Until fairly recently, it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics. Barring the odd Christian conservative, medievalists tended to lean left: a Marxist grad student, say, mucking around in land ownership patterns to show how past inequalities gave birth to present ones, or an environmentalist activist, perhaps, fascinated with vegetable-dyed handspun clothing. But when Americans invoked historical events in politics, they tended to be more recent—the founding of the republic; the struggle against slavery and segregation; victory over Nazi Germany.
This has changed. Since the September 11th attacks, the American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East. The trend has been prodded along by the movement’s discovery of its European counterparts, which have used medieval and crusader imagery since the 19th century. This is troubling to many of those who study the Middle Ages for a living.
Oh, bother. More:
In a recent essay in the popular academic blog “In the Middle” Sierra Lomuto argued that medievalists had “an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponised against people of colour and marginalised communities in our own contemporary world.”
In other words, the Middle Ages are worth studying only if contemporary people draw left-liberal lessons from them about the contemporary world. Read the whole thing. Ed West, probably a closet Plantagenet, remarks:
as @DouthatNYT says, telling people that an interest and attachment to European history makes you Alt-Right is not the cleverest strategy
— Ed West (@edwest) January 3, 2017
Well, as an odd Christian conservative who is ten weeks away from publishing a book holding up a very early medieval institution — Benedictine monasticism — as a model for us in the 21st century, I have a few things to say.
It’s extremely annoying when contemporary people dismiss the medieval period as little more than castles, crusades and poor hygiene. Doing so says more about modern prejudices than it does about the Middle Ages. If there is a growing interest in the European Middle Ages, shouldn’t we be asking why? The last time this happened in modern times at any popular level was in the 19th century, in the Romantic era’s reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the cold, logical classicism of the Enlightenment. Some of it was silly, some of it was dangerous, much of it was valuable — but all of it came from a widespread sense of profound disruption and dislocation, spiritually and otherwise. There was a general sense that life had become too abstracted, positivistic, and mechanical.
We in the West are in such an era today. For example, globalization has done to the populations of the West what the Industrial Revolution did to rural folks. Post-Christianity has largely finished the job that the Enlightenment started, and the Cult of Reason has proven no more satisfying to the masses today than it was back then. Europe really is once again under serious assault from Islam, though not by Ottoman armies this time (and alas for the Catholic Church, it is led by a Pope who is more into felt banners than tapestries, if you take my meaning).
Can it go wrong? Absolutely, in a thousand ways. For example, the völkisch mysticism that emerged out of German Romanticism gave us the Nazis. But it can also go very right. The Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (d. 1948) called for a “new middle age,” as I wrote in this blog post. Excerpt (from Berdyaev):
In reality the medieval civilization was a renaissance in opposition to the barbarism and darkness which had followed the fall of the civilization of antiquity, a chaos in which Christianity alone had been the light and the principle of order. For long it was believed that this complex and rich period had been a great void in the intellectual history of mankind and of its philosophical thought, when as a matter of fact these centuries had so many excellent thinkers and such diversity in the realm of their thought that noting like it can be found at any other epoch; the things which were substantial and living for them are counted as superfluous luxuries in modern times. A return to the middle ages is then a return to a better religious type, for we are far below their culture in the spiritual order; and we should hurry back to them the more speedily because the movements of negation in our decadence have overcome the positive creative and strengthening movements. The middle ages was not a time of darkness, but a period of night; the medieval soul was a “night-soul” wherein were displayed elements and energies which afterwards shut themselves up within themselves at the appearing of this weary day of modern history.
As I say in that post, Berdyaev was not a proponent of sentimental nostalgia. Rather, he said we today must read the signs of the times, and see ourselves not only as “the last Romans,” observing the passing of an old order, but must also be “watchers for the dawn,”
looking towards the yet unseen day when the sun of the new Christian renaissance shall rise. Perhaps it will show itself in the catacombs and be welcomed by only a few. Perhaps it will happen only at the end of time. It is not for us to know. But we do know beyond any possibility of error that eternal light and eternal beuaty cannot be annihilated by any tempest or in any disorder. The victory of number over goodness, of this contingent world over that which is to come, is never more than seeming. And so, without fear or discouragement, we must leave this day of modern history and enter a medieval night. May God dispel all false and deceptive light.
That’s Berdyaev. As I put it then:
The Benedict Option is the term I use to describe this rising movement for a new Middle Age, a spiritual revolution in a time of spiritual and cultural darkness. The monk was the ideal personality type of the Middle Ages. Few of us will be called to the monastery, but all of us who profess orthodox Christianity are called to rediscover a monastic temperament, putting the service of God before all things, and ordering our lives — our prayer and our work, and our communal existence — to that end. We are going to have to recover a sense of monastic asceticism, and do so in hope and joy, together.
I certainly hope that the longing for a society with characteristics of the medieval era does not give strength to race nationalists, but we should not be surprised if it does. The idea that this is the only really interesting question about neo-medievalism in our current moment is absurdly parochial. One doesn’t expect neoliberals to be excited about a rediscovery of medievalism in all its various expressions, but they would do well to understand the social conditions that are turning people’s minds and hearts back to that earlier period, and to understand why the shortcomings of neoliberalism have called these impulses forward. We have to find a way to make use of the good things about the Middle Ages while resisting the bad things about the period.
The Middle Ages will not recur as they were in the West from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 until Petrarch scaled Mount Ventoux in 1336 and came down with the Renaissance. Time is not circular, but rather is a spiral. The first thing we have to be done with if we are to understand the time we’re entering is the myth of linear progress. This is very hard for neoliberals to do.