The Medieval Nature of the Confederate South

This is an old paper I wrote for college.  I would change only one thing.  Some of Richard Weaver’s conclusions suggest the South was the last bastion of Christendom.  That would be false on several counts.  How widespread Christianity was in the South is debatable, though it was probably more Christian than New England.  Further, the South is better seen as the last bastion of the old classical order.  That actually makes sense from architecture to slavery.

I cut out about half of the paper.  There were certain lines of argument made by Doug Wilson and Rushdoony that are 100% false, so I had to remove those parts.  That’s why it might appear choppy.

Jacob Aitken
Civil War
Dr. William Simpson
19 April 2005

The Medieval Nature of the Confederate South

Certain themes overlap when one considers the historical and sociological nature
of the Confederacy and in the larger context the Old South. Although these themes are
not exhaustive, and certainly not exclusive, one will consider the medieval framework of
a civilization whose inhabitants drew from Europe. A brief introduction will be given
delineating the medieval aspects of a society, as opposed to a society whose foundations
are those of Modernism. 1 The point to be established is that the Confederacy saw them
as the last European civilization of the old order. 2

Instead of asking what modern-day historians think of the South, although they
will be quoted when appropriate and not overly relying on primary sources, valuable as
they may be; one will ask the question what those who have strong ties to the South but
are separated from the conflict by a few generations, thought of the Confederacy.
Attention will be given to the work of the Southern Agrarians 3 and those who studied
under them. This is important because it was the Agrarians who helped establish the
academic link between Europe and the Confederacy. Richard Weaver writes, “What they
[the Agrarians] saw—what they had to see—was that the South, with its inherited
institutions and its system of values, was a continuation of Western European culture and

that the North was a deviation.” 4 It is interesting to see how Europe saw the South
during the Civil War. Hugh Dubrulle, after tracing a generation of British scholarship
concerning the Civil War, makes a few observations. He notes, the slavery question
aside, that the British had a tendency to see the Southerners as fighting for hearth and

“In fact, British observers of the American Civil War…claimed that Federal forces had waged a new type of war unprecedented in its destructiveness and scope. The limitations of a volunteer army produced by a democratic army…prevented the North from waging a limited war of skill…Indeed, they presented Confederate forces as a model for emulation, highlighting the social inequality that had produced traditional military virtues in the South. Theses notions associated with a skillful Confederate way of war exerted much influence on British military thought in the period leading up to World War I.” 5

John Crowe Ransom looks back on the South and explains its defiant individualism in terms of its unique heritage from Europe. “The South is unique on this continent for having founded and defended a culture was according to the European principles of culture.” 6 Ransom outlines this culture as the adaptation of the English model based on the soil, and a loyalty to the Establishment to the degree that the Establishment was necessary for civilization. Ransom writes, “The Establishment…was meant to be stable rather than provisional.” 7 On agrarianism as the backbone of the Confederate society Ransom writes, “It is the European intention to live materially along the inherited line of least resistance…I have in mind here the core of unadulterated


Europeanism, with its self-sufficient, backward-looking, intensely provincial
communities.” 8 W.J. Cash, while critiquing the outlook on the Southern Agrarians in
his essay, “The Mind of the South,” makes some fascinating insights as to what drove
their historiography, among other things. Using phrases such as “neo-Medievalism” to
describe their literary forbears (and the Agrarians’ possible attempts in the future), Cash
suggests “nearly all of them had decisively escaped from the old Southern urge to turn
the country into Never-Never Land, that nearly all of them stood, intellectually at least,
pretty decisively outside the legend; and so were able to contribute to the region its first
literature of any bulk and importance.” 9 Another critique of the Agrarian movement
came from C. Vann Woodward. The critiques suggest that the “Lost Cause” mentality
never died among certain ivory-tower types. He notes, “The twelve Southerners who
took their stand in 1930 on the proposition that the Southern way stands or falls with the
agrarian way would seem to have been championing a second lost cause.” 10

not be far-fetched to suggest that what passed for States’ Rights rhetoric was merely neo-
feudalism applied to modern issues.
In his “Thanksgiving Sermon” of 29 November 1860, in New Orleans, Benjamin
M. Palmer warned if the South did not unite religiously and morally for the coming
struggle, more than the armies of Federal troops would ravage her. He saw embodied in
the North all the horrors of the French Revolution and exhorted his flock to be united. He
saw in the abolitionist reforms the abolishment of Christianity. He notes, “Last of all, in
this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion…To the South the high
position is assigned to defending, before all nations, the cause of religion and truth. In

this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and
compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries…Is it possible to decline the onset?” 30

Medieval Tensions in the Confederacy

Although attempting a civilization built on a Medieval European mindset and
hoping for the advantages that such a society would have, certain aspects became lodged
in Southern society that were no longer Medieval. For instance, Medieval society, while
not condemning slavery, did encourage the freeing of slaves. Quoting Thomas Roderick
Dew Eugene Genovese notes, “[W]hile the medieval Church did encourage emancipation, it made little effort to emancipate its own slaves.” 31 Historically then, the Confederacy made no effort to follow their alleged Medieval forbears on this note. In his forceful defense of the South, Robert L. Dabney, who had served briefly as Thomas
(Stonewall) Jackson’s chief of staff, defends Virginia’s actions with respect to slavery.
Hypothetically stated, the North had repudiated a federal compact with the South and lost the governing ability to force the South to free the slaves. 32 Therefore, even if slavery was morally questionable, it was politically legal. Dabney writes, “Now, had slavery been intrinsically a moral and social evil, yet its protection was in the compact between the States; and to the honest mind, there was but one course for the North to adopt when she concluded that she could no longer endure her connection with slavery. This was, to restore to the South the pledges…and to dissolve the Union.” 33


Even though he probably would not call himself a Medievalist, Dabney is aware
of the tradition from which he is drawing, even if he does not say so explicitly—the
Protestant background of the American colonies and the feudal/Medieval implications
thereof. 34 Discussing those who would call themselves “States’ Rights Democrats”
Dabney notes that they advocated limited construction of the powers conferred by them
on the Federal Government. “Their view of those powers was founded on the following
historical facts…[T]he former colonies of Great Britain emerged from the Revolutionary
War distinct and sovereign political communities or commonwealths…allied together,
and as such were recognized by all European powers.” 35

Assuming that they sought to be faithful to their Medieval heritage, they were
faced with Medieval tensions. Genovese writes, “For one thing, educated slaveholders
were taught medieval history and read a good deal of it thereafter. And in the late Middle Ages…a serf could run to town not merely to escape his master’s clutches but to secure legal protection against him.” 36 However, “The great difficulty in the way of transition to a system of unfree labor other than slavery was that virtually all its features threatened the economic or political security of the slaveholders in a transatlantic world that was rising on commodity production for a burgeoning world market.” 37 The Confederate economist could argue that abolishing slavery would effect more than the South: the North and Europe would suffer as well, theoretically. Southerner’s sought to get around

the horns of this dilemma by appealing to a pre-Medieval, Roman tradition: “A
contradiction between intent and reality bedeviled Southerners who attempted to defendand reform slavery. Roman law established the concept of absolute property, which rationalized a commercial slave system based on commodity exchange. Roman law thereby provided an ideal starting point for the modern bourgeoisie as it fought loosefrom medieval notions of multiple claims of property.” 38

While a perfect picture of the South as a Medieval society is not possible, it is not
far-fetched to see Medieval themes in the Old South from Colonial times until 1865, with
a brief resurgence by the Southern Agrarians. Furthermore, it is difficult to say how
Medieval the Southerners at the time saw themselves. Surely they hoped for European
support, finding aristocratic traditions in which their friends overseas could relate.
Nevertheless, segments of the Medieval world appear in the Old Confederacy: a feudal-
like social order that entails a fierce loyalty to one’s home, a religious and cultural
movement that sought, if unsuccessfully, to have the Confederacy theocratic, and a
tentative ruling class, one which never worked out its problems with slavery.

1 This will not include restating European intellectual history, rather it will highlight several themes prominent in the Medieval mindset.
2 The time-period of Medievalism will be broader than what some would define it, although I think it is faithful nonetheless. Secondly, the terms European and Medieval will be used interchangeably because I will be referring to a Medieval European society throughout the course of the essay.
3 That is, the historians and literary critics connected with Vanderbilt University in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.

4 Richard Weaver, “The Tennessee Agrarians,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, eds.George M. Curtis III & James J. Johnson, Jr. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1987), p. 7.
5 Hugh Dubrulle, “A Military Legacy of the Civil War,” Civil War History vol. 49 no. 2, June 2003, p.153f.
6 John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the AgrarianTradition; By Twelve Southerners. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, [1930] 1977), p.3.
7 Ibid., p. 13. The implication for a limited central government should not be missed in his comment.

8 Ibid., p. 5.
9 W.J. Cash, The Modern Southern Reader, eds. Forkner & Samway (Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers,[1986] 2000), p. 477.
10 C. Vann Woodward, The Modern Southern Reader, p. 552.

30 Thomas Cary Johnston, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer (Richmond, VA: PresbyterianCommittee on Publication, 1906), p. 212f.
31 Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White ChristianSouth (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1998), p. 78.
32 Whether or not the North actually repudiated such a compact is beside the point at the moment.
33 R.L. Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and the South (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1867]
1991), p. 350. It must be pointed out that Dabney is concerned over the rightness of Virginia’s cause ratherthan the European foundation of the Confederacy.

34 There is still much debate over the extent of Christianity in the Colonies. For the moment the discussion is limited to the vestiges of Puritanism remaining in the colonies. Granting rising secularism in Colonial America (from a post-Puritan perspective), remnants of Puritan thought, such as natural law, were still prevalent.
35 Robert Lewis Dabney, The Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson(Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1865] 1983), p. 125.
36 Genevose, A Consuming Fire, p. 112. It is often pointed out that some slaveowners wanted their slavesto be exposed to the Bible; one wonders the reaction had they also been exposed to Medieval history.
37 Ibid, 112.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s