Rolt wrote this book during 1942 – 1944. It was published by George Allen & Unwin in 1947. The purpose of the book is to condemn the capitalist ethic of the industrial society into which he was born, to trace the course of events that led to the situation in which society in 1944 found itself and to put forward his remedy for the ills from which he believed his society suffered.
I do not have, here on holiday in Canada, the exact date of his birth but I guess his year of birth to be 1910. He was probably five years younger than my father – who would have agreed with everything Rolt writes except where he criticizes the Roman Catholic church. Rolt’s ‘Acknowledgements’ includes George Sturt’s ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’ a treasured book of my father’s and indeed myself. H.J Massingham was his close friend: my father treasured two of Massingham’s books –A Shepherd’s Life’ is one I recall by name. I had read that more than once before I was 12. A book of recollections of life for a shepherd in the late 19th century on eastern Salisbury Plain. Rolt also mentions approvingly in the book, both on my father’s bookshelf, Alfred Williams and G.K Chesterton. Both of whom I have read. Chesterton was a Catholic apologist and came close to being a fascist. Williams was a poet, he had served in the army in he Great War. After that war he worked as a ‘hammer-man’ on a one-man steam hammer in the Great Western Railway locomotive factory at Swindon. He hated his work and the people he worked with and loved the old rural ways and rural people, wrote ‘Villages of the White Horse’, ‘Folk songs of the Upper Thames’ and ‘Life in a Railway Factory’. A man of great sensitivity and self education – he taught himself latin and greek – the book describes the life he loathed, but he never left it because it paid better wages than those he would have got if he had worked with one of the Downland shepherds he so much admired.
Rolt was an admirer of the medieval. I was brought up by exactly that kind of person. My mother and father were readers of a magazine which was published in between the wars and perhaps during the Second World War. It had a perfectly Roltian title: ‘The Cross and The Plough’ . There was another, with the anonymous title ‘The Weekly Review’. This was the publication of anti-capitalist, ‘back to the land’, Roman Catholics like my parents, Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler – the Ditchling Community. When I read ‘High Horse Riderless’ I was at once reminded of all this old thought.
I too would criticise the way society is organized. But the critical difference is that I would not fabricate history and ignore inconvenient parts of history. Rolt believes that the society of his time was suffering from a ‘malady’. The Second World War is a sympton of this malady. He believes that the ‘philosophy of early Christianity’ created a world which was as near perfect as fallible humans are ever likely to achieve. He then labels the thoughts, ideas, sciences, which developed from ‘the Renaissance’ as ‘evil’, and urges that the cure for the ‘malady’ of Society of 1944 is to return to the style of life of the pre-Renaissance European, Christianity. He entirely ignores at the slaughtering wars, all great injustices of fuedalism in that time.
Most curiously – writing in 1944 he condemns outright the Industrial Revolution and ten years later he is writing a semi-mythology in support of one of its most notable figures – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – and in his biography of I.K Brunel he is as selective, as ‘glossing-over’, in his history as he was of pre-Renaisance Europe.
Rolt imagines a ‘Merrie England’ of happy labourers, not living in damp cottages on starvation wages. He makes no mention of the agricultural trade union movements of the 19th century but if he did he would have said they were ‘marring the otherwise perfect harmony of men with nature’. Rolt says that the Anglican religion he was taught at the ‘Public’ (i.e. private) school he was sent to disillusioned him about religion so he turned instead to the religion of the pre-Anglican period. I thought at this early point in the book he had become, a Roman Catholic. Reading on I think he did not do so. Nevertheless he has a very strong faith in the Christian religion before 1400, and ‘The Cross and The Plough’ seems to me to be a good way of summing up his ideas.
He was apprenticed to mechanical engineering at a large agricultural machinery factory in the Vale of Evesham. After that he ‘embarked on a three years term with a firm of locomotive engineers in the industrial Midlands’ (p.14) This experience was a rude and unpleasant shock to him – an Alfred Williams experience – and formed him as a writer. He had become disgusted with what was to him the robotic nature of the work, the lack of individual skill – as he thought – and, perhaps more to the point, the submersion of his personality into the highly organized works. So a large machine works was not the place for him – as it was not the place for Alfred Williams, who should therefore have resigned.
Rolt felt he was anonymous, un-noticed – untalked of – these are fears which, unknown to Rolt at that time – young Isambard Brunel had written in his diary. Because of his locomotive works experience, Rolt developed the desire to withdraw from reality and adopt a fantasy of what he thought was the pre-renaissance world – and never come beyond it. In this he was at one with the pre-Renaissance Roman Catholic Church which did its best to hold back the tide of thought.
But at least Rolt was more honest than Williams. Rolt did withdraw from the relatively high industrial wages he received and found happiness with less money and more personal development. He does not say he tried to grow all the food he needed throughout the year – to be self sufficient as he peasants of England had to be his the period he loved but as he lived on a canal barge, growing food was not possible apart perhaps from some tomatoes. From his barge – which he built with his own hands – he did a great deal of good for Society in pioneering the canal and steam railway preservation movement and thus the whole nation has much to thank him for. But the money for all the preservation work which he initiated did not come from peasants, struggling to grow enough food to feed themselves through long winters – but from industrial capitalism.
What he cannot be thanked for is the thoroughly false histories he wrote and the ridiculous ‘solutions’ he proposed to the problems of his time – and indeed, our time.
This is my objection to Tom Rolt. I object to his writing false history.
A selection of quotes from the book and objections thereto.
What he had regarded as progress he now saw as ‘a malady’ and he wonders ‘How could mechanism and science be reconciled with the harmony of the natural world’
Is that expression merely sentimental? Define harmonious. Is there no harmony is the perfect operation of a fine machine? Where is the harmony when one galaxy’s gravity is tearing away the matter of another galaxy to add to its own mass. Is there harmony in one animal’s pitiless pursuit of a weaker one for food. Even to the underground honey fungus which destroys fine trees. That is nature and therefore is, according to Rolt, harmonious. So why is his ‘greedy capitalist’ not acting with the harmony of nature?
Rolt tells us that he when he began to form his philosophical view –that view was ‘recognizably Christian by implication’ (What relevance the last two words have escapes me) His notion of Christian philosophy was that of the 4th to the 12th century and was not that of any later period. On that basis – of arrested development – Rolt has something in common with the Taliban. He then tells us that he began to wonder what was the reason for the failure of that philosophy to retain its beneficent influence over the mind of western man from the Renaissance onwards.
Christian philosophy had not prevented terrible slaughter through the admired centuries. What beneficent influence did the Catholic philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas exert? The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1157 was actually blessed by the Pope because the Irish were calculating the date of Easter by a method the Pope did not approve of. The list of blessed slaughters is lengthy.
Page 18 bottom line. Into 19
‘Christian philosophy is founded upon the reflection of certain eternal and absolute truths and it failure was due not to any inherent flaw but to the lack of an eloquent re-statement in the light of new knowledge. in consequence n ever increasing number of persons began to evaluate knowledge not in relation to Christian principles but for its own sake as a potential source of power………….men were beginning to shape their lives by Reason rather than by intuitive faith, the eternal verities became a dead dogma. The age of Reason required a Doctrine and because no re-valuation of the Christian Philosophy was forthcoming, it embraced Materialism.
There are several nonsenses which could be pointed out in that but suffice it to look at the final line:
if Christian philosophy – which was based on faith in the supernatural -was to re-evaluate itself in the Age of Reason – any reasonable person would forsake faith –- and embrace Reason which is the provable, material, world. My definition of faith, from having been brought up strictly as a Roman Catholic, is: ‘faith is a gift from God which enables one to believe without doubting that which cannot possibly be true’
Rolt, the trained engineer, preferred faith to reason.
‘In the past 200 years traditional wisdom has been discarded in the arrogance of newly won knowledge.’ Is that, perhaps, what the Neolithic axe head maker said when the first iron axe heads came onto the market?
‘Humility and poverty gave way to arrogance and wealth.
‘ Assertion took the place of Instruction.’
Is he bewailing the passing of poverty here?
Faith – which he is so keen on – is nothing but ‘assertion’. Faith has no reasonable foundation It must always be an assertion.
But my parents talked exactly in this way.
He criticizes a Pope’s ‘rigid orthodoxy’ but how could the Pope adopt any other position since he was defending the ‘eternal and absolute truths’ that Rot praised to highly. (see p.18)
He then criticizes ‘the first secular figure to question the priesthood – Emperor Frederick 11. This man took the sixth crusade to ‘The Holy Land’ but instead of fighting the Muslims over Jerusalem, ‘concluded a bloodless “gentleman’s agreement” with the Sultan of Egypt’. As a result of this peaceful solution he lost the friendship of the Pope and Rolt makes it clear that he would have preferred Frederick to do some slaughtering rather than achieve peacefully the aim of allowing Christians to visit Jerusalem.
Rolt describes the Emperor Frederick as ‘a liberal-minded sceptic evincing a humanistic outlook readily understandable today because it was (he was) the precursor of modern times. His bland indifference to the excommunications and thunderous interdicts of successive Popes, coupled with his telling denunciation of the pride and corruption of the higher priesthood could not fail to exercise a profound influence over the minds of his powerful secular contemporaries and successors.’
Pages 34 – 35.
Rolt on the Roman Catholic ‘Canon Law’.
He expounds at great length – and without stopping the draw breath – upon matters on which, I feel sure, he does not have the knowledge. He goes raging on for another 100 pages – and on page 138 – at the middle, a new paragraph he writes: In this age of violence and disruption the Feudal system was evolved…………. The ‘Feudal’ system did not ‘evolve’ in England, it was imposed – fully developed – on the English by their conquerors – the Normans. The conquered were dispossessed and enslaved. Rolt goes on to praise this system of binding people irrevocably to an owner. In the next paragraph, still on page 34, he begins: Assisted by the ideals and the unifying force of Christianity…….. On page 18 he has asserted that Christianity exerted a ‘beneficent influence’ on society during the Middle Ages and on page 34 he refers to ‘the age of violence and disruption’ in that same period, from which hellishness, he writes, the Feudal system was a refuge.
I think Mr. Rolt, as an objective historian can be dismissed as a charlatan. His lack of objectivity is his style of writing. He does not write for the sake of history but for Mr.Rolt’s sake. He harbours a detestation of industrial capitalism and, dismissing any system for improving the errors of that system, he recommends a return to the 14th century and would desire us all to stay, bound as the Feudal serf was bound, to his Lord.