To Change the World, Chapter 5

Hunter now turns to history to show how his explanations of cultural change can explain important changes: the Christianization of Rome, the Christianization of the European barbarians, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries, the Reformation, religious revivals like the Great Awakening, the abolition movement in Britain, the Enlightenment, the European socialist movement, and secular and modern culture in the West.  Here is how he sums up the dynamics of change, even with the different relationships of the necessary elements of cultural change:

At every point of challenge and change, we find a rich source of patronage that provided resources for intellectuals and educators who, in the context of dense networks, imagine, theorize, and propagate an alternative culture.  Often enough, alongside these elites are artists, poets, musicians, and the like who symbolize, narrate, and popularize this vision.  New institutions are created that give form to that culture, enact it, and, in so doing, give tangible expression to it.  Together, these overlapping networks of leaders and resources form a vibrant cultural economy that gives articulation, in multiple forms, and critical mass to the ideals and practices and goods of the alternative culture in ways that both defy yet still resonate with the existing social environment. (77-78)

Change can only occur when the leaders and networks of this alternative culture “challenge, penetrate, and redefine the status structure at the center of cultural life” either from the center of the culture or from a position outside the center.  Political power is most effective when it “creates space” for the development of the alternative culture rather than when it “imposes a cultural agenda” (78).

As a history teacher, I really enjoyed this chapter as it gave a cultural interpretation of the events that I have listed above.  I’m not going to go into depth on his explanations, but I’m going to include a short summary of some of the developments that he talks about:

The Christianization of Rome: While Christianity began very much in the cultural periphery of the Roman Empire, the ties of urban commerce and the Greek language aided the early church, as did the well-educated and well-born church fathers.  Other wealthy Christians could also provide funds.   Christians eventually began to produce culture that could not only defend itself but to be taken seriously as an alternative vision of its own and incorporated the Roman concept of education that trained the elite to be leaders (in the case of the church, bishops) but also declared themselves to be ‘lovers of the poor’ ” (55).  Bishops became important leaders in the religious and legal lives of their cities.

The Christianization of European tribes: Monasteries cooperated with the new leaders of Europe to Christianize Europe and build on a Roman-Christian-Germanic culture on which laid the foundation of the Middle Ages.

The Carolingian Renaissance: Charlemagne and Frankish nobles cooperated with clergy (especially Alcuin, the leader of Charlemagne’s educational efforts) to improve scholarship and education in Charlemagne’s empire.

The Reformation: Following on the humanist revival of scholarship in the Renaissance, well-educated scholars like Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Beza benefitted from the printing press, the wealth of cities, networks of scholars and merchants, and the protection of nobles as they enacted their reforms.

Great Awakening and British abolition: Well-known heroes like George Whitefield and William Wilberforce were part of networks of colleagues and supporters.  Whitefield benefitted from the publishing industry and the transatlantic economy, as well as his and fellow leaders’ elite educations.  Wilberforce’s England was a place where the Enlightenment language of freedom also supported the idea of abolition, in cooperation with the Whigs.

The Enlightenment: An parallel patronage network of salons, royal academies, and other societies produced a movement unconnected by patronage to the various churches but rather connected formally or informally to the governments of Europe.  His summary of the change is too good not to quote:

At the time that John Locke died and Rousseau was born in the early years of the eighteenth century, it was unimaginable that Christendom would ever be diminished.  Yet in less than a century, traditional Christian authority had either been overturned (as in France) or had been forever weakened.  In this we see a cultural transformation of world historical significance.  To see this only, or primarily, as an evolution in the history of ideas fails to grasp the nature and character of the change that took place.  Rather the Enlightenment was a revolution generated by an alternative network of leaders, providing an alternative base of resources, oriented toward the development of an alternative cultural vision (a new anthropology, epistemology, ethics, sociality, and politics), established in part through alternative institutions, all operating at the elite centers of cultural formation.  (75)

As I said, this chapter was really good and gave strong evidence for his theory of cultural transformation.  At the same time, it would be interesting to read critiques as well, especially by historians who study these periods.  It’s natural for his model to look airtight when he provides the narrative.  But like I said, it was good.

One important point that he raises is patronage.  All cultural products have to have some kind of patronage.  In our economy, the most obvious patron is the consumer, which dictates to some extent the cultural products that are produced.  But a deeper study of elite patronage in our culture would also be interesting.  Wealthy benefactors are still around, universities allow for scholars to engage in research that produces books that few non-academics will ever read, and there are other examples of patronage outside of the market as well.  It seems like understanding patronage is one key aspect in understanding culture.



  1. Regarding modern culture, it seems to me that mass media drives and forms popular opinion as much as Yale and Harvard… or maybe one could say that they are taking their cues on what boundaries are acceptable to push from the center of culture. The consumer can reject things, but most aren’t educated enough/deep thinking enough to do so. Frontline ran a fascinating piece on the creators of popular youth culture called, “The Merchants of Cool.” It is interesting to think of the concept of patronage in light of MTV and it’s corporate sponsors roles in shaping culture.

  2. I think that Hunter would agree with you on the mass media. And yeah, The Merchants of Cool is really good. Pretty amazing the way that “cool”, which is supposed to some undefinable mystery, actually has a science behind it.

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