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The Mediaeval Villain

I see that there have been more attempts at the whitewashing of King John.

But the gentleman who wrote has a further interest in the matter; for he
believes that King John was innocent, not only on this point, but as a
whole. He thinks King John has been very badly treated; though I am not
sure whether he would attribute to that Plantagenet a saintly merit or
merely a humdrum respectability.

I sympathise with the whitewashing of King John, merely because it is a
protest against our waxwork style of history. Everybody is in a
particular attitude, with particular moral attributes; Rufus is always
hunting and Coeur-de-Lion always crusading; Henry VIII always marrying,
and Charles I always having his head cut off; Alfred rapidly and in
rotation making his people's clocks and spoiling their cakes; and King
John pulling out Jews' teeth with the celerity and industry of an American
dentist. Anything is good that shakes all this stiff simplification, and
makes us remember that these men were once alive; that is, mixed, free,
flippant, and inconsistent. It gives the mind a healthy kick to know that
Alfred had fits, that Charles I prevented enclosures, that Rufus was
really interested in architecture, that Henry VIII was really interested
in theology.

And as these scraps of reality can startle us into more solid imagination
of events, so can even errors and exaggerations if they are on the right
side. It does some good to call Alfred a prig, Charles I a Puritan, and
John a jolly good fellow; if this makes us feel that they were people whom
we might have liked or disliked. I do not myself think that John was a
nice gentleman; but for all that the popular picture of him is all wrong.
Whether he had any generous qualities or not, he had what commonly makes
them possible, dare-devil courage, for instance, and hotheaded decision.
But, above all, he had a morality which he broke, but which we
misunderstand.

The mediaeval mind turned centrally upon the pivot of Free Will. In their
social system the mediaevals were too much PARTI-PER-PALE, as their
heralds would say, too rigidly cut up by fences and quarterings of guild
or degree. But in their moral philosophy they always thought of man as
standing free and doubtful at the cross-roads in a forest. While they
clad and bound the body and (to some extent) the mind too stiffly and
quaintly for our taste, they had a much stronger sense than we have of the
freedom of the soul. For them the soul always hung poised like an eagle
in the heavens of liberty. Many of the things that strike a modern as
most fantastic came from their keen sense of the power of choice.

For instance, the greatest of the Schoolmen devotes folios to the minute
description of what the world would have been like if Adam had refused the
apple; what kings, laws, babies, animals, planets would have been in an
unfallen world. So intensely does he feel that Adam might have decided
the other way that he sees a complete and complex vision of another world,
a world that now can never be.

This sense of the stream of life in a man that may turn either way can be
felt through all their popular ethics in legend, chronicle, and ballad.
It is a feeling which has been weakened among us by two heavy intellectual
forces. The Calvinism of the seventeenth century and the physical science
of the nineteenth, whatever other truths they may have taught, have
darkened this liberty with a sense of doom. We think of bad men as
something like black men, a separate and incurable kind of people. The
Byronic spirit was really a sort of operatic Calvinism. It brought the
villain upon the stage; the lost soul; the modern version of King John.
But the contemporaries of King John did not feel like that about him, even
when they detested him. They instinctively felt him to be a man of mixed
passions like themselves, who was allowing his evil passions to have much
too good a time of it. They might have spoken of him as a man in
considerable danger of going to hell; but they would have not talked of
him as if he had come from there. In the ballads of Percy or Robin Hood
it frequently happens that the King comes upon the scene, and his ultimate
decision makes the climax of the tale. But we do not feel, as we do in
the Byronic or modern romance, that there is a definite stage direction
"Enter Tyrant." Nor do we behold a deus ex machina who is certain to do
all that is mild and just. The King in the ballad is in a state of virile
indecision. Sometimes he will pass from a towering passion to the most
sweeping magnanimity and friendliness; sometimes he will begin an act of
vengeance and be turned from it by a jest. Yet this august levity is not
moral indifference; it is moral freedom. It is the strong sense in the
writer that the King, being the type of man with power, will probably
sometimes use it badly and sometimes well. In this sense John is
certainly misrepresented, for he is pictured as something that none of his
own friends or enemies saw. In that sense he was certainly not so black
as he is painted, for he lived in a world where every one was piebald.

King John would be represented in a modern play or novel as a kind of
degenerate; a shifty-eyed moral maniac with a twist in his soul's backbone
and green blood in his veins. The mediaevals were quite capable of
boiling him in melted lead, but they would have been quite incapable of
despairing of his soul in the modern fashion. A striking a fortiori case
is that of the strange mediaeval legend of Robert the Devil. Robert was
represented as a monstrous birth sent to an embittered woman actually in
answer to prayers to Satan, and his earlier actions are simply those of
the infernal fire let loose upon earth. Yet though he can be called
almost literally a child of hell, yet the climax of the story is his
repentance at Rome and his great reparation. That is the paradox of
mediaeval morals: as it must appear to the moderns. We must try to
conceive a race of men who hated John, and sought his blood, and believed
every abomination about him, who would have been quite capable of
assassinating or torturing him in the extremity of their anger. And yet
we must admit that they would not really have been fundamentally surprised
if he had shaved his head in humiliation, given all his goods to the poor,
embraced the lepers in a lazar-house, and been canonised as a saint in
heaven. So strongly did they hold that the pivot of Will should turn
freely, which now is rusted, and sticks.

For we, whatever our political opinions, certainly never think of our
public men like that. If we hold the opinion that Mr. Lloyd George is a
noble tribune of the populace and protector of the poor, we do not admit
that he can ever have paltered with the truth or bargained with the
powerful. If we hold the equally idiotic opinion that he is a red and
rabid Socialist, maddening mobs into mutiny and theft, then we expect him
to go on maddening them--and us. We do not expect him, let us say,
suddenly to go into a monastery. We have lost the idea of repentance;
especially in public things; that is why we cannot really get rid of our
great national abuses of economic tyranny and aristocratic avarice.
Progress in the modern sense is a very dismal drudge; and mostly consists
of being moved on by the police. We move on because we are not allowed to
move back. But the really ragged prophets, the real revolutionists who
held high language in the palaces of kings, they did not confine
themselves to saying, "Onward, Christian soldiers," still less, "Onward,
Futurist soldiers"; what they said to high emperors and to whole empires
was, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?"

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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