Pickstock on medieval social economy: bonds of kinship, not bonds of contract

It is no secret that Radical Orthodoxy, in concert with many other intellectual historians (including Pope Benedict), sees a radical intellectual, cultural, and spiritual shift taking place in the thirteenth century with emergence of the thought of Duns Scotus.

In her book After Writing, Catherine Pickstock attempts to trace some of the ways in which this shift led to pervasive decline in the economic and political realms. Her overarching theme is that there came a shift from the bonds of kinship – displayed, for example, in the high middle ages’ approach to godparenthood and marriage – to the bonds of contract. This older web of kinship, Pickstock wants to demonstrate, is loosely bound to a sacramentality which “[structures] all forms of social interaction.” (152)

In the economic realm, lay fraternities and craft guilds provided the bonds of kinship and linked economic practice to liturgical practice. The bonds of friendship – beyond just the norm, for example, that disputes be settled through internal arbitration, to the more important informal exchange of gifts in the sense of caritas – were never formalized into contract, but rather embodied in social expectations and ritualized practices.

With the decline of the fraternities (a bi-product of the Scotist revolution), however, two pernicious developments ensue: the notion of charity is depersonalized into an abstract notion of philanthropy, which, like modern “charitable giving,” does nothing to bind giver and receiver, and, as social networks of lay fraternities and guilds decline, power shifts to a class of newly aggrandized priests / ministers. (Pickstock shows how, as usual, late medieval Catholicism and the emerging Protestant societies are mere variations on the same pernicious theme.)

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