Modernism with its revolt against tradition has become increasingly harsh in its criticisms of the past, in particular the Victorian and medieval periods. Why these two periods? Because they serve as symbols for the might of temporal Christendom, now much diminished. The medieval period saw the Crusaders wrest control of Israel from Muslim hands and hold it for an extended period. The Franks in particular have become the objects of a kind of sacred memory as they are honoured for their contributions to the Crusader armies and, before that, for the victory of Charles the Hammer over Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in AD 732. As for the Victorians, the height of the British and French empires allowed missionaries to penetrate into the heart of territories that had either almost forgotten Christianity or had never known it.
We can, of course, explore these themes in depth and develop a more rounded picture. Such triumphalist rhetoric is just that – rhetoric. War and imperialism are not the stuff of Christianity: Christ was crucified by soldiers – He did not command them. Nevertheless, attempts by revisionists to strip our ancestors of their virtue are misguided. No one is claiming that our ancestors were all saints, devoid of sin. They made mistakes and they committed terrible acts of brutality. But they also were defenders and inquirers after truth and justice. Europe had a right to defend itself from the armies of the caliphate, and the Crusades were provoked by incursions against the Eastern Roman Empire and attacks on pilgrims. The Victorians put a stop to barbarous practices in the lands they conquered and established courts of law whose traditions are still observed today with varying degrees of fidelity.
The Victorians are also reviled for their “hypocrisy” (particularly as regards sexual mores) as if this were a vice confined to them or at its height under their aegis. Neither proposition is true: each age has its own expressions of hypocrisy and inconsistency. Why today the term “champagne socialist” has such currency as would scarcely be believed during the Cold War, when Russia and China were “the Enemy”. Such cardboard cut-outs fail to accurately represent historical reality – nations may follow broad patterns, but they are composed of individuals with individual motives and knowledge.
All the same, we continue to witness a hatred of the past in both secular and Christian contexts. This hatred calls for an apologia in response, a defence of the things our ancestors got right: their attitudes and their actions. Account must also be taken of particular circumstances that affected their times. The Victorians lived through the industrial revolution; they pioneered a route that was followed by the Americans, the Germans, and the French: there was no rule-book, no list of maxims, handed down to teach them how to handle the social and material shifts of that time. Nevertheless, with all their mistakes, they rose to the challenge: Disraeli propounded social legislation; the churches thundered about the plight of the poor; and the wealthy responded with philanthropy. Unlike the ostentations of Greco-Roman benefactors, who acted for prestige, many of the Victorian philanthropists were motivated by true Christian love that was taught across the denominations. The Catholics preached the legacy of Catholicism in the form of medieval hospitals, universities, and travelling ministries (friars). The Anglicans drew on their pre-industrial experience running parochial outreach. The Dissenters followed the Spirit’s fire of evangelism: they preached to the poor and learned from them what it means to be poor. The austerity of Queen Victoria herself, particularly in her grief, also served as an example, a source of shame regarding former associations of debauchery and indulgence surrounding our 18th and 17th century monarchs.
The past has much to teach us and we should all have regard for the things we have lost, be they secular, liturgical, aesthetic, or supernatural. As a parting suggestion, I encourage you to listen to some medieval folk music: for example, “Mirie it is while sumer ilast”.