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Cultural Conversion, Thirteenth Century England Style; or, James Davison Hunter Vindicated by Sir Maurice Powicke

June 17th, 2022 | 3 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Norman Cantor (bitter, brilliant, blinkered; he was wrong about Lewis and so I don’t necessarily trust him to be right about others) writes that according to Sir Maurice Powicke, the key transformations of the thirteenth century “were not political and legal ideas, but the way in which the mentality of the great nobility was slowly but steadily changing in the 13th century. That, not parliament or Magna Carta or any of those grand Victorian entities, is the focus of Powicke’s Proustian dream-world. What was happening was that Christian discipline and personal piety were slowly spreading out from the monastic houses and religious orders and reshaping the mindset and behavior pattern of the great aristocracy.”

He quotes Powicke:

“There was a diffusion of manners from the cloister to the court— of manners at table, in cleanliness and dress, in mutual behavior between superior and inferior and between equals. This helps to explain the sudden changes of temper on the part of the great nobility, the apparent irresolution, the quick reconciliations which so often perplex is in the conduct of great men in thirteenth century England, for these might be due not to caprice but to the restraint imposed by the recollection of a higher Law, the Law of Christ. This was the period in which the laity emerged as a creative element in Christian society, not as barbaric intruder, but in virtue of the conscious appropriation (with the changes required by secular life) of a Christian discipline.”

There are layers of interest here, but one of those layers, which you have to squint through Cantor to see, is that this is one of the ways that Christendom in England happened, in one of its phases: conversion, the conversion of a culture. It’s of course related directly to the creation of the idea of Chivalry, of (my father always claimed) romance itself (though he was wrong.) This courtly love tradition was a French import, like forks and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and it took lively root in English soil. It was in a way also giving England back to itself, because the key myth that the courtly love tradition shipped over from France was the “matter of Britain:” the stories of Arthur. England, in the mind of Chretien de Troyes writing from Paris, was a realm both of supernatural marvels and natural law, of the Grail and gentility, of magic and might-for-right.

If you look at Western European culture starting from, I don’t know, St. Patrick or before, there’s a strange way in which conversion, holiness of culture and polity and family and court, is passed around from culture to culture, as though the grail contained a balm of sanctity and was being literally smuggled and stolen and given back and forth between England and France and Wales and Ireland, over the course of centuries. That balm came in the form, largely, of stories: of the conversion and reconversion of the imagination, the remembering and forgetting and reminding and rewriting, the work of subcreation that was the work of monks and poets and patrons and that was sometimes intended, sometimes deliberate, as a kind of priestly psyop to gentle the barbarians, but that went on whether it was or not.

I think that if we are wondering how a culture might be converted we would do worse than to look to that history.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.