A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a cult. Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, I picked up R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and, remembering a vague resolution to read it one day, took it to the counter. The fresh-faced student at the cash register was delighted. “It’s . . . amazing,” he said reverently. A few days later, finding myself in full agreement, I emailed a writer in whose work I perceived some Tawney-like themes to ask whether he knew the book. “I read it fifty years ago,” he replied, “and it changed my life.”
In recent decades, membership of his fan club has declined—too Christian for the socialists, too socialist for the Christians—but at one time Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962) towered over British intellectual life. To his contemporaries he was a legend, “the greatest living Englishman,” according to the historian Sir Michael Postan. The Guardian declared in 1960 that his writings “will be read with delight as long as the English language is spoken.” Surveying Tawney’s contributions, not just as a historian, but as a writer, activist, teacher, and mentor, someone suggested to Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple that what Britain needed was “more men like Tawney.” The archbishop replied: “There are no men like Tawney.” To a generation that had run out of faith in free-market capitalism, he appeared to be that unusual thing, a prophet who actually knew what he was talking about.
Deeply earnest, prematurely bald, self-deprecating to the point of masochism, Tawney nevertheless exuded an unmistakable charisma that can still be experienced today in the texture of his prose—its beautiful cadences, smash-and-grab satirical raids, elegiac melancholy, pin-sharp analysis, metaphorical exuberance, and spiritual clarity. The supreme example is Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, based on the Holland Memorial Lectures he delivered at King’s College, London in 1922. The bestselling history book in interwar Britain, it owed its success partly to a widespread feeling that the reigning economic system had failed, partly to the national weakness for nostalgia: Tawney was one of those writers who located his ideals in a consciously romanticized past, and the book is above all a lament for a lost moral order.
From the twelfth through the sixteenth century, in Tawney’s telling, money was, at least to an extent, governed by Christian moral norms. Feudal lords might be merciless, guilds might be monopolistic, the papacy might be corrupt, but late-medieval society still shone out with, in Tawney’s characteristically memorable phrase, “a certain tarnished splendour.” Widespread cruelty and oppression could not wholly extinguish the idea of social solidarity, of a world that made eternal salvation its ultimate goal and thus put money-worship in its place. Peasant and lord, craftsman and merchant knew their duties to each other, and the strong were regularly prevented from exploiting the weak. In the institutions that fed the hungry and provided credit to the financially insecure; in the ecclesiastical or civil courts where usurers were excommunicated and fined; in the pulpits where avarice was denounced as a deadly sin, and in the confessionals where middlemen would have to repent of overcharging customers or not sharing their goods with the poor, medieval man was prevented from destroying his own soul and his neighbor’s livelihood.
Read it all.