The October Thing #14 – Medieval Characteristics – October 2, 2011

Medieval Characteristics

A homework assignment that I liked was to pick a concept—progress, fascism, whatever—and ask students to find the 5 most important elements of that concept and then we would argue about it in class and refine the concept. I’ve been thinking about Medievalism lately and it provoked me into doing my old homework assignment. Once I had done it, I realized that the factors most characteristic of the Middle Ages are the most important factors keeping humans from progressing today. As always, there are chicken-and-egg linkages among the factors.

1.      RELIGION. Religion is just a subset of tribalism, but it has some special attributes of its own, such as pilgrimages and unique clothing. Pilgrimages have been very popular in the past, and are characteristic of persuasive religions—if you can get folks to leave home and travel, you’ve got a strong religion. The U.S. was founded by pilgrims; Chaucer’s most famous book was about them, but pilgrimages have largely disappeared from most religions—except Islam. Most of the holy sites of the past—Jerusalem, Canterbury, Compostela, Toulouse—are today mostly visited by tourists. I visited Fatima some years ago—just tourists, no pilgrims. Cell phone conversations about the Hajj to Mecca are interesting; most of the pilgrims say it’s not worth it.

2.      IGNORANCE. Probably the most important invention of all time is the school. It broke the barriers of letters and numbers. Whereas most people in the Middle Ages couldn’t read and write, today the only pockets of illiteracy are in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa—the least progressive and most vulnerable parts of the world. And yet, “letters” were considered “trivial”; as we emerged from the Middle Ages, the important subjects were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and the science of music. And it is the sciences that have given us the inventions that have led to the enlightenment, democratic revolutions, more learning, comfort, medicines, and an incredible expansion of our awareness of the scope of time and space. As Europe, then America, then Japan, then South Korea, then China embraced the sciences, the world changed. Will it continue to change in South America? Indonesia?

3.      WARS. Whereas fire, flood, plague, and famine paid the occasional visit to the Middle Ages (and still do), war was constant, violent, and ubiquitous. Map boundaries changed rapidly and radically. There were wars within wars within wars. Wars surged the length and breadth of China. The warlords of Japan rampaged town to town, county to county, all over the islands. Anjou versus Aquitaine, Guelph versus Ghibelline, Mongols, Tarters, Ottomans, Paris versus Burgundy, Venice versus Everyone. Of course, religion and ignorance were intimately involved in all this.

Today most of the world is at peace, boundaries are amazingly stable (India and Bangladesh just finalized permanent boundaries and a trade pact) and warlords are disappearing, even in parts of the Middle East. Even the so-called World Wars of the 20th century lasted less than 5 years each, had low death rates, and resulted in even-more-stable boundaries. Why? It’s not clear, but the rise of education and the fall of religions seem to play a part. Most of us feel no need to demonstrate our faith by sending members of other faiths to hell. Most of us understand that other languages and customs aren’t necessarily barbaric. We learn about others by books, magazines, radio, television, and cell phone. We understand that we share a common—rather small—planet. What makes all this remarkable is that we are still tribal, still divided into different languages and different monies but we are slowly homogenizing our clothing, our haircuts, and various other aspects of our lives.

Will wars rise again? Possibly, if education falters and religions rise. This seems unlikely; notice that the religions’ power of tithing has largely been absorbed by the state in the form of taxation and the power of prayer absorbed by medical science, such as it is. Most of us still have a sort of religious hangover and say “Thank God” or “Allah Akbar” occasionally, but we are learning that the magic is antibiotic, not theological. The fact that we say dollar or euro or yen or renminbi is also a hangover; we know that they are all expressed by electrons moving at almost the speed of light.

4.      THE PAST. In perusing Viking’s 690 page Medieval Reader, I am struck not only by the past-oriented mind-set, but also how random and arbitrary everything in the future seems to be. If God wills, the sun will not rise tomorrow. There are no paychecks, there is no food in the house, no one plans, everyone looks backwards. When food is available, it seems to be mostly oatmeal and onions.

We certainly haven’t totally overcome this. We bear our parents’ names, we teach history not futures. Yet we watch weather forecasts and do not blame the gods for the rain. We not only know that the sun will rise but we also have some confidence that the incredibly complex machine in the driveway will start. Although we have put aside our faith in the gods (or perhaps because we have), we have an amazing ability to predict the future. Any failure in this ability (perhaps a tornado) astonishes us and we redouble our research on predictability.

In the Middle Ages, any change was regarded as heresy. Progress was unthinkable, invention a curse of the devil. “As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

5.      ISOLATION. Castles had multiple walls, moats, and ditches. Towns had multiple walls and streets were frequently sealed. In China, the walls were even bigger than in Europe; the wall around Xian is a series of towns itself. Today, people party in, around, and on top of the wall. All roads were toll roads. Classes were severely divided; royalty, nobility, knights, squires, serfs. Clergy vs. laity. Men over women. Communication was nearly nonexistent. News traveled slowly and it was mostly myth and rumor. Many monks were silent; many nuns were not allowed to talk. Schisms and heresies divided people within religions. Hindu vs. Buddhism, Confucius vs. Tao, and God only knows how many schisms in Islam and Christianity.

Anything written had to be on dried lambskin or calfskin and almost all the writings were religious. (Perhaps all of it. Supposedly, a few “secular songs” or “love songs” were preserved on animal skin but I have never seen one, although I have seen thousands of religious ones.)

Today, communication is instant (although myth and rumor still abound.) Today the gates to the towns are open, although airports, prisons, and military bases are gated; some suburbs and corporations are gated. These are today’s castles. (Except in Sweden, where companies are forbidden to fence their property. Be a good neighbor, and you don’t need the fence, the Swedes say.) Robert Frost noted that only a “stone-age savage” thinks that good fences make good neighbors. Slowly and reluctantly, we seem to be overcoming our savagery. I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall come down or Europe using a common currency, yet it happened. No one is silent; cell phones and the internet resound with our chatter. No one cares whether Christ’s Blood is consubstantiated or transubstantiated.

So the question is: If this is what the last 7 centuries have wrought, what about the next 7? (Since change is now a lot faster, you may want to think about just the next century or so.)