Nothing drills the facts about Switzerland’s revolt against the corrupt old Catholic Church into you — your very bones — quite like mulling over them as you climb the 254 sub-arctic, twisting stairs to the bell tower of the Bern Muenster in mid-winter. From the viewing balcony up there, eyes unglued with difficulty from the hypnotic, turquoise River Aare far below stray to the stone terrace at the cathedral’s base, where, during the Reformation of the 1500s, rebels had a merry old time smashing priceless religious images and objects.
This battleground in the Swiss capital is a fine symbol of the fight against inequality: the hulking Gothic structure on which construction began in 1421 loomed above a mere 5,000 inhabitants of Bern, at the time. All the better to intimidate them — only that assumption was a mistake. In the words of an English-speaking specialist in the culture and history of Switzerland – an underpopulated species we care about for reasons to be explained in future posts – ‘much of Swiss history derives its interest from a revolt … of peasants against abbeys, … of towns against the ecclesiastical foundations from which they sprang.’
Switzerland’s continuing refinement of practical egalitarianism in the centuries-long wake of the Reformation means that there is a great feeling of been-there-done-that for anyone Swiss coming across a Twitter-trending lexical combination: inclusive capitalism — spotlighted in a speech earlier this year by the International Monetary Fund’s leader, Christine Lagarde. The Alpine republic most famous for political neutrality, charming quaintness and its tourist attractions, arguably deserves to be better known for its vast experience of using cooperatives as tools for wearing down social inequality. You might almost say that the whole of Switzerland – a country that has never had kings or queens, and is run not by any single leader but a Federal Council – works like a giant co-op.
Elements of inclusive capitalism listed in a PBS – public broadcasting – programme in the U.S. a year ago, titled ‘The Alternative American Dream,’ are old hat for, and well-used by, the Swiss: ‘consumer ownership, credit unions and ownership by franchisees pursuing common purchasing efforts …’. Earlier entries on this blog have pointed to stable, cautious and solidly-grounded Swiss banking cooperatives avoiding the disastrous subprime mortgage crisis, and praised Swiss super-democracy.
Has the Swiss economy been victimised in any way by daft, pie-eyed idealism? Quite the contrary. Cooperatives are democratic, not socialist. Socialism – as the Cambridge historian-of-ideas Gareth Stedman Jones has observed, was in part an attempt to replace the Catholic Church with a state religion. Most Swiss, a supremely praktisch people, have more down-to-earth aspirations. Last September, for the fifth year in a row, Switzerland was the world’s most competitive economy — leading the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness ranking based on its vetting of ‘the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country’.
What connects these impressive results for practical idealism to Bern’s Muenster — and the chief preoccupation of this blog — is the media revolution on which the Reformation rode. Printing centres, most notably in Basel, were established early, in Switzerland, and became critical to marshalling and disseminating the anti-clerical, anti-Vatican arguments and facts.
Forcing change on the Catholic Church in the prelude to the Renaissance would seem dustily irrelevant, to members of the chattering classes in our time. Practically none of us have been constrained by the dictates of religious authorities: most of us grew up as the children of agnostics, atheists or doubting semi-believers. But smashing medieval religious authorities’ outrageously unequal information-power with new technology – in the shape of the Gutenberg printing presses – resonates loudly, in the midst of our digital revolution. Print broke the power of sermons, just as the internet and e-publishing are vaporising the power of print’s gatekeepers today. It was from preaching that most people, who could not read, gleaned authoritative information about the world.
A report on a conference of medieval sermon scholars at Harvard two years ago sets out the remarkable parallels – including doomed attempts to discredit the unmediated broadcast of information, as in old media propaganda, now, about blogs and blogging:
… It was the ecclesiastical system behind sermons “that invented the idea [that] there was a universal body of knowledge” and that led the way to modern universities. Sermons were the dominant literary form in the Middle Ages. They bridged the emerging power of the written word and what was, 900 years ago, the predominance of the spoken.
… Before the printing press, knowledge was disseminated through oral traditions. In the public sphere that meant sermons. These discourses from the pulpit were the Internet and the mainstream press and the propaganda machine of the Middle Ages.
… At the same time, sermons of nearly a millennium ago prompted a very modern question: Who has the right to speak? Vying with priests for the right to preach were lay people, lawyers, kings, and public officials. In a bit of recurrent culture shock, even women demanded the right to preach sermons.
Most of all, the prospect of lay preaching “was an anxiety for the Church,” wrote Carolyn Muessig in a study of medieval preaching and society. (The University of Bristol scholar delivered the first paper at the Harvard conference.) The concern, she wrote, was the Vatican’s desire to protect people from heresy and “to preserve a clerical monopoly on learning.”
The debate over who owned the medieval airwaves went on for hundreds of years. As late as the 14th century, one critic still held that the Vatican had the final say. “No lay person can preach without authorization,” wrote Robert de Basevorn, “and no woman ever.”
… In an internet break from reflections on that old battle, news of a book published by Yale University Press surfed onscreen, this week. More than twelve decades after a brutal misuse of power by her husband, Leo Tolstoy, his wife Sophia Andreevna has got her revenge. It seems that the author of War and Peace wrote a spiteful, vicious tale about his own domestic wars in an 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. Everyone in literary Russia, and lofty beings outside it – including Tsar Alexander III – knew that the old philanderer’s story about a jealous husband who murders his wife was intended as punishment for Sophia’s infatuation with a musician who filled the void created by the romantic hopes and expectations that Tolstoy’s behaviour wrecked.
The aggression in the novelist’s self-pitying tale was not lost on the tsar, who sympathised with Sonia. In one phase of the drama, this writer’s wife demonstrated exceptional nobility of character in pleading with the ruler to order government censors bent on suppressing The Kreutzer Sonata to lay off – even though she was profoundly hurt by it.
She found her own way to fight back – in two novellas telling her side of the story that languished in deepest obscurity in Tolstoy’s archives until they were published in 21st-century Russia. Now, Yale has had them translated into English, in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, a collection that includes, along with extracts from her letters and diaries – more amazingly yet – a story by the Tolstoys’ son Lev that is also a protest against Kreutzer.
We have had to wait much too long for these remarkable discoveries. Sophia Andreevna had to make a special journey to St. Petersburg to plead her husband’s case with the tsar. Now, if she had only had a blog …