I highly recommend the piece by Madeleine Bunting over at Comment is Free today on one of my pet subjects. Being, as I am, lazy, and also involved in protracted and difficult negotiations with a seven-foot Norwegian spruce, I find I can do no better than lift the most pertinent few paras clean out of it:
The “medieval” has become a form of cultural shorthand, and it serves many purposes. It’s not just about plotlines or a stunning aesthetic – it is also used as a pejorative term. People talk of Africa as medieval, or argue that Islam is “stuck in the middle ages”. Medieval becomes synonymous with hard, short lives, barbarism, and a brutal, arbitrary use of violence. We are both captivated and repelled by this period of our past.
Dig a bit deeper and some fascinating explanations emerge of why the medieval should still have such cultural currency. For all the huge differences between today and 12th-century Europe, there are also remarkable parallels which, arguably, bring these two societies closer together than any in the intervening period. First, we share pervasive anxiety about an apocalypse: while we fear climate change our medieval counterparts feared the end of the world. Second, we share a fear of Islam and uncertainty about how to deal with it. Should we fight it (as they subsequently did in the Crusades) or attempt to win converts? Islam’s capacity to exert such a powerful hold over its growing number of followers left 12th-century Europe baffled and insecure about its own certainties. Does that sound familiar?
Third, the emergence of a cash economy for the first time since antiquity prompted deep concern. The pursuit of profit produced inequality and contemporaries bewailed the breakdown of community and family. Finally, there was a crisis of authority in 12th-century Europe, with the church and nobility riddled with corruption and a revolution in government as it sought to expand its power into its subjects’ lives. Our corollary is a political process eviscerated by apathy and disillusionment, while the state insists on acquiring unprecedented new powers through ID cards, DNA databases and surveillance.
I also quote, with love, the best comment, from one Lepetomane:
What did the middle ages ever do for us? Start of trial by jury, start of parliamentary government, start of a banking system, rise of universities, habeas corpus…yes, but what did the middle ages do for us….?