Contrast ‘haves’ in foreground & ‘have nots’ in background, Varanasi 1967, Greg Zolnai

“Welcome back to the new Middle Ages “

Toward a rational View of Society: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7

I think I penned that quote (more @ bottom), but Monday Note’s second latest piece by Frederic Filloux hit it home, saying “Silicon Valley luminaries defend a Serfs vs. Lords society coated with an ancient idea” (thanks also Jean-Louis Gassée for that series).

As a geologist-turned-mapmaker who blogs on geo-history among other things, when I grew up I took a special interest in the Middle-Ages. On one hand I lived in Pau and Bordeaux, SW France as a teen— not only have they rich medieval histories, but Pau was also near the gateway to Spain and Moorish conquest, and Bordeaux the seat of British medieval possessions in S France — so I learned early on how relative cultures fare with one another. Secondly I travelled in SE Asia as a child — the banner photo is from my Dad’s slide collection — that exposed me early to eastern religions, and prompted me to look up early Christian history. Then came the slow realisation that many events today were set in motion in the early Middle Ages: while I’m no historian and cannot documented it fully, here’s an attempt to outline that; this follows early postings on my old website and recent ones on my personal channel, as distinct from my professional channel.

My thesis is that after the post-WWII boom, we’re backsliding as socialist experiments failed — outlined here in my pre-Medium post on ‘whence Brexit?’, go to Evolution in that post for more on ‘have vs. have nots’ in the banner photo above — but let me tease out the medieval connections:

  • Protestantism grew in Europe as a reaction to the established (Catholic) Church, starting with William of Ockham calling in early 14th c. for apostatic poverty, and culminating in early 16th c. with Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, also seen as the start of Reformation. Today we see a return to Christian dogma especially in the US congregational churches, and the resumption under the G.W. Bush Administration of state support for so-called faith-based initiatives. Congregations I knew in Texas harked back to a prior Christian ‘golden age’, such as attempts at a Christian state in the Levant during the Crusades.
  • Medieval Antisemitism was a way to deflect discontent away from the feudal regime toward an identifiable minority, especially in days of poor medical knowledge around, say, the spread of the Plague. Today it has been variously attributed the resurgence of the far-right in the UK, in the EU or in the US. For a sense of perspective, medieval Europe had a very restricted world view before the Renaissance and global maritime exploration. But today we have no such excuse, other than using the media or societal oppression to pit social groups if not countries against each other.
  • Democracy grew as a reaction to absolutism rooted in feudalism and brought to a peak in the Age of Enlightenment, when economic and military progress made national and transnational hegemony possible. Some countries ended that hegemony in through revolutions (France in 1789, then the Republics after Napoleonic interludes) or independence (United States in 1776), others brought it through gradual parliamentary changes (UK from Magna Carta through Cromwell to Parliament in 1654). But now these gains are sorely challenged again via populism in US and UK, and absolutism in Russia and China.
  • Another regression from democracy is the increased challenges lately against free speech and human rights — a flashpoint being Google exiting then possibly re-entering the Chinese market, bowing to censorship and oppression —as well as increased protectionism the US has done many times before. Don’t trade barriers mirror medievalism, where ‘foreigners’ from the next country (if not the next village) are deemed ‘other’ and not worthy of inclusive practices?
  • And while Renaissance and Industrial Revolution saw the rise of a Middle Class in between the Owning and Working Classes of the medieval and prior periods, we are returning to what the French call a “société à deux vitesses” — a two-tier world, where the privileged 1% zoom ahead of the 99% rest of the world population — the opening Monday Note as well as Greg Palast in a cameo piece on the Mandalay shooter, both argue that tech automation and job exports will gut the Middle Class. That is to me the most patent mirroring of the medieval situation today!

We could go on and on — especially in the such as Sarah Kendzior and De Correspondent, or say the Guardian with George Monbiot and Owen Jones or Owen Jones here — as well as the rest of this series linked at the top.

Inspired by statistics at UN Data and Guardian Datablog, here is an illustration based on two papers studying economic wealth in Great Britain since the Middle Ages — sources and data are posted here, presentation here — that point to the proposed rise&fall also suggested in the Guardian here.

Update: found a few more uses of the quote, not fact-checked