The medieval roots of European freedom

The Medieval Roots of European Freedom
Keir Martland

keirprofile1On the evening of 27th September 2017, I visited the boys at The Oratory School to give a short talk. I gave no title at the time, but a title which suggests itself retrospectively is ‘The medieval roots of European freedom.’ Here is a very brief outline of the 30 minute talk:

How do we explain freedom or liberalism? Any Little Englander will tell you that England is a bit special, but there are other such places in Europe worth investigating. Racialistic accounts, such as in Mein Kampf, and other accounts such as Max Weber’s, of how small countries like England and Holland came to dominate the world, are flawed. Explanations of the ‘European miracle’, too, are mostly confused, often lapsing into 19th century historicism. Rather, we must look to how our early and high mediaeval forebears thought about and practised law and kingship to come to a better understanding of liberal England and liberal Europe. After all, it was in the mediaeval period that the foundations of much that we hold dear – whether economic, political, cultural, or religious – were laid. Ideas and practices worth considering here are: strong kinship bonds; fealty; oath-helping/compurgation; the sovereignty of law; the absence of sovereign territoriality; the absence of the Divine Right of Kings; the consensus fidelium; the right of resistance etc.


  1. Mister Ambassador, you’re really spoiling us with these teasers. Any chance we can have an extended version?

    To be fair, isn’t freedom something practised and yearned for the world over? Perhaps even an axiom of human nature, like sex, breathing and territoriality, it’s just that we have developed a particular practice of freedom set within the context of civilisation, liberty or liberal-ism, which we chauvinistically treat as synonymous with freedom. The debate seems to be about how that particular sort of freedom arose, its bases and characteristics.

    An Australian aborigine is, in many respects, much freer than I, but (assuming he lives the traditional life), his lot is probably harder. Is that tribal barbarian sort of life better or worse (biologically, culturally, socially, economically) than the civilised version? It’s a complex question. Perhaps liberalism (in the traditional sense meant here) is really just a belief in the maximum liberty allowable in a constrained society, civilisation being a sort of open prison? Or would you disagree and say that civilisation and freedom are in symbiosis while the life of the barbarian cannot be fully free due to its necessitous nature?

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