I was re-reading the De Regno the other day and pondering an odd remark St Thomas makes when describing the various social forms that develop in the course of man’s search for the perfect community (that society which possesses within itself all the necessary means for the attainment of its end). St Thomas deals, as one might expect, with the family, the city, the province (what we might call the ‘country’) and ultimately with Christendom or the Church. However, between the family and the city, in the space moderns would likely call ‘civil society’, he places the vicus.
Now since man must live in a group, because he is not sufficient unto himself to procure the necessities of life were he to remain solitary, it follows that a society will be the more perfect the more it is sufficient unto itself to procure the necessities of life. There is, to some extent, sufficiency for life in one family of one household, namely, insofar as pertains to the natural acts of nourishment and the begetting of offspring and other things of this kind. Self-sufficiency exists, furthermore, in one street with regard to those things which belong to the trade of one guild. In a city, which is the perfect community, it exists with regard to all the necessities of life. Still more self-sufficiency is found in a province because of the need of fighting together and of mutual help against enemies. Hence the man ruling a perfect community, i.e. a city or a province, is antonomastically called the king. The ruler of a household is called father, not king, although he bears a certain resemblance to the king, for which reason kings are sometimes called the fathers of their peoples.
Vicus is here translated ‘street’ as is reasonable given the context although ‘quarter’ might give the sense a little better. He clearly means the district of a city where the members of one guild ply their trade. How could such an area be supposed to have any kind of self sufficiency? One can hardly live off shoes or ironmongery. I think St Thomas must suppose that one guild represents the group responsible for providing one particular element necessary for the temporal live of the city and being thus indispensable is always in a position to trade for the rest. One could, with relative ease, divide up human life into the relevant sectors:
|Area of Temporal Life||Example of Traditional Guild|
|Learning||University (Faculty of Arts)|
|Health||University (Faculty of Medicine)|
|Organisation||University (Faculty of Law)|
|Salvation||University (Faculty of Divinity)|
This would seem (with one obvious exception) to divide human life into the necessary areas in all societies in the wayfaring state. Of course, the mediaeval guilds were more diversified than the examples I give in the second column because they were diversified by the natures of their crafts as well as by their ends. However, by St Thomas’s logic, the vicus would be diversified only by the end (for this is what gives it its quasi self-sufficiency). I would suggest that in a society conformed to the tenets of Thomistic social doctrine society ought to be organised in this way. Indeed in England (the Regnum Thomisticum) and then Britain until the nineteenth century it was so organised. The Corporations of each Borough and City (the Masters of all the Guilds) ran the Towns and elected their representatives to Parliaments and the Masters of Oxford, Cambridge and the Scottish Universities governed those Universities and elected their Members of Parliament. The University seats and business vote remained features of British public law up to the nineteen sixties. Earlier still the guilds (at least) provided the non-charitable welfare and insurance functions now usurped by the state and financial institutions. The charitable welfare functions were, of course, provided by the hierarchy and the monastic orders.
What is the obvious exception? It is the manor. In fact, another meaning of the word vicus is village, manor, hamlet or suburban settlement. The knight or lord of the manor is to the urban vicus what the master is in a guild or university. Just as membership of the University is divided into scholar, bachelor and master and membership of the Guild into apprentice, journeyman and master so membership of the order of chivalry is divided into page, squire and knight. The knight emerged in the chaos which followed the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. The knight was a local hard-man who controlled an autarchic minimum of agricultural territory farmed by others for whom he provided security and lower governmental functions. His control of this territory was legitimised by military service offered to the ruler of a larger area responsible for higher governmental functions. The guilds and universities found themselves in a similar relationship with the King or Emperor. As Chivalry emerged in the socio-economic-military sense so Chivalry as a code of behaviour and spirituality emerged as the Gospel, the Monastic Orders and the Hierarchy interacted with and elevated this natural phenomenon. Knighthood as such was quite independent of the aristocratic system and was meritocratic. One could even be fined (distraint of knighthood) for failing to be knighted when in possession of the relevant feudal territory. To this day the feudal system in Britain is quite independent of the honours system. Although almost immediately the aristocracy tried to assimilate knighthood reducing it to the lower rung on the table of honours they never truly succeeded. Emperors, Kings and Princes have always fallen over themselves to draw attention to their status as knights rarely do they allude to the fact that they happen to also be a count or a baron.
This other form of vicus also found expression in the Regnum Thomisticum. The Writ of summons to the Model Parliament of 1295 expressly requires that “without delay you cause two knights, of the more discreet and more capable of labour, to be elected from the aforesaid county… and that you have them come to us on the day and at the place aforesaid ; so that the said knights shall then and there have full and sufficient authority on behalf of themselves and the community of the county aforesaid.” In a way therefore the vicus is the basic unit of society in Thomas’s vision, and in fact in Mediaeval England, for the next highest unit is already (in some degree) perfect. The vicus that is the manor or guild (or university) provides something indispensable to society as a whole and thus cannot be eradicated without eradicating the perfection of that society. Its disappearance from the constitutional landscape is a sign that slavery has crept again from out its unquiet grave and slithered its rotting fingers once more around the neck of western man.