Thursday, May 21, 2009

Only a Medievalist Can Understand the Present

The Spectator recently ran an interesting piece by Dan Jones that says - with some irony - "the medievalists' time is here." Jones shrewdly observes that history becomes repeated in ways that moderns hate to admit:
No longer shall our period be a byword for all in today’s news that is stupid, backward, superstitious, credulous, chauvinistic, Islamist or cruel. It’s time for the world to recognise that the problems with which we now wrestle were experienced and dealt with in spooky parallel by our ancestors some 700 years ago. Where Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellows had the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years War and the Mediaeval Warm Period, so we have Swine Flu, the G20 riots, Afghanistan and Al Gore. The names have changed, but the horsemen ain’t.

OK, Jones must surely be grandstanding with that "no longer shall" taken straight out of the toolbox of second-rate political orators. But I totally stand with Jones in the sentiment that the Middle Ages matter very much today.

Over at Modern Medieval, Matthew Gabriele thinks that we should stop being surprised when contemporary events appear to have similarities with those of the distant past. Gabriele makes quite an interesting link between the recently leaked Rumsfeld memos and the first Crusades under the papacy of Urban II:
If you look at the language of the sources of the First Crusade, they too don't care so much about their enemies. I mean, they have only a very tenuous grasp of the religious difference between their enemies and themselves. The only thing that matters is that they -- the Muslims in this case -- held Jerusalem, that they stood in the crusaders' way, that they weren't Christian. This meant that they were enemies of God, that the crusaders were participants in a cosmic struggle between good and evil for the very fate of the world. You've heard this before, and you'll likely hear it again. Perhaps, I ask again, the best thing to do is to realize that it's time we stop being surprised when it happens.

Sometimes, people ask me how the Middle Ages matter. Sometimes, I want to ask them how they could possibly not.

True, dat.

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