Community in the Premodern Village

For the vast majority of human history, men and women were born and raised in rich community. While the family is the “first society”, the foundation of civilization, and the state is the “complete society”, the fulfillment of civilization, the village is one of the many essential “middle-level” communities which come together to form a subsidiary society. “Man cannot have healthy familial life and just political order unless these take root and find support in village life.” (John Nieto, “Nature and Art in the Village“) The village needs the city to attain the common goods of justice and peace, but the city needs the village to prepare men and women for healthy human society.

The village was an intentional community: a place to form virtuous friendships, to educate children, and to work, rest, and pray together. The small size of the village was around Dunbar’s number, allowing for a tight-knit network of meaningful relationships, rather than a wide and loosely connected web of acquaintances with only a few true friends. These social bonds are consecrated to God in the community’s church. Just as household prayer should be the center of family life, the parish should be the center of village life. Common education, work, and recreation are also important to the local economy and culture.

The village community also existed in other forms, like nomadic tribes. Blocks and boroughs of a city can also form a type of “urban village.” But the most common example comes from medieval society. Here, peasants shared the common prayer life of the parish and gathered together at local shrines. Housing was densely packed around the community’s center, tithing and taxes supported public projects, and there was consistent shared labor on communal property, called the “commons.” A network of mutual aid and social debt tied together the village economy, while dances, folk music, festivals, and artwork tied together the village culture.

It is in the village that man can learn to understand his relationship to nature, both to God’s creation and to his own human nature. By using reason to cultivate nature and by recognizing their own relationship with the natural world, men and women recognize both the dominion and limitations of humanity in the face of nature. We learn that humans are both thinking minds and embodied animals. We learn that the earth is not just a resource to be used, but a home and a gift from the Almighty. This knowledge can be easily confused in the artificial and manufactured lifestyles of modern cities and suburbs.

If villages are so important, why are they extinct in the modern world? Economically, it was capitalism that enclosed the lands of peasants to create the proletariat, destroyed local economies to make way for the free market, and unsustainably industrialized all forms of production, especially agriculture, sacrificing community life to the technocratic paradigm. Politically, it was liberalism‘s destruction of all subsidiary societies which created the modern wasteland in which nothing remains but the individual, the market, and the state.