Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Mirror of History

"Medieval is the new modern" is the tagline of this blog. I came up with it five years ago as a shorthand to signify both that many of the hallmarks of "modernity" have a long history stretching back to the medieval period, and to highlight the persistent medievalism in contemporary culture. 

Walters MS W. 34, fol. 15v.
Of course, "modernity"--just like "the West"--is an ideological construct, and it relies on "medieval" as the pre- or anti-modern category that defines its opposite. "Medieval" is the term that describes the primitive, ignorant, barbaric era that preceded the "Renaissance," the period of rebirth that banished slavish devotion to authority with inquiry and pursuit of intellectual novelty. This established, comforting narrative goes all the way back to (where else?) the medieval period, with Petrarch's lament that he lived in a "dark age." The medieval period undergirds the the narrative of progress; the period is the naive, uncivilized era that "the West" escaped or matured out of with the Renaissance (the individual), the Scientific Revolution (rationality over religion), the Enlightenment (liberalism and secularism), and the Industrial Revolution (wealth of some nations). The medieval period--a vast span of time over the globe replaced by a false, unitary time and place--reminds the philosophers, politicians, and scholars of "the West" of how far we've all come, and becomes a shorthand for what separates us from people living in other places, rather than those living in another time.

But in light of recent events, the Middle Ages are more important than ever. They offer an example of what cataclysmic demographic, political, religious, cultural, and economic change look like. Both halves of the Roman Empire provide object lessons in the perils posed to stability when the ruling elite becomes corrupt and sclerotic, and when abrupt demographic change occurs. By studying the medieval period we can see what happens--on a large scale--during a period of sustained climate change. The Middle Ages offer a mirror of what it looks like to live outside of the paradigm of progress. Medieval is the new modern.

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