Medievalism & William Morris
Morris and the Alienation of Labor
As a Socialist, Morris was especially concerned with the separation of the worker from what the worker produced in modern, mechanized labor. People who worked in factories did not have any pride in or relationship with the final product because they only worked on one stage of production. Marxists and other leftist theorists refer to this phenomenon as “the alienation of labor.”
In the Middle Ages, before the Industrial Revolution, individuals worked from home and were skilled in the entire production process of particular crafts. Ruskin, and especially in his essay, “Nature of Gothic,” was key in Morris’ recognition of the alienation of labor. This is because, in his essay, Ruskin rejects the “slavery” of Classical perfection and symmetry in favor of the “savageness” of the Gothic style; he imagined each Gothic craftsman as an artist who could express himself through meaningful labor.
Morris adopted Ruskin’s approach to art and meaningful labor in his own attitude toward crafts, design, and literature. His primary concern was for meaning and the production of beauty in work. He concluded that life for working people in medieval England was much better than it was for workers in industrial England. He therefore worked to recreate this system and set up his own company workshop and book press, where he designed wallpaper and wrote, illuminated, and copied the medieval-style texts you see here. He was personally connected with his artistic and literary productions from start to finish, like he imagined medieval artisans and craftsmen were.
By promoting the indivisibility of the artist and the product, Morris worked to reverse the alienation of labor. Morris’ work style and philosophy demonstrate the relationship he saw between aesthetics and morality. Beautiful arts and crafts depended, in large part, on the way workers produced them; his idea of ethical production of beauty was the medieval, pre-industrial capitalist method.
Morris’ Literature and Historical Continuity
The illuminations you see here are from stories Morris wrote. These stories glorify certain qualities that Morris associated with the Middle Ages including chivalry, community, and agrarian life; he presented these qualities as being in stark opposition to industrial English society. The image on the top is from The Wood Beyond the World, an Arthurian fantasy with seafaring adventure, fantastical creatures, and a damsel in distress. Below that is the opening to News from Nowhere, a Socialist utopian story set in medieval England about a community-controlled farming society. The illumination to the left is from A Dream of John Ball, a novelized account of the 1381 English Peasant Revolt.
English people were connected with their medieval predecessors. By suggesting historical continuity in his medievalist literature, he attempts to cultivate a sense of solidarity with past working people, and consequently, a drive to change modern conditions of labor in favor of his vision of the medieval paradigm for production. He invites his audience to recognize the collective purpose of history and to derive a sense of community with medieval English people from it. This sense of community, he hoped, would express itself in a drive to return to non-industrial ways of life and the ethical production of beauty.
Understanding Morris and his work helps us understand the context and inspiration for Horsfall’s establishment of the Museum. Horsfall was convinced of the same relationship between aesthetics and morality as Morris was; the two simply expressed that relationship differently. Morris was more radical than Horsfall in that he worked to change fundamentally the constructions of labor, the worker, and beauty in his society. Horsfall was concerned with bringing art to those “alienated” workers, as a means of morally improving them, without actually changing the conditions of their labor. These differences, however, did not prevent Morris and Horsfall from, at some times working together, and at other times participating in the same culture of art and critique.
Written by Kate Perl