How the Medieval Social Order Found the Balance Between the Local and the Global

How the Medieval Social Order Found the Balance Between the Local and the Global

How the Medieval Social Order Found the Balance Between the Local and the Global

As globalism comes under increasing attack, the right attitude toward the local nation and the global world is hard to find. Too much attachment to a local place can lead to narrow and distorted perspectives that can stifle development.  Too little loyalty to a nation in favor of vague global links can cause selfish individualism that ignores the interests of the common good. The constant tension between the local and global, the individual and communal has always plagued modern history.

The real balance was granted to humanity as a gift of God through the Church during the Middles Ages.

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A universal vision was supplied by the theocentric, Church-centered and sacral character of the medieval social order. The generalized practice of the cardinal virtue of temperance provided balance and commonsense.  Temperance favored the development of a strong love for country and everything local while simultaneously fostering a parallel love for universal values represented by Christendom.

Thus, medieval man built a social, political and international structure similar to that of a Gothic cathedral. The virtues were like the strong and opposing columns that united and balanced one another as they met at the junction of the Gothic arch.

Political Power Parceled Out

This balance could be seen in the structure of political power. While all political power in classical Antiquity was concentrated in the hands of the ruler, the medieval feudal system “parceled out sovereignty” from top to bottom all over society.1

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In this system, the supreme head of the State, whether emperor or king, shared his dominion with the oldest and most loyal servants of the nation, giving them fiefs where they could exercise all the attributes of public authority, in their personal names and not as mere delegates of the sovereign. This is very similar to the ordinary power of a bishop in his diocese, who rules as a successor of the Apostles and not just as a pontifical delegate or administrator.

By parceling out sovereignty, the political power could perfectly harmonize with the need to respect freedom and stimulate the vital flux of free initiative coming from below. This strong political architecture, combining authority and freedom, prevented medieval society as a whole – alas, not in every case! – from falling either into the iron clasp of despotism or uncontrolled waves of anarchy.

This same equation of distributed political power helped balance the mutual relations between the different regions and the reigning capital within the country. At the same time, it worked to establish a universal balance between the various countries within Christendom. There was what might be called an equilibrium between sound universalism and a parallel and sound localism.

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The Foundations of Sound Universalism

Sound universalism was based on the Christian faith that teaches all men are created as an image and likeness of God. All humanity strives toward the same universal goal of seeing Him face to face for all eternity in Heaven.

Indeed, the word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikos, meaning universal. It is rightly applied to the Church for as the Catechism of the Council of Trent states, “she is not confined to any one country or class of men, but embraces within the amplitude of her love all mankind.” That is why to the Church “belong all the faithful who have existed from Adam to the present day, or who shall exist, in the profession of the true faith, to the end of time” and also “because all who desire eternal salvation must cling to and embrace her, like those who entered the ark to escape perishing in the flood.”2

As the revealed religion for all humanity, the Catholic Church necessarily transcends all cultures. The basis of a sound universalism in being open to the Church’s universal worldview that embraces the whole order of beings, both supernatural and natural, in a harmonious relationship between Faith and reason.

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Sound Localism Based on Universal Principles

The Christian religion is also the religion of the Incarnation, in which all earthly realities have an instrumental role in aiding salvation. The marvels of creation are appreciated by the faithful and indirectly utilized by the Church. This implies a loving interest and appreciation for even the smallest and most peripheral realities as a tiny reflection of God’s perfection, like a drop of water on a leaf reflects the sun.

This harmony between universalism and localism of the Catholic Church was well expressed by the culture of the Middle Ages. One of the delights of touring Europe is to enjoy the universal worldview expressed in local varieties of architectural styles, foods, fashions, music, entertainment and other fields. This variety is found in every corner, sometimes even in two small villages within the same valley. It comes from the medieval “parceled out sovereignty” that favored a sound regionalism.

The Unity of Christendom

A parallel cultural universalism of the Middle Ages was represented not only by the universities (a medieval creation of the Church) but also by the real brotherhood existing among all countries within Christendom.

French historian Henri Daniel-Rops, in his book Cathedral and Crusade, describes the profound union that existed all over Europe during that springtime of the Faith:

“Christian Europe was mindful of her unity because all men were subject to a universal order. Now, this organic whole, inspired by common principles, owed its existence to a single cause – the profound influence of the Faith and the overriding authority of the Church. (…) She was clearly the guide of nations, for it was she who imparted to mankind the notion of their common destiny; in proclaiming them sons of God redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ she convinced them that they were brothers one another, raised above the conflict of private interests. (…) All the baptized constitute on earth a living and fraternal body, enlivened by the same principles, linked in a common effort. In future we shall designate this body by its proper name and call it ‘Christendom.’ (…)

“It is a ‘nation,’ a community, confined by no geographical framework; a community whose members feel at home. It is a society, populus Christianus, where all social and professional inequalities should be resolved in a single harmony. It is, in fact, a fatherland, for whom each member must be ready to sacrifice his life.”3

Thus, Christendom was a single entity that transcended the several Christian countries without absorbing them. However, inside the very bosom of this living unity, a religious and moral crisis developed. One of its dramatic consequences was the obliteration of Christendom’s harmonious balance between a sound universalism and sound localism. This crisis dating from the Renaissance eventually gave rise to the birth of revolutionary forms of nationalism and other ideologies that now threaten the West.

1.  Marc Bloch, The Growth of Ties of Dependence, vol. 1 of Feudal Society, trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), xvii. Bloch notes that historian Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658-1722) and the philosopher Montesquieu singled out this decentralized “parceling out of sovereignty” to small and still smaller local authorities as a central characteristic defining feudal society. Such sovereignty would, of course, be limited and relative in smaller social units, following the principle of subsidiarity.

2.  The Catechism of the Council of Trent, The Creed, Article IX

3.  Image Books, New York, 1963, vol I, p. 32-36.