Skip to content

The Invention of the Modern World 12.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

IN THE PAST, education in England was a path to social mobility – as it still is. With no legal statuses and the many parallel ladders, it was the way to move up, or to move one’s children up. One view of what education was about in the late Imperial phase is as follows:

The mere accumulation of knowledge stunts rather than educates the mind…[England] still holds a leadership, almost unchallenged except by other English speaking countries, in that education of character which is obtained from individual activities, rather than from instruction whether verbal or in print. The playground had a notable share in the “real” education of her youth…1

Clicking an image will launch a captioned slideshow.

Taine describes how the boarding school prepares boys for the future in an individualistic, capitalistic, competitive, yet orderly and co-operative society.

On the whole, then, human nature is treated here with more respect and is less interfered with. Under the influence of an English education boys are like the trees in an English garden; under that of our own, like the pleached and pollarded trees of Versailles. Here, for instance, schoolboys are almost as free as undergraduates… Initiative and responsibility: it is curious to see babies of twelve raised to the dignities of manhood.2

Taine examines team games and sports:

Here then, thus early, are the seeds of the spirit of association, an apprenticeship in both obedience and command, since every cricket team accepts a discipline and appoints a leader. But this principle is applied very much more widely; boys and youths together form an organised body, a sort of small, distinct State with it own chiefs and its own laws. The chiefs are the pupils in the highest class (‘sixth form’), more especially the fifteen highest pupils in the school (‘monitors’) and, in each house, the highest pupil. They maintain order, see that the rules are obeyed and, in general, do the same work as our ushers. They prevent the strong from bullying the weak, are arbitrators in all disputes, take a hand when a small boy gets into some kind of trouble with a villager or a shop-keeper, and punish delinquents. In short, pupils in England are governed by pupils, and each one, having first been subject to authority, comes in due course to wield it. During his final year each is enrolled on the side of the rules, the law, and it becomes his business to see that it is respected; he learns its value, and adopts it of his own free will, instead of kicking against it, which is what a French schoolboy would not fail to do.

Taine noticed the result of this system:

Consequently when they leave school and began their adult lives they are less inclined to consider the rules absurd and authority ridiculous. They reconcile liberty and subordination, are nearer to an understanding of the conditions in which a society can exist and the rights and duties of a citizen.3

Children were independent legal, social, moral persons in relation to their parents and became ‘adult’ very quickly. ‘The English children come very early to be rational, conversable beings’.4

Schools (and for others servanthood and apprenticeship) took you out of the home – they separated economy and society, and placed you on the ladders of market and social mobility. As separated individuals you were fully right-and-duty bearing in the law, and your social networks, religious and political beliefs, were not shaped by your parents but by friends, teachers and employers. You learnt to be alone, to draw on your own resources, to be independent and tough. Among other things, this would prepare you for extreme hardship: ‘as the businessman Roger Cooper explained on leaving Iran in 1991, anyone who had been through his experiences at Clifton College in Bristol could have survived the time he spent in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after a conviction for spying. It was not just the bad food and general hardship, but the fact the education allowed the individual to live at arm’s length from the physical reality around them, whether it be in Bristol or in darkest Sudan.’5

The system of grammar and public schools and the university education in England is unusual. To a considerable extent, the system was designed to teach people to think – to remember, to argue, to disagree, to try out new ideas, to invent new solutions, to persuade others. Many educational systems are designed to teach people to think, but in rather narrow and focused ways along the current political or religiously acceptable lines; monasteries, madrasas or Confucian education are examples.

Secondly it was a powerful process because education outside the home started very early in life. As we have seen, from eight or nine, the poor became servants or labourers for others, the slightly richer were apprentices, the middle classes went to grammar or public schools, the very richest were taken in as pages in upper class houses.  In this way a tradition developed which led to one of England’s most famous institutions. By 1820 there were some 20,000 preparatory schools in the country and many famous public schools such as Eton, Winchester, Rugby, Westminster and Charterhouse.

Here the character of children was formed, a character based on success in non-family relations and struggle with a wider world rather than the familistic education of most civilizations. In the boarding schools, in particular, the boys were channeled through a series of institutions, the Preparatory School, Public School and then University, and supposedly made into tough and supposedly self-confident and resourceful adults. Alongside the tools of the mind they were taught the skills which would make them effective whether in the East India Company, the Civil Service in India or the City or Law in London. The spirit of collaboration and courage in games, the prefect system which was designed to teach responsibility and the art of ruling, the inner strength against outside threats, a set of skills were meant to be taught. They were skills for public life rather than family life. This system, like the Confucian one which held China together in the past, is central to understanding the invention of our modern world.

THIS SYSTEM FED directly into the imagined Empire which grew in England from the later sixteenth century. It also underpinned the governmental system – the ruling gentry had been through the same sorts of schools, had networks of contacts at Eton, Cambridge and the Inns of Court, and then went on to run an integrated politico-legal-economic system. The education system was a bastion of privilege, yet to some degree open. It was a particularly important part of English life. As Cammaerts noticed, English schools and colleges ‘have played a far larger part in English life than any prominent educational institution has done in the life of other countries… they have succeeded in preserving and developing a certain type of character and a certain ideal of service, without which England would never have become what she is today’.6

In most European Empires the imperialists tended to ‘go native’. That is to say the children were sent to missionary or other schools in the overseas territories, in Indo-China, Latin America or Africa. After a couple of generations of such local schooling, frequent inter-marrying with the indigenous peoples and absence from the homeland gave them a strong sense of difference. The same happened to a certain extent with the white part of the British Empire – there were good schools and universities such as Harvard and Yale. After two or three generations they felt distanced from the homeland – and in America they decided to separate from the homeland.

Yet in the three quarters of the British Empire which was not basically a white settler sphere, that is the West Indies, India, Burma and Africa, the system that developed was like the one in Britain, but stretched out all over the globe. Parents in India or Africa sent their children off to boarding schools, but not in another county, but across the seas to ‘home’ in Britain.

Many of my own family over many generations went through the same process. We were ‘sent home’ – in my case from India – when we were aged between six and eight and were placed on the lowest rung of the boarding school ladder. There we ‘became’ British. We learnt the games, the slang, the irony, the class system, the myths and rituals of the tribe. After ten years of boarding, topped up perhaps with three years at University or military college, we were fully ‘British’ from tip to toe. We were then ready to start the process again by joining the Indian Civil Service or going out to a tea plantation. As we sat in remote parts of the world there was no doubt in our minds that Britain was ‘home’, that we were just sojourners in a foreign land, and if we had children we would send them back to get onto the same ladder.

In other words, we learnt to play the game of being British. We became part of ‘the Breed’. It is famously expressed in Andrew Newbolt’s poem based on his life at Clifton College, and how lessons learned there are carried wherever in the world one might be.  This is a poetic expression of the belief that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –
‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
The voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”7

THERE HAS BEEN much discussion about whether literacy rates or formal education are correlated with industrialization. Mokyr is probably right that ‘In sum, there is little evidence to suggest that education played a central role in England’s Industrial Revolution, suggesting in turn that it has been possible for economies to compensate for poorly educated work forces with other offsetting advantages.’8 Japan, for example, had higher literacy rates than England in the early modern period and this did not lead to industrialization.

It may be that the equation was the other way round, as implied by Laing, namely that industrialization led to a growing interest amongst urban workers in reading and writing. ‘If a stranger to Europe – an educated American, for instance – were to travel over England and Germany, he would pronounce England to be the more educated and more reading country of the two, from the indications of printing, stationery, books, pamphlets, newspapers, handbills, advertisements, notices, placards, all showing that reading and writing are necessaries of life, not merely amusements, among our lowest classes, and enter into their daily business in every station.’9

The way in which the English education system inter-linked with the class, and economic and legal system, and thus formed part of the background package where the first industrial revolution occurred is however more complicated. It is not a simple matter of the statistics of literacy. The important factor lies in the severing of the family, the generic training in independent activities away from home. The particular skills of numeracy and literacy may be useful, but were not essential for the general workforce, though the odd system of grammar and boarding schools were an essential part of the formation of a gentry ruling class and Imperial diaspora.

It is also worth noting that while literacy rates may not have been as high as in some countries, the peculiar English social structure gave literacy a wider distribution than in most societies. Usually in ancien regime societies, the top five percent, at the most, would be highly literate, the peasants totally illiterate. In England, the half of the population from the ‘middling sort’ upwards was at least partially literate. For example, up to the sixteenth century, the yeomanry were amongst the largest class sending their children to University. The yeomanry were the backbone of literate groups, as Latimer said in a sermon to King Henry VIII, ‘for if ye bring it to pass that the yeomanry be not able to put their sons to school…(you) ultimately destroy the realm’.10 Widespread literacy was probably a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient, cause of economic growth.

The Englishness of English Language.

ONE CENTRAL FEATURE, fitting with the social structure and absence of legal statuses, is the egalitarian nature of the English language. ‘In Germany, there is one speech for the learned, and another for the masses, to that extent, that, it is said, no sentiment or phrase from the works of any great German writer is ever heard among the lower classes. But in England, the language of the noble is the language of the poor. In Parliament, in pulpits, in theatres, when the speakers rise to thought and passion, the language becomes idiomatic; the people in the street best understand the best words. And their language seems drawn from the Bible, Milton, Pope, Young, Cowper, Burns, and Scot.’11  This shows that it is more than the well-known fact that all Romance languages are filled with status markers – ‘vous’, ‘tu’. Something happened to the English language which kept it way from honorific and status distinctions, and those few which remained were challenged, for example in the case of the Quakers who objected to the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’.

Bloch thought England exceptional in its language in Anglo-Saxon times for it was not split between a vernacular and courtly – English was spoken and written by all. All over Europe the language of the elite became latin.  But in the West ‘one society long remained an exception. This was Anglo-Saxon Britain. Not that Latin was not written there and written very well, but it was by no means the only language written. The old English tongue was elevated at an early date to the dignity of a literary and legal language. It was King Alfred’s wish that young people should learn it in the schools before the more gifted passed on to Latin. The poets employed it in their songs, which were set down in writing as well as recited. It was also used by the kings in their laws; by the chanceries in the legal documents … This was something unique in that age, a culture that was able to keep in touch on its highest levels with the medium of expression employed by the mass of population.12 The situation was partly overlain for a couple of centuries after the Norman invasion when French was used by some of the ruling class – but this distinction fades and by the fourteenth century the national language was English, though Latin remained a scribal language, important in religion and certain branches of law.

Elsewhere in Europe the languages split. ‘In a great part of Europe, the common languages, which were connected with the Germanic group, belonged to quite another family from the language of the educated… Thus the linguistic separation was reduced, in the long run, to the division between two human groups. On the one hand there was the immense majority of uneducated people, each one imprisoned in his regional dialect, limited, so far as literary culture was concerned, to a few secular poems transmitted almost exclusively by word of mouth…’13

So in its grammar and vocabulary we find a national, non-class, language. Yet because of the importance of minor differences of wealth and education, the game of language as social differentiation was played in another way. This was partly by accent. Any Englishman can tell in a few seconds another’s social class by the accent. Yet accent is something that can be learnt – this is the theme of Shaw’s Pygmalion (re-made as the film ‘My Fair Lady’) and was one of the central roles of expensive boarding schools and universities.

The other is the complexity of the linguistic codes used. The middle and upper classes use complex codes, the lower groups more restricted ones. Yet this can be changed and people can switch codes. As those of us who have children or grandchildren at school will know, how schoolchildren talk amongst their friends and at home may differ widely. So in England, as in games, the rules were universal and based on equality, but different social groups, in different regions of the country or professions played the game in different ways. Yet, overall, English is a rather surprisingly democratic, active and direct language. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal did not talk significantly differently to his father or to Falstaff, nor did Lear to the Fool or to his daughters. The language of the very diverse characters in Chaucer is rather uniform.

Another absence was gender differentiation – again so much stressed in Romance and other languages. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber wrote that ‘sex gender is an old part of Indo-European structure. In English, by the way, it has wholly disappeared, so far as formal expression goes, from noun, adjective, and demonstrative and interrogative pronoun. It lingers only in the personal pronoun of the third person singular – he, she, it. A grammar of living English that was genuinely practical and unbound by tradition would never mention gender except in discussing these three little words.’14 Females do not, as in most societies, have to address males in a special deferential language; the entire world is not, as in France, gendered with male and female nouns. English language is uniformly neutral, at least from the thirteenth century onwards. It may partly account for the attraction of English around the world as the position of women improves, and the way that English-medium schools seem to help the self-confidence of girls.

Finally, it was a national language.  Although there have been very considerable dialect differences, the people south of the border on the small island of Britain spoke one language (apart from parts of Wales), as it practiced one law. This is a very great difference from all parts of continental Europe until the later nineteenth century.

THE SHARED PREMISES of conversation feed into the emphasis on under-statement. ‘An Englishman understates, avoids the superlative, checks himself in compliments, alleging, that in the French language, one cannot speak without lying.’15 Or as Maurois observed, ‘If you are a world tennis-champion, say “Yes, I don’t play too badly.” If you have crossed the Atlantic alone in a small boat, say, “I do a little sailing.’16 The middle class in particular depreciates hyperbole, flattery, an over-elaborate use  of language.

A second manifestation is irony, and its stronger form, satire. Many of the greatest English writers from Chaucer, through Shakespeare, Pope and Swift, to Austen, Wilde and Sullivan are masters of this. Paxman describes how in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country, a spy who has defected muses about England. ‘We’re conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb. It’s the amniotic fluid. It’s the silver sea. It’s the waters at their priest-like task, washing away guilt and purpose and responsibility. Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.’17

I am amazed at how much of my schooling was devoted to learning how to master the rhetorical and literary skills of irony and satire. Playing this game, saying the opposite of what you mean, and conveying to the other the hidden message is central to much of English humour. The anthropologist Kate Fox found ironic humour to be central to English life today. ‘We are accustomed to not saying what we mean: irony, self-deprecation, understatement, obliqueness, ambiguity and polite pretence are all deeply ingrained, part of being English. This peculiar mindset is inculcated at an early age, and by the time our children go to primary school, they have usually already mastered the art of the indirect boast, and can do their own self-deprecatory trumpet-blowing.’18

For irony to work, the audience must be able to read below the surface, in other words share the hidden and oblique side of an utterance. That there is so much shared in the way of values and themes of conversation in the culture of England allows irony and satire to spread widely.

The second background is a mixture of fluctuating inequality of power. The obvious examples are political. The great age of English irony and satire, of Dryden, Pope and the Beggar’s Opera was the eighteenth century.  Much the same happened in Eastern Europe in the last decades of communism, when the political system was in control and could not be overtly criticized, yet there was much to criticise. Again, Victorian hypocrisy and the gap between word and deed left society open to the irony of a Wilde or Shaw. One had to make oblique attacks against political foes and also against the socially powerful.

Much irony and satire plays with the comedies of manners. Of course this is not just an English device. France with Molière, Racine or Voltaire was full of irony – but somehow French satire has a different flavour, at times more obsessed with the court, more bitter and vitriolic. In England it can be malicious, but often it is not. As with Jane Austen, it is more feline and stroking. It is best when the concealed meaning suddenly strikes the listener or reader, and even then they are never quite certain whether the bomb is there or imagined.

Irony is particularly important within a wider context, namely the fact that humour is probably the most important cultural feature of the English. Here I will not elaborate this, but just quote from a long documentation of the subject by the anthropologist Kate Fox: ‘the English do not have any sort of global monopoly on humour, but what is distinctive is the sheer pervasiveness and supreme importance of humour in English everyday life and culture… Virtually all English conversations and social interactions involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, wit, mockery, wordplay, satire, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, sarcasm, pomposity-pricking or just silliness… when in doubt, joke.’19

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is old and little influenced in its roots by Latin. Like English law it is continuous. Though it takes getting used to, Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature feels familiar and Chaucer largely comprehensible. Many of the writers, such as Blake, Wordsworth, Cobbett, Dickens, Kipling and Orwell are simple and direct.

English is subtle, multi-layered, suitable for irony and satire and different nuances. It is a language for shop-keepers and lawyers and administrators, but also for scientists and artists. It is individualistic, with its stress on the personal pronouns; like the kinship terminology it is ego-centred. Yet it also envisages the other – collaboration, friendship and co-operation. It has a great emphasis on time and movement, with many complexities to the verb forms.

The language is also musical, rhythmical, allusional so that in the hands of a Milton, Keats or Hopkins it can say the profoundest truths in a melodious and direct way. ‘English is a poet’s language. It is ideally suited for description or for the expression of emotion. It is flexible, it is varied, it has an enormous vocabulary; able to convey every subtle diverse shade, to make vivid before the mental eye any picture it wishes to conjure up. Moreover its very richness helps it to evoke those indefinite moods, those visionary flights of fancy of which so much of the material of poetry is composed. There is no better language in the world for touching the heart and setting the imagination aflame.’20

As David Cecil also writes,  ‘Every great nation has expressed its spirit in art: generally in some particular form of art. The Italians are famous for their painting, the Germans for their music, the Russians for their novels. England is distinguished by her poets… The greatness of English poetry has been astonishingly continuous. German music and Italian painting flourished, at most, for two hundred years. England has gone on producing great poets from the fourteenth century to to-today: there is nothing like it in the history of the arts.’21 And the poetry was not confined to what we consider poems. Perhaps its greatest expression was when the Bible was translated into English in the Standard Authorized Version at the start of the seventeenth century. It became a great treasure of poetry and literature that still moves many of us today.

The Englishness of English art.

AS A HIGHLY intelligent and knowledgeable mid-European Jewish immigrant working under the shadow of the Second World War and absorbed into English culture, Nikolaus Pevsner is particularly perceptive about some characteristics of English art. In his Reith Lectures, expanded into the book The Englishness of English Art (1956), he noted a number of features, a few of which I shall cite here.

One is the point often made about English character – that it is filled with so many contraries and oppositions, that the only way to understand it is through the dynamic interplay of different unresolved tensions. Thus he writes that the ‘history of styles as well as the cultural geography of nations can only be successful – that is approach truth – if it is conducted in terms of polarities, that is in pairs of apparently contradictory qualities.’22 He cites approvingly Blake’s remark – ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion. Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’23 He then gives an example. ‘… Perpendicular is downright and direct. Decorated is perverse, capricious, wilful, illogical, and unpredictable. It is unreasonable, where Perpendicular is reasonable.’ 24  His search is for a deeper logic which connects these apparent contradictions.

One device the English use to make the never resolvable contradictions tolerable is through what Pevsner calls at different times hypocrisy or cant. Rather than speak of hypocrisy, Pevsner thinks we should speak of ‘compromise’. For example, ‘Reynolds’s official portraits in any case are a blatant example of compromise.’25 He gives another example with William Morris, and then links this feature to the wider feature of tolerance, treating each case on its own merits, a distaste for fanatical uniformity and consistency. The memories of what had happened under Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco may have been in the back of his mind.

So Pevsner gives the example of William Morris, who preached socialism while making amazing expensive artefacts for the very rich. This and many examples are illogical and inconsistent. ‘Or perhaps is illogicality another national characteristic? That is no doubt the case, and fascinating illogicalities in English architecture of diverse ages will be considered later. For the time being it is enough to remember how close to each other dwell illogicality, compromise, and cant in the English heart, and to realize – which is the next step – that “Every case on its own merit” is only a fourth facet of this same quality… “Every case on its own merit” is one of the greatest blessings of English civilization… So detachment is the corollary of “Every case on its own merit”’.26

There is, however, a cost to this lack of unifying, passionate, consistent vision, Pevsner believes, namely that the English did not produce the very greatest artists either in music or in painting or in architecture (though he does not balance this in literature and science, where Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, Darwin and others are not inconsiderable in their grand designs). ‘There is no Bach, no Beethoven, no Brahms. There is no Michelangelo, no Titian, no Rembrandt…. What the amateur painter must be lacking in, in order to remain an amateur, is a violent compulsion towards a single-minded self-expression to which a lifetime must be devoted.’ In the final conclusion to the book Pevsner repeats the list of great figures of whom the English have no equivalents and gives the same reason. The absence of towering geniuses, ‘in my opinion is due to the growing importance in the national character of practical sense, of reason, and also of tolerance. What English character gained of tolerance and fair play, she lost of that fanaticisms or at lest that intensity which alone can bring forth the very greatest in art.’27

PEVSNER CONSIDERS A particular architectural style to be the most specifically English part of English art, namely English perpendicular architecture of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. This is particularly interesting for the argument of this book for several reasons. The style is early, before the Reformation of the sixteenth century and it is something unique to England. It lasts right across the period from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries with hardly any change, making us wonder whether the whole ideology of the society was changing from a medieval pre-capitalist world.

Furthermore the style is a statement in architecture of the essence of the early separation of the spheres of life. What is most distinct about English medieval art, Pevsner believes, is that it separates parts of the church into rectangular boxes, which are not unified into one dominant space. Only finally in an afterthought, as it were, does it unify the space – as is done so gloriously in King’s College Chapel at Cambridge.

I shall let Pevsner explain this, but as he implies it is part of the non-totalitarian system of art, the tensions and separations are not suppressed. It is a pragmatic, ad hoc art. And Pevsner constantly links this to other features of England – the pragmatic philosophy, legal system, individuality and liberty.

The style, obviously drawing its elements from many traditions, is in another sense purely English. ‘There is little that is in every respect so completely and so profoundly English as are the big English parish churches of the Late Middle Ages, the age of Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VII.’28 Secondly, it is very conservative, showing a desire to keep something that works and a rejection of the new styles on the continent which emerged with resurgent Roman influences. ‘ Conservatism also shows itself in the fact, so surprising to foreigners, that once the Perpendicular style had been created – that most English of architectural styles – it remained virtually unchanged for over a hundred years’ (between 1350-1450).29 The Englishness and continuity are re-stated: ‘But it is very much of England all the same, so much so that the Perpendicular style has in its details not even a remote parallel abroad, and so much so that it lasted unchanged for nearly two hundred years. This has been adduced as a sign of conservatism, but it is really also a sign of Englishness.’30

What then is the essence of the perpendicular style? Pevsner describes it in a way which shows that it is the absence of centralization, of a total and encompassing and unified conception. ‘Almost without exception English churches of the later Middle Ages have timber roofs instead of stone vaults. These roofs are just as complex as the most elaborate stone vaults, and they are just as angular. They are a triumph of the joiner… they also prove negatively a peculiarly English neglect of space-moulding, one might even say of pulling a building together. Where there is a stone vault, the substance and character of the walls is continued without a break until it achieves itself in the crown of the vault above our heads. The vault rounds off the space, and connects all parts. In England on the other hand what one experiences is one wall, another wall, and beams across. Parts are left as parts, separated from each other.’31

He then itemizes the features. ‘Angularity must be taken first. The flat chancel ends of the Perpendicular church has its immediate parallel in the flat-topped tower of the Perpendicular church – something extremely rare on the Continent… the square-topped tower remains England at its most English, also in its absence of demonstrated aspiration, its compromise between vertical and horizontal, and even a certain matter-of-factness.’ Another feature is the chancel. ‘The English unrelieved rectangularity comes out equally convincingly in the plans of churches. There the most telling example is the history of the square-ended chancel.’32

The contrast with what was happening on the continent at the same time makes his point about the peculiarity. ‘Indeed … English Gothic cathedrals remain far more isolated than those of France…. The French innovation more closely moulded, unified volume and space is not accepted. That may be called conservatism but it is also a sign of a specifically English dislike of subordination. Parts, to say it once more, remain co-ordinated, added to one another, and in addition box-shaped rather than rounded.’33

The English system is inconsistent, illogical, pragmatic, ad hoc, unprincipled, all those things which Ruskin had noted. Pevsner gives the example of Lincoln cathedral. ‘The “crazy vaults” of Lincoln… Their illogicality is staggering…’ Pevsner continues that  ‘Illogicality must certainly be listed as an English quality… The distaste of the English for carrying a thought or a systems of thought to its logical extreme is too familiar to need comment.’34

Another way of putting the contrast is between pragmatic reasonableness, and passionate intensity. ‘It will surely not be denied that rationalism and often, to use a more homely term, reasonableness lies behind Palladian as well as Perpendicular architecture… If one compares Lincoln with Chartes, begun within five years or less of one another, there is, to reiterate, nothing more striking than the contrast between French verticalism and English balance of directions – or indecision, or compromise… What by such means Lincoln lacks in enthusiasm… it gains in mellow humanity, in sheer happiness.’35

As to what caused these differences, Pevsner is no social or economic historian. His favourite explanation of the particular character of English art, particularly painting, seems to be climate. It is a little difficult to see how this could explain the perpendicular style, except through a long chain of argument leading to the widespread presence of oak trees for the roofs. What does seem a promising speculation, in is a set of comments which link the art to the early spread of middle-class monetary values and pragmatism.

Early in his book he had noted in relation to his detailed study of Hogarth, how middle class he and other painters were. Hogarth ‘did not only belong to the middle class, he did so demonstratively. His sisters sold frocks and haberdashery…. The majority of artists through his and the preceding century came, one can safely state, from such a class… it will be demonstrated later than Englishness had taken peculiarly middle-class features in at least one of its most English periods of history before.’36

That earlier period was the most distinctively English perpendicular period. Illustrating his case with examples, Pevsner argues that ‘rationalism, or in everyday language, sensible behaviour, is decidedly a middle-class ideal. Hence it is not surprising to find it in command in the Late Middle Ages. There is nothing new in viewing the later fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries in terms of a predominance of the merchant.’37

A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 12 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Marshall quoted in Mokyr, Industrial, 300
  2. Taine, Notes, 102
  3. Taine, Notes, 104. Taine noted that ‘learning and cultivation of the mind come last, character, heart, courage, strength and physical address are in the first rank’. (Taine, quoted in Paxman, English, 190.)
  4. Boswell, London, 66
  5. Paxman, English, 182-3
  6. Cammaerts, English, 133
  7. Quoted in Paxman, English, 197-8
  8. Mokyr, Industrial, 303
  9. Laing, Observations, 314-5
  10. Peacock, English, 171
  11. Emerson, English, 79
  12. Bloch, Feudal, I, 75
  13. Bloch, Feudal, I, 77
  14. Kroeber, Anthropology, 238
  15. Emerson, English, 93
  16. In Wilson, Strange, 260
  17. Paxman, English, 18
  18. Fox, Watching, 364
  19. Fox, Watching, 402
  20. Cecil, English, 61
  21. Cecil, English, 61
  22. Pevsner, Englishness, 24
  23. Pevsner, Englishness, 128
  24. Pevsner, Englishness, 129
  25. Pevsner, Englishness, 60
  26. Pevsner, Englishness, 67
  27. Pevsner, Englishness, 80, 206
  28. Pevsner, Englishness, 90
  29. Pevsner, Englishness, 84
  30. Pevsner, Englishness, 94
  31. Pevsner, Englishness, 93-4
  32. Pevsner, Englishness, 94-5
  33. Pevsner, Englishness, 98
  34. Pevsner, Englishness, 101-3
  35. Pevsner, Englishness, 122
  36. Pevsner, Englishness, 54-5
  37. Pevsner, Englishness, 123

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *