How modern is Utopia? The medieval roots of utopian thinking.

The aim of this essay is to track the medieval roots of Thomas More’s Utopia and utopian thinking. First, the focus will be on the eclectic nature of the story and the variety of sources from which he drew his inspiration. Second, attention will be given to the medieval text Mandeville’s Travels (1356). This story is an early example of a travellogue in which conversations with representatives or inhabitants of non-European societies, function as a form of critique for the late medieval European society. 


How modern is Utopia?
The medieval roots of utopian thinking.

In the grand narrative of modernisation, the rediscovery of classical antiquity in renaissance humanism functions as an alternative for a medieval ‘backwards’ way of thinking, makes the concepts of historicity and progress become more prominent and functions as an inducement to imagine a better world based on reason. The renaissance is thus portrayed as the starting point of a trajectory that culminated in eighteenth century enlightenment thinking that functioned as one of the prerequisites to modern state formation. At first glance Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) fits neatly into this narrative. More’s Utopia was the collaborative product of the early sixteenth century humanistic intellectual elite, written in Latin but engaging with the classical Greek of which they were advocates. In this aspect Utopia is a product of a time where classical antiquity was seen as the authoritative norm to strive for. In the iconic story More specifically refers back to Plato’s Republic, as one of his inspirations. The fact that the utopian society he envisioned was made possible by manmade institutional, legal, educational and bureaucratic arrangements can be seen as proof that the story was meant as a plan for improving society. This in turn is seen as proof that More believed in progress and the perfectibility of society. The result of this dual emphasis on classical antiquity on the one hand, and modernity on the other is that the medieval roots of Thomas More’s Utopia become obscured.[1] Although the iconic status of the book, as a starting point for a lot of thinkers trying to reimagine society, is without question – Utopia is for example often seen as the founding document of modern socialism – there is also another story to be told.

The aim of this essay is to track the medieval roots of Thomas More’s Utopia and utopian thinking. First, the focus will be on the eclectic nature of the story and the variety of sources from which he drew his inspiration. Second, attention will be given to the medieval text Mandevilles Travels (1356). This story is an early example of a travellogue in which conversations with representatives or inhabitants of non-European societies, function as a form of critique for the late medieval European society.

To shed light on the medieval roots of Utopia, it is necessary to focus on two complexities inherent in More’s masterpiece. To begin, More did not work on a Tabula Rasa but on a tradition of thought that goes back to ancient Greece and was nourished by medieval concepts like the myth of the Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, the Land of Cockaygne, Millennial conceptions of the end of the world and the heavenly Jerusalem and Arcadian myths of a better times. These ideal places were often situated on isolated islands. In imagining an alternative world, More drew from these examples of predecessors from ancient and medieval times, combining them with recently published exciting accounts of the ‘New World’ and the theatre, an alternative world following alternative scripts and conventions.[2]

In Utopia and the Ideal Society, J.C. Davis sets out to distinguish utopia as a programme from four other types of ideal societies: the Land of Cockaygne, arcadia, the perfect commonwealth and Millennialism. In order to do so he states that ‘All ideal societies must solve the problem of relating the existing and changing supply of satisfaction, some of which are by nature limited in supply to the wants of a heterogenial group, the desires of which will be, in some respects unlimited’.[3] According to Davis the different types of ideal society can be distinguished by the way in which they deal with this issue.

In the Land of Cockaygne conflict is eliminated, neither by changing the character of man nor by social rearrangement, but by fulfilling all the private desires of man. Rivers of beer flow through a village landscape with an abundance of food and promiscuous women. Arcadia is comparable with Cockaygne in the aspect that nature generously provides humans, but at the same time men’s desires are assumed to be moderate. This ideal society represents the return to a natural balance of the desires of men with the ability of nature to provide. This balance is thought to have once existed but is assumed long lost. Representations of The Garden of Eden and myths of the Golden Age are often represented as an arcadian ideal society.

Whereas Arcadia and Cockaygne constitute a form of escapism, the perfect moral commonwealth was regarded as more realistic. The perfect moral commonwealth tradition accepted existing social arrangements and political institutions. Society was to be made harmonious by the moral reformation of all classes, groups and individuals in society. If everybody limited his or her appetite the problem of the disconnection between supply and desire would be solved. Depictions of this perfect commonwealth often functioned as criticism on ruling classes for their overindulgence.

Millennialism concentrates on the second coming of Christ. Their solution to the collective problem is holy intervention. Some believe general pious behaviour will hasten this second coming and guarantee a place in heavenly Jerusalem.

Davis states that Utopia differs from the four other ideal societies mentioned above, in the way that More chose to resolve the problem: ‘the utopian seeks to ‘solve’ the collective problem collectively, that is by the reorganisation of society and its institutions, by education, by laws, and sanctions. The prime aim is not happiness, that private mystery, but order’.[4]

In distinguishing between Utopia and other ideal societies it becomes apparent that the story Thomas More wrote is, like many other products of the renaissance, a mixture of medieval traditions, in this case medieval depictions of the ideal society, inspirations from classical antiquity and exciting contemporary inventions and discoveries. Davis makes a valid point when he points to the fact that More is, in modern times, the first to propose that a drastic reorganisation of society could lead to a better society.

Davis is however mistaken in dismissing the arcadian tradition as escapism and distinguishing between Utopianism, as proposed in Thomas More’s foundational text, and the perfect moral commonwealth. Instead, Utopianism is a continuation of these traditions. The institutional restructuring of society will ensure the moral reformation of the groups, classes and individuals constituting that society. Because this reformed society is more effective and less property is concentrated in the hands of the ruling classes, yields are higher and the natural balance between supply and demand is restored. The question remains of course, whether proposing a radical reorganisation of society was what More intended to do with this text.

This brings us to our second point. The differences between the first and second book of Utopia make it difficult to pinpoint More’s intentions. The first book can be read as a critique of the early sixteenth century European society to which the second book provides an alternative. The island Utopia is used both as a critique of and a suggestion for an alternative for the contemporary European society. Most scholars have focused on the implications of the blueprint qualities of this story. The desire for a better life envisioned in a utopian narrative thus came to constitute utopianism. As a result, scholarly endeavours to search for medieval utopianisms have mainly given attention to radically different alternative ideal places formulated in stories of the afterlife, the Garden of Eden, the land of Cockaygne or the great before. By focusing on the critical function of Utopia instead, other medieval utopianisms emerge, and another story can be told.

Karma Lochrie takes a different approach to the problem of the one-sided representation of utopianism as modern. She notes that historians like Davis, whose aim is to distinguish ing the utopianism from its medieval antecedents, work inside the grand narrative of modernisation.

Like most historical narratives with a fondness for original design, this one has the effect of provincializing the Middle Ages as the time before modernity when utopianism was not possible, or alternatively when it was possible only as a religious ideal that differs fundamentally from early modern secular utopianism and Thomas More’s seminal text.[5]

According to Lochrie, investigating medieval utopianisms will help undermine the one-sidedness of this narrative.

Finding medieval utopianisms is not a simple matter of reading backwards from More’s story. Lochrie believes it requires, simultaneously, a new formulation of the concept of utopianism and a shared kinship with that utopianism we associate with More. Loch formulates this new definition by merging post-colonial theory with aspects of the utopian narrative.[6] She defines utopianism in the following manner: ‘the deliberate imagining of alternative worlds and the critical reflection such imagining precipitates on the presumed world of the author and readership’.[7] By using this definition, Lochri is able to sidestep the usual emphasis on the blueprint aspects of utopianism and allows herself to focus on the elements of the utopian narrative that function as a critique instead.

Lochrie uses Mandevilles Travels (1356) as a medieval example of a utopian narrative. This travel narrative differs from More’s Utopia in the fact that the outlook is cosmopolitan instead of insular. Mandavilles Travels is a travelogue of the holy land and the East. In the story Mandeville’s guiding principle is a quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: ‘The excellence of things in the middle’.[8] The ‘excellent middle’ does not refer to the geographical centre, which would constitute a binary centre/periphery opposition. On the contrary, it refers to the intermediate position between two extremes. Mandeville seeks out middleness in his travels by way of assuming an open-minded and cosmopolitan outlook when encountering the world. He thus decentres Europe and European values.

In Mandevilles Travels, conversations with representatives or inhabitants of non-European societies function as a form of critique for the late medieval European society. In a discussion with Mandeville, the sultan of Egypt, for example, launches a scanting critique of the corruption of Christian priests and the pervasive greed, lechery and dishonesty of Christians. Instead of contradicting the sultan, Mandeville asks him how he came to know so much about the Christian world. The sultan replies in flawless French that he sends his ministers to western Christendom to assess their mode of living. This passage is a good example because it shows Mandeville’s and Europe’s relative ignorance of Islamic culture compared to the active efforts of Egyptians to learn the languages, behaviours and believes of the West. It suggests that Christian ignorance, not Islamic wickedness, creates the difference between the two religions. This is but one of the many examples in Mandevilles travels of the way confrontations and conversations with other cultures function as a way of undermining the idea of European society as the norm. European society is instead envisioned as being on equal footing with other societies. Karma Lochrie concludes:

Ultimately, Mandeville’s utopianism offers an alternative history to the narrative of utopia derived from More’s Work. Instead of a mirror society fashioned on an isolationist ideal, Mandeville’s utopia is an aggregated one, emphasising the relationality that middleness implies and demands.[9]

Lochrie is able to convincingly show that Mandevilles travels can be seen as an alternative medieval utopian narrative. She sidesteps the emphasis on a better or ideal society by focussing on the aspects in utopianism that function as a critique. However, because she didn’t include more examples of medieval utopias, one is inclined to ask: how common where utopian narratives like Mandevilles Travels? Lochrie’s article should thus be read as a promising proposal for further research. All in all, inquiries in the medieval roots and medieval examples of utopianisms seem promising.

Wouter Johan van Leeuwen

[1] For an analysis of the distorting consequences of the medieval/rennaisance devide and the dominance of the modernisation paradigm see: Carol Symes, ‘AHR Rountable Modernity: When We Talk about Modernity’, American Historical Review 116-3 (2011) 715-726.

[2] See: J.C Davis, Utopia and the ideal society: A study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700 (Cambridge 1981) 1-41; F. Graus, ‘Social Utopias in the Middle Ages’, Past and Present 38 (1967), 3-19 and F. Vieira, ‘The concept of utopia’ in: Gregory Claeys, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (2010)1-27.

[3] Davis, Utopia and the ideal society, 19.

[4] Ibidem, 38.

[5] Karma Lochrie, ‘Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandaville’s Cosmopolitan Utopia’, PMLA, 124-2 (2009) 592.

[6] In this article Lochrie uses concepts proposed in: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton 2000)

[7] Lochrie, ‘Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandaville’s Cosmopolitan Utopia’, 593.

[8] Aristotle, in: Roger Crisp (ed. and trans.) Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge 2000)

[9] Lochrie, ‘Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandaville’s Cosmopolitan Utopia’, 598.


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