History: Let's party like it's 1066

Forget the Victorian age, says Tom Hodgkinson: those in the medieval age had it sussed. They were never in debt - and were way ahead of us with their eco-friendly habits
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The Independent Culture

Back in 1983, in an interview with broadcaster Brian Walden, Mrs Thatcher caught the public imagination with her promotion of "Victorian values":

Walden: You've really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values. The sort of values, if you like, that helped to build the country throughout the 19th century. Now is that right?

Thatcher: Exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great, but not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country.

Now what did the Victorians value, exactly? Well, the 19th century was the era of hard work, exploitation, greed, chimney sweeps, 16-hour days, tall black hats, money-worship and strict discipline in the home. It was the era when the dark Satanic mills destroyed the cottage industry and lives began to be lived around the clock rather than by the seasons. It was the era of steam, coal and gas. It was the era that introduced the notion of the earth as a resource to be mined. It was the era of competitive living. It was the era of soul-deadening machinery. Anyone who doubts this has only to read Dickens.

These values motivated the Eighties and they are still the dominant ones today. Well, I for one am thoroughly fed up with Victorian values which is why in my new book, called How To Be Free, I propose instead a return to medieval values.

On first sight, this idea seems bonkers. Surely the medieval age was a time of bad diets, corrupt priests and abject serfdom? Well, no. This view is actually a calumnious caricature. When I started to write How To Be Free, I decided to read Mutual Aid by the great 19th-century anarchist Prince Petr Kropotkin, described by Oscar Wilde as one of the most cheerful men he had ever met. In Mutual Aid, published at the same time as Darwin's Origin of Species, Kropotkin argues that cooperation is an essential part of animal and human life and development. He also reminds us that it was in the medieval age when the great free city-states such as Florence were created. The medievals, he says, valued craftsmanship, cooperation and justice. Mutual Aid led me to read other books on medieval customs and culture, and what I found was a society that made a sustained and conscious attempt to live fairly and justly.

The two great influences on the development of medieval ethics were Christ's sermon on the mount and Aristotle's Ethics, which had come to Europe via Arab translations. From this material they developed an approach to life which was eco-friendly, neighbourly and based on cooperating rather than competing. So here, briefly, is an introduction to 10 important medieval values, all of which seem radical to us:

ANTI-CAPITALIST: Lending at interest, or usury, is at the basis of the capitalist system. And usury was quite specifically proscribed by medieval ethics. It was sinful, they said, to sell something that does not belong to you, which is time. It was also sinful to take advantage of someone else's misfortune by lending them money. Usurers were sometimes known to return all the money they had made on their deathbed, in an effort to ensure their salvation. Money was for spending, not for saving or lending.

ANTI-WORK: According to historian Jacques Le Goff, the medievals were opposed to hard work, because, he says, to put in long hours displayed a lack of faith in Providence. Theologically, medieval Catholicism was closer to an almost Taoist Oriental fatalism than today's Protestant culture. And hard work might give you an unfair advantage over your brothers.

ANTI-COMPETITIVE: Craftsmen organised themselves into a system of Guilds. Guild members mutually agreed to keep quality high and prices uncompetitive. They instituted the notion of a "just and fixed price" for their wares. Goods were produced in small groups. This practice guarded against today's problem which is giant companies producing a load of rubbish.

ECO-FRIENDLY: In the era before electricity, coal, gas or nuclear power, the medievals heated themselves from sustainable sources: ie, wood. They used water and wind power to grind corn. The UK was covered in eco-friendly windmills. All vegetable production was necessarily organic, and everyone "shopped local". There were no supermarkets or call centres or lorries or cars. No logos, either. And crucially, no plastic. Therefore there was no waste as everything was returned to to the earth.

SELF-SUFFICIENT: Even the meanest medieval peasant grew vegetables and herbs and kept pigs and chickens. And the giant yeoman class became very prosperous. Chaucer wrote of his Franklin: "It snowed in his house of mete and drynke."

HOSPITABLE: Just as indigenous people today would share their last crust with you, so the medievals emphasised the importance of good hospitality. The monasteries would take in wandering men and give them beer, bread and bacon, and indeed, the (later) problem of homeless, in the Elizabethan age, was a direct result of the destruction of the monasteries.

CHARITABLE: In the days before charity had become just another institutional mega-business, it really did begin at home. The importance of charity was constantly insisted upon and there were plenty of wandering beggars and other mendicants who were ready to receive your alms. There was no disgrace attached to poverty: in fact, it was a state to be celebrated, because the apostles were poor. We had the example of St Francis of Assisi who became voluntarily poor.

PARTY-LOVING: The medieval calendar was absolutely studded with feast days and festivals. Of course, we all celebrate Christmas now, but Christmas then was celebrated for 12 days, during which no one was allowed to work. Every three or four weeks there was some excuse for a party. May Day was for having sex and every three of four weeks there was a long break.

CHIVALROUS: It was the medieval knights and specifically the great Troubadours of Southern France who invented the custom of courtly love. Chivalry, respect and courtesy towards women was constantly insisted upon, and there were great female patrons of these poets, such as, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Good manners were important.

NEIGHBOURLY: Christ had conceived of the world as a "brotherhood of man" and civility to your neighbour was paramount. This is because the medievals had a sense of collective responsibility: we are all in this together, so your well-being and my well-being are one and the same thing.

Medieval values were radical values. They were good values. And they were enjoyable values. We should embrace them.

To order a copy of Tom Hodgkinson's 'How To Be Free' (Hamish Hamilton £14.99) for £13.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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