The picture of the Middle Ages has been distorted in two ways. (ERICH FROMM) | Part A’

The picture of the Middle Ages has been distorted in two ways. (ERICH FROMM) | Part A’

Modern rationalism has looked upon the Middle Ages as an essentially dark period. It has pointed to the general lack of personal freedom, to the exploitation of the mass of the population by a small minority, to its narrowness which makes the peasant of the surrounding country a dangerous and suspected stranger to the city dweller—not to speak of a person of another country—and to its superstitiousness and ignorance. On the other hand, the Middle Ages have been idealized, for the most part by reactionary philosophers but sometimes by progressive critics of modern capitalism. They have pointed to the sense of solidarity, the subordination of economic to human needs, the directness and concreteness of human relations, the supranational principle of the Catholic Church, the sense of security which was characteristic of man in the Middle Ages. Both pictures are right; what makes them both wrong is to draw one of them and shut one’s eyes to the other.

What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom. Everybody in the earlier period was chained to his role in the social order. A man had little chance to move socially from one class to another, he was hardly able to move even geographically from one town or from one country to another. With few exceptions he had to stay where he was born. He was often not even free to dress as he pleased or to eat what he liked. The artisan had to sell at a certain price and the peasant at a certain place, the market of the town. A guild member was forbidden to divulge any technical secrets of production to anybody who was not a member of his guild and was compelled to let his fellow guild members share in any advantageous buying of raw material. Personal, economic, and social life was dominated by rules and obligations from which practically no sphere of activity was exempted.

But although a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need, for doubt. A person was identical with his role in society; he was a peasant, an artisan, a knight, and not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation. The social order was conceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave a feeling of security and of belonging. There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy. But within the limits of his social sphere the individual actually had much freedom to express his self in his work and in his emotional life. Although there was no individualism in the modern sense of the unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life (a freedom of choice which is largely abstract), there was a great deal of concrete individualism in real life.

There was much suffering and pain, but there was also the Church which made this suffering more tolerable by explaining it as a result of the sin of Adam and the individual sins of each person. while the Church fostered a sense of guilt, it also assured the individual of her unconditional love to all her children and offered a way to acquire the conviction of being forgiven and loved by God. The relationship to God was more one of confidence and love than of doubt and fear. Just as a peasant and a town dweller rarely went beyond the limits of the small geographical area which was theirs, so the universe was limited and simple to understand. The earth and man were its center, heaven or hell was the future place of life, and all actions from birth to death were transparent in their causal interrelation.

Although society was thus structuralized and gave man security, yet it kept him in bondage. It was a different kind of bondage from that which authoritarianism and oppression in later centuries constituted. Medieval society did not deprive the individual of his freedom, because the “individual” did not yet exist; man was still related to the world by primary ties. He did not yet conceive of himself as an individual except through the medium of his social (which then was also his natural) role. He did not conceive of any other persons as “individuals” either. The peasant who came into town was a stranger, and even within the town members of different social groups regarded each other as strangers. Awareness of one’s individual self, of others, and of the world as separate entities, had not yet fully developed.

 

 

Escape from Freedom
Erich Fromm



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