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The Global Crisis: Lessons from the Middle Ages

The Global Crisis: Lessons from the Middle Ages

Present-day admirers of G.K. Chesterton (The Outline of Sanity) and E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) are sometimes accused of wanting to return to the Middle Ages, and can be easily mocked for wanting to do so with full access to modern medicine and laptops.

But neither Chesterton nor Schumacher were so naïve. They were calling for a particular kind of progress – towards a more human-centered, though still technologically sophisticated and creatively developing, society. They both realized that there are particular concepts and ideas that were prevalent in medieval Christendom that we might indeed learn from, precisely to make that progress possible. In fact great cultural movements are often brought about by importing ideas from the past into a new social context – the Renaissance is one example.

So what can we learn from the Middle Ages to get us out of our current global crisis?

As a sympathizer with Chesterton’s philosophy of “Distributism”, and with the recent attempt to revive it by the “progressive conservatives,” I can suggest at least three things in order to encourage further debate.

The Importance of Family

In medieval times, as in most times and places throughout human history, the basic unit of human society was the family – by which I mean the extended family (in extreme form the tribe or clan). The simple reason for this is that we reproduce in pairs. Furthermore, the best way for children to be socialized and educated is in the context of loving family relationships.

In recent years the traditional ideal of the family and the bonds that hold it together have been systematically attacked and weakened, but the destruction of the family is far from an essential ingredient in our notion of progress. The demolition of this tradition is more likely to be the cause of widespread social degradation and cultural devastation. No doubt there are ways the family can be improved, and ways in which family members can be more adequately protected from abuse, but the family itself is the seed-bed and crucible of civil society, and the best safeguard of human dignity.

The attempt to extract and abstract people from their families (ironically portrayed as an ideal in Plato’s Republic) is almost certain to result in naked warfare between the will of the individual and the will of the state – a war that the individual cannot win. It is the family and civil society that envelop and alone protect the individual against dictators and tyrants. The network of responsibilities and rights that accrue to a person embedded in familial and civil relationships – simply by virtue of that belonging – will not be adequately protected by a Bill of Rights when times get tough and powerful interests are at stake.

Something similar applies in the economic field. It should not be the case in our world that a son or daughter must necessarily enter a trade or profession determined by their parents, but the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next within the family can be enriching rather than impoverishing. If a business is owned and run by a family there is much more likelihood that it will be run with an eye to the long-term future (“sustainability”). If the family is central, then an economy of gift and covenant – which is one way of describing what the family is – will take precedence over market exchange and economic calculation. The market has its place, but it should not take over the entire town, let alone the entire civilization.

The Condemnation of Usury

Think for a moment about the present banking crisis. The trigger was the collapse of the American housing market, which brought tumbling around our ears the global house of cards that had been built on sub-prime mortgages – a vast structure of derivatives traded without thought of eventual consequences and without transparency. The greed of bankers and short-term opportunism of politicians were to blame for the crisis, but what made this escalation of layer upon layer of credit possible was partly a loss of proper legal restraint on the interest charged when lending money – a sin condemned by medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam under the name of usury.

Of course, the charging of interest was eventually justified by medieval theologians such as Aquinas as a payment for risk. The consequent expansion of European credit facilities made possible the vast expansion in trade, manufacturing and wealth after the Reformation. But initially the taking of interest had been seen as a way of selling something that should never be regarded as a commodity: time itself.

There remains something valid at the root of this intuition, which we can apply to the present situation. The products that were being traded and charged for in the derivatives marketplace were not real, in the way actual labor or tangible properties are real. Debts (mortgages, for example) are not real assets, and this becomes apparent when the original borrower defaults and there is no one – except perhaps the government – to pay the lender what he was unwisely expecting to receive.

Sumptuary Laws

It has long been assumed that economic growth, measured in terms of GDP or the amount of purchasing that is going on, can and should rise indefinitely as technology improves our capacity to exploit the natural resources of the planet (or, failing that, the solar system). There may be some truth in this, but there seems to be something unhealthy – something reminiscent of a biological cancer – in the idea of continual growth virtually for its own sake. This impression is strengthened when we remember that the growth in production is powered by growth in consumption.

Consumption is not an evil, but a necessity of life. Our economic system is based on and requires provision for basic human needs, the creation of new goods for making life richer and more pleasant, and the development of new markets. The danger is that this may lead to the systematic cultivation of desire for new things through manipulative advertising and planned obsolescence.

The encouragement to borrow beyond our means, the escalation of debt and greed that we have seen in the present century, are bound up with an attitude we call “consumerism”. We increasingly try to define our identity, or at least our standard of living, by what we acquire and consume. There is nothing wrong with wanting good-quality merchandise or a comfortable lifestyle. But there is a great deal wrong with getting bored with anything more than a year old and living in a way that harms others or the planet as a whole. In a sense the “sin” of living in that way is hardly individual, since responsibility for it is spread so widely. It is the economy that pressures people to live beyond their means by offering imprudent credit that is the main culprit here. So the answer is to encourage people to live more simply, to limit their borrowing, or to put a cap on their excess, whilst encouraging them to find peace of mind in other ways.

In medieval times, “sumptuary” laws which attempted to regulate habits of consumption, through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures, were mostly ineffective, and were often used for social discrimination. Nevertheless, something like a sumptuary law may be needed to set limits to consumerism today. Just as there might be a case for limiting the amount by which the salary of a banker or corporate manager could exceed that of a worker in the same organization – without damaging the ambition to “get ahead” which gives energy to enterprise – so there might be a case for limiting the amount of anyone’s income that can be spent on luxury items, or (if that suggestion seems to threaten the sacred freedom to make our own mistakes) at least regulating more carefully and thoughtfully the quality and longevity of goods that are offered for sale in the market, as well as their real costs (including impact on the environment).


Neo-Distributism is not about a “return to the Middle Ages” or even about “three acres and a cow”, although there is a case to be made for self-sufficiency where possible, and for the revival of rural communities and agriculture in economies with overdeveloped white-collar sectors, or that have become dependent on foreign aid. What those in the tradition of Chesterton and Schumacher agree we need is more transparency and justice in the economy, both local and global. We need to root our economic life – as all of human culture has to be rooted – in the realities of nature, whether this means the natural environment and resources of our planet, or the nature of the human person as a creature capable of fulfillment through loving service and cooperation with others. Finally, we need to be able to learn from our mistakes and correct our course.

Chesterton often pointed out the error we make with our notions of progress. Humanity is not on a set of railway tracks, where the only options are to go forward or back, and faster or slower. We are freer than we think. We are not riding a set of tracks, we are exploring a new continent, a three-dimensional landscape. If we find our way barred in one direction, we can take another.

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By stceciliason AT 03.03.09 03:23AM


Wendell Berry has volumes (literally) to say along this line, specifically in the essays, but no less so in the novels and poems.

By Ches AT 03.10.09 04:27PM


“It is the economy that pressures people to live beyond their means by offering imprudent credit that is the main culprit here.”

Always good to blame something other than oneself… right?  Seriously, the only ‘culprit’ is the lack of individual responsibility.  To say that only forces outside of man can allow him to live ‘simply’ does a great discredit to the souls that God has created within each of us.  We have free-will.  You talk of scary stuff when you say that there should be regulation of salaries… regulation of what we buy…  kind of reminds me of a dictator.  You can live in that world, but I chose personal responsibility and freedom.

By Stratford Caldecott AT 03.10.09 05:30PM

Stratford Caldecott

I did put it too strongly - the economy is certainly not the only culprit - but it is too simplistic to put everything on the individual. Our freedom of choice is always restricted. To use an extreme example, who needs to be ‘free’ to buy hard drugs, or human slaves, and who regrets the regulations that prevent us doing so? The question is how to set the limits of our economy in a wise manner.  Some would say that the culture of giving gigantic bonuses on top of salaries to bankers for playing with our money needs regulation. Why not? But I am not at all in favour of dictatorship, or socialism, as I explained earlier.—Stratford

By chassup AT 03.10.09 06:04PM


CHES is right on!  Add to that these gems from the same paragraph:

...borrow beyond our means

...the escalation of debt and greed… an attitude we call “consumerism”

We… define our identity, ...our standard of living, by what we acquire and consume.

...there is a great deal wrong with getting bored with anything more than a year old

...the “sin” of living in that way is hardly individual, since responsibility for it is spread so widely.

...the answer is to encourage people to live more simply,

...limit their borrowing,

...put a cap on their excess, whilst encouraging them to find peace of mind in other ways.

Hey, what’s up with all that WE, OUR, US, stuff?  None of that looks like me.  Perhaps the author has some baggage to deal with, but to force me into his “group therapy” is not only wrong, but will fail.  The “small is beautiful” mindset is fine, go do it, don’t drag me into your utopia with oppressive laws designed to enslave human freedom to the point of equality of outcome… it has failed every time it was tried.

I don’t live a leveraged lifestyle, I don’t carry debt, I live within the means God provides, I love tradition and natural beauty, but I embrace new technology and the gifts God gives through human genius. 

The economy isn’t the problem, personal vice is the problem, always has been.  For those who advocate a comunal approach to fixing our brokeness, look to the parish, not the legislature.

By Stratford Caldecott AT 03.10.09 07:33PM

Stratford Caldecott

Good for you!  I had in mind others - perhaps the majority - who aren’t as innocent as you. But it is true I live in England, in a consumer society gone mad.  Nevertheless, while apologising for involving you in the ‘group therapy’, I must refute your suggestion that I am advocating ‘oppressive laws designed to enslave human freedom to the point of equality of outcome’. I completely oppose anything like that, which suggests I have utterly failed to communicate my point. Enough is enough, I’ll bow out of this conversation now. Anyone out there see what I was I was really trying to get at?—SC.

By chassup AT 03.10.09 08:29PM


Don’t go away mad, I’m hardly innocent!

As I understand, your point is that the majority is incapable of self-governance, necessitating government action to protect them from themselves (or you from yourself), a concept I reject. I live in the US, and that is perhaps why we hold different philosophies on the subject, although, many Americans have ideas similar to yours—that’s why Obama and McCain were our candidates. 

For me, personal liberty (as enumerated in our Constitution) is prescribed by God’s natural law… and completely consistent with Catholic teaching. The financial problems many currently suffer can be directly linked to individual personal choices and behavior. We are called, personally and in communion, to address the human condition, in times of plenty as well as poverty. I encourage and advocate charity, but I deplore government mandated “virtue.” If you are advocating that people seek a simpler life, I agree.  If you advocate laws to coerce that choice, I disagree, just as I disagree with laws and policies that coerce immoral behavior. 

Good law is necessary for civil society only to protect individual liberty and require personal accountability.  Everything else is an attack on the human person as created by God.  Only free people can form natural families, communities, states and nations based on virtue.  In my opinion, both GB and the US are largely immoral societies, oppressed by corrupt governments.

By Stratford Caldecott AT 03.11.09 11:14AM

Stratford Caldecott

Not at all!  The self-governance of the majority is real enough, and it is called democratic government. Personal liberty is certainly conistent with Catholic teaching, but it depends what you mean by it and what else you put with it. Personal liberty plus sadism, for example, is a bad combo. Too much liberty and the strong end up creating social structures and shaping laws that work in their interests against those of the weak.  Laws exist to draw limits for the common good - that presumably wouldn’t be necessary in an unfallen world, where everyone would automatically conform to the natural law and cooperate together. Incidentally I agree with your last sentence - though there are degrees of ‘corrupt’ and probably our governments are a lot better than many others.—SC

By chassup AT 03.11.09 01:42PM


“but it depends what you mean by [personal liberty]”

What I mean is freedom to do what you ought.

“Too much liberty and the strong end up creating social structures and shaping laws that work in their interests against those of the weak.”

Yes, this is called tyranny, and it is always evil, but it is not the result of too much liberty, it is the opposite.  Example: Slavery is the denial of one man’s liberty to the benefit of another.  In the US, we have a representative republic expressly to protect against the tyranny of the majority that inevitably results from pure democracy.  Many of the original obstructions to tyranny have sadly been destroyed, and we are quickly sliding into the situation the founders warned against.

A just society protects individual liberty… especially the weak and defenseless.  Telling a bank CEO how much he can make is an affront to his individual pursuit of happiness and robs him of the opportunity to be virtuous, because you’ve decided he won’t be, and that is neither just nor merciful.

I think you and I differ mainly on what you call the “common good.”  As I see it, there is a Catholic definition which I accept, there is also a socialist definition which I reject.  One invites and encourages individual virtue and accountability to others—as in a family, the other denies the dignity of the human person as an individual creation of God deserving respect and love for the benefit of the “greater good.”

“Small is beautiful” has a comfortable ring for Catholics because it sounds as if it shares the concept of subsidiarity, but it is not the same.  What the Church teaches has little to do with organized systems, and everything to do with individual virtue.

By Stratford Caldecott AT 03.11.09 07:21PM

Stratford Caldecott

Here is a challenging quote from Philip Blond. I am curious what you think of it: ‘To understand why the legacy of liberalism produces both state authoritarianism and atomised individualism, we must first note that philosophical liberalism was born out of an 18th-century critique of absolute monarchies. It sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other—for that would be simply to replace rule by one man’s will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—-for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a “self” is a fiction. A society so constituted would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals. So the unanticipated bequest of an unlimited liberalism is that most illiberal of entities: the controlling state.’

By chassup AT 03.12.09 02:32PM


I am not familiar with Philip Blond, but I think that he and I are probably not too far apart, certainly on the same side of the fence. I suspect he’s an advocate of distributism of some sort?

He seems to say that pure human liberty and Godlessness are one in the same, “most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing.”  The kind of “liberty” he mentions is actually enslavement to sin.

My idea of true liberal autonomy is man created in the image and likeness of God, possessing immense dignity and worth, endowed with free will, and deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Mr. Blond argues that human identity comes from family, community, nationality. I say it comes from God, and is cultivated and defended by family, community and nation.

My answer to him might follow something like this: A free man, unencumbered by other men or the state, governed first by God’s laws and second by his family, will seek good in his actions. It is not only his duty, but in his best interest, and this is self evident in human history. When, in a spirit of faith, hope and charity, men seek to compromise their individual desires for the good of others, they are merely doing what they were created to do.  Structures like family, community and nations grow naturally from true liberty guided by the spirit, and need no cajoling or coercing, for these structures not only protect the individual, they are pre-scribed by God. When some men, out of pride, believe they should think for others, or through evil pursuit seek to impose their will on others, the individual identity of human persons is denied. Civil laws must seek to protect individual human persons, and the natural structures that cultivate and defend them, so they are free to be who God created them to be.

By chassup AT 03.25.09 06:42PM


Man, this site went dark the moment Obama went public…

I wrote here prior to the election that I suspected some of the contributors were attempting to provide some kind of “rational” cover for Catholic voters who wanted to vote for Obama, I believe this even more now.

I was so looking forward to hearing from those who defended the most ardent defender of abortion as not only a legitimate, but the logical and moral choice for Catholic voters.  I am anxious to hear them defend that specious argument

Now that Obama has done exactly what I and others warned he would do, his champions here seem very quiet.  I am not shocked by Obama’s first 60 days, perhaps others are, he did fool many, especially those who wanted to be fooled.

Now, not only the defenseless are under attack, but our Constitution, founded upon God’s natural law, the last firewall between liberty and tyranny, is threatened as well.  I hope those who were deceived understand now that once you deny the primacy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness soon follow.

By keir_h AT 04.13.09 08:21AM


Mr. Caldecott,

Perhaps it is unclear what you are talking about because your article stops short of what Chesterton himself meant by “distributism”?

From what we know of the actual distributists, and such documents as remain (e.g. the great debate with Shaw - http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/debate.txt ) it seems clear that Belloc (e.g. in his “Essay on the Restoration of Property”)and Chesterton really did want to impose very concrete and what we would see as draconian and punitive taxation, if not wholesale reallocation of all kinds of property, starting with land. They wanted to literally restore common property that had been grabbed by rich families centuries before.

In this they went way beyond socialists like we have now in the UK (I would say both parties are equally wedded to a socialist model) who just differ in the way they funnel tax money around. They basically wanted to revolutionise society; their ideas, when published, almost started riots (see DeBoer Langworthy, C. “Distributism”).

I think their new state would have been a lot more like the Scouring of the Shire (a violent coup by armed hobbits censored entirely from the Hollywood movies!) and less like a bunch of middle-class people (hi guys!) debating theoretical points.

Reference: DeBoer-Langworthy is online here:

By Stratford Caldecott AT 04.13.09 11:18AM

Stratford Caldecott

Yes, well I AM a middle-class guy debating theoretical points (maybe only the middle classes are interested in debating), and am very cynical about revolutionaries.  The original Distributists’ rhetoric seems to have ran away with them. I am trying to set the scene for a more measured debate over on http://theeconomyproject.blogspot.com/

By keir_h AT 04.16.09 08:05PM


I am personally dirt poor, over-educated, and still willing to debate. My gardener friend from South London who used to devour history books and ruined my copy of Plato’s “Republic” by reading it at work is another counter-example :p

I would define “middle-class” in those famous terms, as the man who “has reserves”. Those who already have property perhaps don’t understand the feeling of homelessness in the majority.

Chesterton did understand this, mainly because he could see what was going on.

If you actually read his rhetoric, it is very mild, not as obfusticatious as the current stuff. It is the grammar (description of facts) and logic which grates so much on our ears today. Belloc’s prose is even more terse and to the point.

They thought that to have a good society you need a lot of responsible people. For people to be responsilble, they need something for which to be responsible. Hence, a larger number of people need substantial property, ownership. This is not “mere rhetoric”. But it is a big taboo for our modern British audience.

By keir_h AT 04.16.09 08:07PM


This site appears to have changed my : p into “raspberry”... automatic text processing “seems to have ran [sic] away” with itself.

By keir_h AT 05.04.09 03:32PM


Since Mr. Caldecott has had his free blog-plug, may I plug someone else’s blog (one which is more directly pertinent the actual topic of distributism)?

http://distributism.blogspot.com/ (news)
http://distributist.blogspot.com/ (history & ideas)

These have the actual info and news on distributism, rather than complex justifications of the status quo :raspberry:

By TonyC AT 10.30.09 02:09AM


I’ve enjoyed the article with ensuing meaty debate, and would like to offer a perspective that perhaps will further the conversation.  It strikes me that the disintegration of family, commonplace usury and excessive consumption are the effects of secularism. Each seems to me the logical consequence of a culture that is no longer animated by faith in a transcendent God and objective moral order.

Romano Guardini and Thomas Merton saw this coming, and warned Europe and America these would be the consequences of unbridled materialism. 

Having abandoned their faith roots, Western and globalized secular culture (in my view) will continue to self-destruct.  Like houses built on sand, our spiritually-gutted cultural frameworks are crumbling before our eyes.  This may be necessary. It is just hard to watch, especially when I see my children struggling as young adults in this milieu.

I too believe that family, just use of money and stewardship (i.e., as in oeconomia) will need to be retrieved and safeguarded as we rebuild. But first, we will have to rediscover the role of faith in our lives as individuals, communities, societies, ethnicities, nations and even as a human family. 

My own feeling is that successful re-integration of the best in ages past we will require embracing the post-Pentecost Eucharistic community’s vision of dynamic membership in a living body of believers.  Here, all are gifted and called to serve; all have a place - even the sick, whose gift is to call forth our living witness of the Gospel. 

A pessimist might say, “The party’s over. Last one to leave turns out the lights.”  But hope is part of who we are as Christians. Like Nehemiah, we will have the chance to rebuild, taking what is best in our past, anchoring ourselves in faith, moving forward together as a living body into the future.


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