, corn. The new industrialists sought free trade and the end to tariffs - the Corn Laws - in order that their workforce eat more cheaply, while landowners strove to resist any change that would be detrimental to its already increasingly precarious position.

The passing of the gentry's power to the industrialists is one many themes in Bates's snapshot of the year 1846, when Britain was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and on the cusp of modernity. And its a testament to the author that he has managed to make the Anti-Corn Law League debate interesting, so sullied is its reputation (in my eyes) by history lessons of yore.

The collision between old and new money took many forms. Many aristocrats, such as the "prickly and self-righteous" Lord Ashley, later Lord Shaftesbury, were of a highly moral, evangelical persuasion. Disgusted at the new "Millocracy" they believed that factories subverted and destabilised the social order, and actually exploited the workers, unlike the paternalistic aristocracy. There was also the belief that they were inimical to Christianity, and promoting godlessness and even Papism.

Yet, some industrialists could be just as paternalistic-minded. Bates takes the example of the Ashworths of Bolton, who at their cotton-spinning factory provided workers housing, holidays and education, while paying them sufficiently high wages so that their wives didn't have to work. In return, they insisted on cleanliness - a change of shirt twice a week - attendance at church or chapel every Sunday, sobriety and sexual morality.

If the 1840s was marked by a rise in evangelicalism in Britain, it was also a distinguished era for the High Church and Catholicism. It saw the emergence of the Tractarian movement, which sought to return the established Church to a more ascetic, pre-Reformation manner, and the rise of skilled polemicists such as John Kebel, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman. This phenomenon was met with suspicion and hostility by evangelicals, and when Newman or any person of note converted to Catholicism, there was generally outrage among the Protestant clergy and press.

Anti-Catholicism was still part of every-day discourse in 1846 (although, in England, it would start to wane hereafter), with cartoons in Punch depicting sly and devious papist priests, or treacherous Oxford undergraduates wearing papal tiaras. And England would have its last anti-Catholic spasm in 1850 with the restoration of Roman Catholic bishops to England, an outburst aggravated, as Bates observes, by Cardinal's Wiseman ill-judged call for the reconversion of the country. The Times, true to form, called it "one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence which the court of Rome has ventured to commit since the crown and people of England threw off its yoke."

The Protestant Ascendancy had already been incensed by Prime Minister Robert Peel's proposal to increase the grant to the Catholic priests' training seminary in Maynooth, outside Dublin. He had done this in order to win over the rural clergy in Ireland, a country that was suffering dreadfully in 1846, its potato crop having failed for the second year in a row.

From the outset there were plenty of graphic reports in the press as to what was happing in Ireland and urgent appeals from both British and Irish observers; one curate in Mayo wrote "No language can describe the awful condition of the people... They are to be found in thousands, young and old, male and female, crawling the streets and on the highways, screaming for a morsel of food." But for the most part, reaction to the famine from London was one marked by "callousness and ineptitude... managerial infancy and amateurish competence". Matters were made worse when the Whigs - who believed in the iron laws of laissez faire economics - were voted in in the summer of 1846, stopping all emergency imports.

The evangelical Charles Trevelyan, placed in charge of Irish affairs, had been taught by Thomas Malthus as a schoolboy. He couldn't even be stirred when a delegation of Anglican clergyman got down on their knees to beg for relief to be sent to Ireland in 1846. "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated," he said. "The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."

The book 1846 is a splendid achievement, and befitting of a journalist, the author has an eye for the big picture. He includes sections on overcrowding in burial grounds, life expectancy (38 for a rural labourer, an astonishing 15 for a labourer in Liverpool), the railway bubble and subsequent crash, the toleration of prostitution (it was thought a better alternative to having unwanted mouths to feed), Mendelssohn's incredible popularity, church attendance (less than 50 per cent) or the fact that the first murderer tracked by train was a Quaker. Just as we are still in the midst of a transformative technological revolution, 1846 was a year in which the old wrestled with the new.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

in spiked, June 2, 2014

Mark Steel: the music-hall socialist

There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned about this left-wing funnyman.

in The Catholic Herald, May 2, 2014

The Enlightenment was an age of wizards and weirdos
Patrick West sees a medievalist take revenge on an era that mocked all that came before it

The Dark Side of The Enlightenment
By John V Fleming
W H Norton, £16.99

In academia and among the intelligentsia it’s long been fashionable to deride the claims and pretences of the Enlightenment, with its dual principles of detached reason and objectivity. Ever since the thoughts of postmodernists Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty et al became voguish in the 1970s among red brick universities, the belief spread that the tenets of the Enlightenment were not only arrogant and spurious, but also actually dangerous. The application of reason, logic, categorisation and industrial progress led us, after all, to the atom bomb and Auschwitz. 

Although postmodernism isn’t spoken of today with the breathless reverence it was in its late 1980s and early 1990s heyday, Enlightenment values are still disdained. We live in an age in which everyone’s subjective opinions must be valued and in which we have become more censorious to spare the feelings or “deeply held beliefs” of others. Perspectives, not objective knowledge, are what matters in an age in which Voltaire’s first principle – the right to be offensive – is anathema.

This isn’t an entirely bad thing. The advocates and devotees of the Enlightenment have often been unwilling or unconscious of its debt to a Christian world perspective. The concept of the individual (and from it the Rights of Man) evolved from that of the soul. Progress is a secularised form of Providence, while egalitarianism was promoted, especially among low church Protestants, by those who had read in the Bible that we are all God’s children.

It’s in this spirit that John V. Fleming has written The Dark Side of The Enlightenment, criticising its boastfulness, and especially the manner in which it belittled much that came before it. As a professional medievalist, Fleming feels the Enlightenment cast a permanent slur on the Middle Ages, caricaturing it as an era of “brutality, disease, ignorance, and superstition”. This “Gibbonesque view … has become permanent in our lexicon”, he says. So, if the Middle Ages weren’t that “medieval”, in the pejorative sense of that word, maybe the Enlightenment wasn’t so enlightened. 

“One of the paradoxes of the Enlightenment,” writes Fleming, “is the fascination of many of the enlightened with the occult.” It was an age in which knowledge was sought as much through the “dark arts” of magic and alchemy as detached, objective enquiry. It was a time in which Freemasonry did not wither, but enjoyed a rebirth, as did the associated cult of Rosicrucianism, which in the early 17th century declared there to be a secret brotherhood of sages and alchemists ready to transform Europe scientifically, politically and culturally.
There was no dichotomy between reason and mysticism, Fleming observes. The pursuit of truth came in many guises, some ostensibly rational, others not, and many indistinguishable from either category. 

We tend today to differentiate alchemy from chemistry, but that is merely a linguistic nicety: the latter emerged from the former. (The author might have added that astronomy emerged directly from astrology.) 

Nevertheless, Fleming does not believe the Enlightenment was an era of clean, delineated materialism. “The mainstream of European thought was not materialist but sacramental,” he says. “In the sacramental view, the material and visible world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible.”

Like John Carey’s recent book, Victoria’s Madmen, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment follows the format of a potted biography. Likewise, it introduces us to a bizarre collection of motley characters and ostensible charlatans possessed with esoteric beliefs in the so-called Age of Reason. As a result, the book veers from bitty to sprawling to chaotic. It concludes by veering off into a dual biography of an Egyptian wizard called Count Cagliostro and the novelist, preacher and mystic Julie de Krüdener. The book has no conclusion, leaving the reader to wonder whether it could have actually done with a rigorous dose of Enlightenment-style rationalisation.

Ultimately, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment tells us nothing new – at least in its overarching thesis. You don’t have to be a Foucault scholar or post-structuralist to appreciate that the Enlightenment contained its own contradictions or fundamental elements of superstition and religiosity. Anyone who has read the Fortean Times in the last 30 years can tell you the same: that the men of reason could also be quite barmy, or imprisoned by their own delusions (or meta-narratives, if you will). No one has believed in the absolute division between post-Enlightenment positivism and pre-Enlightenment primitivism for decades. Even today’s popular arch-rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Professor Brian Cox can talk of nature in poetic and rhapsodic ways. 

Ultimately, I fear that John Fleming isn’t fighting a war with today’s ostensible rationalists. He is, in fact, still quarrelling with those long dead arch-prophets of the Enlightenment – Kant, primarily – who thought so little of his beloved Middle Ages.