Medieval Dystopia?

We are being bombarded by the media about the “climate emergency” and the consequences of Putin invading Ukraine and of the availability of affordable energy in the form of natural gas. We howl in the agony of worry and anxiety faced with massive changes in our lives. For many, it will take the form of no longer having the money to continue living in the world as it is. Someone living in the street no longer has access to technology or communication or even to a place to live or food to eat. He must either end his life or find temporary respite through the rare generosity of others who still have money, homes and food. A person in such a precarious situation is already living in a world without culture or technology, what we might be tempted to call a medieval hovel or simply the pre-death of destitution.

What were the Middle Ages? Historians debate the difference of values and cultural markers between, say, the late fifteenth century and the time of the French Revolution three centuries later. The demise of rationalism provided the growth medium for Romanticism and a yearning for another era, one that was responsible for the most beautiful cultural achievements – like our cathedrals. The notion of that long period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Reformation holds a different meaning for the historian and the Romantic, one like Novalis who wrote Die Christenheit oder Europa. This work is generally understood to be a parable, an analogy, to describe a state of mind and yearning rather than a historical truth.

We have not to forget that the Middle Ages was not a time when more “advanced” people retreated into a less rational and more primitive era, like the destitute person I mentioned above. The rationalist will generally consider the Middle Ages by their obscurantism and inhumanity, the barbaric way by which condemned criminals were executed for the entertainment of the crowds gathered around the gallows and the quartering block. I feel very intensely that we are returning to a fascination for darkness, the night, castles, witches and wizards, pre or post rationalism – and all the themes of many computer games.

The media carries much of the responsibility for this fear and anxiety. The eschatology associated with global warming is a part of this post-rational mindset. The ideologies of crowds are nothing new, and we have only to think of the rise of Fascism and Nazism a hundred years ago. We stand in awe in the monuments of the Middle Ages, yet we totter between the wake of the Enlightenment and the darkness of many applications of science. Frankenstein was written more than two hundred years ago in response to the consequences of a catastrophic volcanic eruption on the world’s climate – in 1816. We are in a way entering a new Romantic era. The era from 1790 to roughly 1820 marked the inspiration of poets and dreamers, but also the wildest spiritual prophecies and religious revivals in America and Europe.

I am not convinced that humanity follows trends uniformly, but rather that different values become manifest during a same historical era. There were rationalists in the fourteenth century, and there were massive witch-hunts in the era of Descartes. Nazism was defeated only fourteen years before my birth and left its black mark in the culture of Germany, Europe and the entire modern world of science and technology! Winston Churchill made a speech in 1940 in which he described the world into which Europe and the United States would be plunged if Hitler prevailed:— “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of perverted science”.

The Catholicism of the Middle Ages is still with us. It suffices to visit a place of pilgrimage like Lourdes or Fatima to see the naivety of people each with their special needs, but also their absolute faith. It suffices to visit a monastery like the Benedictines of Fontgombault or Le Barroux to witness medieval liturgical life at first-hand. Their life is not a theatrical reconstruction but the life they have chosen (or which chose them). Our problem is that we have also known something else. Léon Bloy once wrote Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais, meaning that our life experience leaves a permanent mark on us. We yearn for the monism of medieval life and thought, but we have to realise that it was no more united than our current fragmentation. Our reflections of faith and reason are full of fallacies and traps for the unwary. Religious belief and thought were more diverse than we would like to imagine, and Islam perhaps had more influence than Christianity in the world of philosophy and science. That period was less hostile to science and rationalism than many of us would imagine. Novalis certainly sought a meaning in Christian Europe that he would never find otherwise than by analogy.

The amazing ting about the Middle Ages is that they represent a period in the past, studied by historians, but also, in the future by analogy. This is probably what was in the back of the mind of that young man between Jena university and his father’s salt mines. In thirty years’ time, when global warming has forced us all to live in northern Canada or Siberia, we won’t be building cathedrals or singing Gregorian chant, but learning to live without electricity or gas! We already find it hard to find a family doctor in the countryside. My own is Romanian and speaks English slightly better than the French in which she should be fluent to practice medicine in this country! We might be back to quacks, faith-healing and bleeding quicker than we think. We are divided between the idea of the shitty hovel and the cathedral, as today between an oligarch billionaire’s super yacht and a group of tramps dossing under a railway bridge. One author for whom I have great esteem is Umberto Eco (1932-2016), not only for that entertaining story about the monastery in Italy and the whodunnit mysteries, but also for his philosophy and analysis of human thought and language. His work is quite mysterious and very technical in its analysis. I have to confess that I am more familiar with his fiction than his more academic works.

There are certain characteristics by which we identify that age of Aristotelian and Thomist reasoning, already a forerunner of Enlightenment rationalism. What we come to call medievalism becomes an interpretive tool to examine our contemporary age and its hermeneutic, ideological distortions and fears. Umberto Eco spoke of ways to “dream” the Middle Ages – Dieci modi di sognare il Medioevo. We have in particular Millenarianism, the doom-mongering and eschatological expression and the orthodoxy of Christendom. This notion of “dreaming” the era again reminds us of Novalis’ most celebrated fragment of 1799.

We find that the Middle Ages is not a threat of the future, like the rants of Greta Thunberg and other cheap demagogues, but a reality that is already with us. Uncertainty is our companion and stability is found to be an illusion. We try to keep everything under control by classifying and labelling everything and every identity. The “new” Middle Age will be seen as a nightmare, a utopia or an epiphany. Our ideology describes us as rational, but perhaps we are rational because we are ideological. Perhaps it is in this light of our own medieval era that we would form a more objective opinion on the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. I think of the quaint harbourmaster’s office in Dinan and the superimposition of black oaken beams over modern toilets and showers. Medieval man adapted Roman ruins and Romanesque churches and modified their style and use.

Perhaps we are more ready for change than we imagine. Our uncertainty and fear bring us to a sense of determinism. We are scared of losing the identity we claim. The temptation to nationalism is still there as are other expressions of resentment.

What do I imagine happening now? Firstly, the incessant pressure from the media, politicians and demagogues is no more than vacuous claptrap. I hope that my own reflections are more based on my acquired knowledge and experience of life. My scepticism (keeping an open mind for as long as I am not convinced of something) is a great asset. My big question is whether medieval man knew he was medieval, in the way we call ourselves modern. Did he try to define and constitute life as we have done since about the time of Descartes. Did they have a notion of progress and growth that we are now losing for our very survival? I was very impressed at school on studying William Golding’s Lord of the Flies portraying a particularly pessimistic and nihilistic view of human nature. Strip away the veneer of culture and mankind becomes something worthy of death and destruction! Fortunately, humanity is also capable of love, truth, beauty, art and music, literature and discovery of nature. As a Christian humanist, I believe that good outweighs and beats evil.

I have no idea about what is going to happen with Russia and Ukraine. The “post-truth machine” has obscured everything and we cannot trust any narrative. I find it tragic, because Russia at its most noble has produced a sublime contribution to human culture. There may be no winner or loser, since it is in the interests of the West to negotiate. Germany in the early 1930’s was ruined economically, and what came out of that? Hitler. Putin chose his moment as his stroke of genius: call the West’s bluff as we started to engage the process of energy transition to solve the “climate emergency” (as if man could do anything about it). Like in the past, we can do nothing against the weather or the fury of the sea. We take ourselves for gods, but we are not. In the end, we either come to terms with Putin or we learn to go without energy (gas and electricity) and all the technology those two resources make possible.

The last time I took my little boat to sea, I had a few books with me, including Nicholas Berdyaev’s The End of our Time. It contains a chapter on the New Middle Ages as well as some reflections on Soviet Communism. His thesis begins with his observation that Renaissance humanism is exhausted and over and done with. He sees history in cycles. I begin to doubt that view, given that all cultures and all humanities exist simultaneously in all periods of time. For example, I have nothing to do with “post-modern” culture and its destruction of humanist aesthetics (musical harmony, clear language, realism in art, etc.). Perhaps history can “live” because there are survivals in a world where most of what we cherish is mercilessly trashed. Anyway, back to Berdyaev… He was describing his time – 1933, but he could have been talking to us in 2022. What has changed? What made it possible to build cathedrals, vandalise and deface them in Reformation times, guillotine the French nobility and send millions of Jews and other minorities to the gas chambers? The answer is humanity, what we all have within ourselves, our capacity for beauty, goodness – and evil.

Berdyaev tried to understand things in terms of philosophy (love of wisdom) and what I would call “proto-Romantic” mysticism, especially from German Lutheran roots. Berdyaev constantly refers to Jacob Böhme and the Ungrund, that primaeval state of darkness and indetermination that preceded even God the Creator and the Λόγος. Each day, we live a period of night when the part of the earth where we live is facing away from the sun. Shapes lose their clarity and the world becomes silent (at least out here in the countryside). Movement ceases and we are taken by sleep. It is a time of wordless longing. uncertainty and nostalgia. We are like the Israelites in exile:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness:
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?

It is the spirit of Romanticism and the increasing darkness of our own existence. The light of day, the Enlightenment or Aufklärung, can deceive us and keep us on the surface, superficial. We long for depth of spirit, a new symbolism. The beginning of this new middle age is marked by barbarism, cruelty and violence. Berdyaev wrote in 1933, but he was aware of a world that died in the trenches of World War I. Our woes of 2022 are nothing more than a continuation. We seek to return to a comfort zone, some measure of certitude, but it is not there. We wallow in darkness.

We hope that the vacuum left by man’s pride will be filled by a true discovery of freedom of the spirit. It could be that we are at the brink of a new soviet revolution using different language, or even a new form of Nazism with a completely different appearance but the same ideology. We read everything Berdyaev says about Socialism, and we recognise it in the Great Reset and the climate fanatics in their uncontrolled braying for a deconstruction without any positive plan. Christianity, like the sun before dawn, is waiting to fill our despair and nihilism with spirit and faith. It will not be the caricature of Christianity in the institutional Churches that have become forces of secularism and socialism, but something new and within each of us. The malaise is no different in 2022 than in 1933. It is the same Kali Yuga.

Without a doubt, most of us who are still alive in thirty years’ time will not be driving cars, living in a house, having access to electricity or the technology we now use. Would we even have a postal service or a telephone, or even a horse? No doubt, the oligarchs and billionaires would still have these things, plus medical and trans-humanist technology to make them able to live for centuries. The imagination is fired by any number of science fiction films. Would the new feudal lords be happy without God? Most of us, if the predictions are accurate, would die of pogroms and exterminations, pandemics, starvation and inability to adapt to a post-technical world.

What I think is more likely is that much less would change than we fear. We will adapt to extremes of climate and temperature. We will eat what is available. We will find somewhere to live if we lose our homes. Above all, we will return to God and spiritual values. What would a new Middle Age look like? More than material things, individualism and liberalism would have to go. We will have to re-learn the meaning of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, the universal communion. Art, literature and music would have to be re-invented or re-discovered. This Church can only draw us in through our freedom of spirit and our desire, not through coercion. We cannot tolerate a clerical totalitarianism, nor one of the State. God will be at the centre of our lives and desires. It won’t come about by magic, but this could take decades or centuries. Those of us alive today would be dead by then and experiencing a whole new existence. There would be a whole new attitude to work, money, class, law, justice, energy, natural resources including renewables like wind, solar and tides. This is our hope and prayer for those who will come after those of us who will be dead and probably forgotten.

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