Welcome to our mediaeval times

How now reminds me of the 14th Century

Voltaire said that history may not repeat itself but that people always do and thus I might make merry with comparisons of our NOW with Mediaeval Europe, most notably the 14th century version. Reading historian Barbara Tuchman’s excellent A distant mirror has prompted me to the realisation that our contexts may be different but our vexatious nature is not (unoriginal, I know, but still). So I’ll argue that in this early 21st century venality and appalling inequity is again (still) on general display, that institutions are both revered and detested, that pandemics dominate and fundamentally change our world, and that reason seems lost amid a sea of conspiracy theories, despite the best efforts of some authorities. As Julia Hurst and Zoe Laidlaw observed recently, ‘…identity is rooted in history, and so history cannot be escaped.’

          I used to assume that the worst excesses of a monetised humanity have really been a sort-of-recent invention of neoliberalism (maybe it’s my human nature to think we live in the worst of times) but it seems 14th C. Europe also let homo economicus have full rein. Tuchman notes that ‘money could buy any kind of dispensation: to legitimize children, of which the majority were those of priests and prelates; to divide a corpse for the favorite custom of burial in two or more places; to permit nuns to keep two maids; to permit a converted Jew to visit his unconverted parents [favourable conversion rates on display]; to marry within the prohibited degree of consanguinity (with a sliding scale of fees for the second, third, and fourth degrees); to trade with the infidel Moslem (with a fee required for each ship on a scale according to cargo); to receive stolen goods up to a specific value.’

And now?

            ‘Writing of “incapable and ignorant men” who could buy any office they wanted from the Curia, [Tuchman notes that the 14th century] chronicler Henry of Hereford went to the heart of the dismay when he wrote, “Look … at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” Donald J Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, well to do climate sceptic and Republican, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s akin to appointing a pimp to head a church. Well did we look on and tremble. As he left office, Trump outraged many (sorry, continued to outrage many) with his appointments. LGBTQ Nation (2021) notes that ‘on his way out the door, Trump is packing presidential commissions and boards with anti-LGBTQ politicians and conspiracy theorists, sanctifying their bad behavior.’ Among them are right wing advocates Marcus Bachmann, David Beattie, Charlie Kirk, Larry Arnn and many more (almost all of them white males of considerable means).

            Conspicuous wealth and an increasing gap between rich and poor characterised the 14th century as it does our current plutocratic societies.  Petrarch (1304 – 1374) notes that ‘the popes were descendants of “the poor fishermen of Galilee”—but were now “loaded with gold and clad in purple.” John XXII, a Pope with the touch of Midas who ruled from 1316 to 1334, bought for his own use forty pieces of gold cloth from Damascus for 1,276 gold florins and spent even more on furs, including an ermine-trimmed pillow. The clothing of his retinue cost 7,000 to 8,000 florins a year’ (Tuchman). Who knows how much the great mass of the poor had? Chrystia Freeland notes in  Plutocrats, The rise of the new global super rich that the average 1980 CEO in the US had a wage 42 times the average income in the country; by 2012, the multiple was 380. No doubt recent events and presidents have increased this gap (though Biden may change things). According to the UK’s Guardian, there has been a 117% increase in wages for the wealthiest 1% of Brits (in real terms) since 1986, compared with an average wage increase of 47% for the rest of the population. The Poverty program [http://www.povertyprogram.com/statistics.php] estimated that, in 2011, 1 in 7 people in the European Union lived in poverty, while the ratio was 1 in 6 in the US.

            Corruption is systemic. It must be, otherwise it could not exist (& thrive). Tuchman writes that ‘when [14th century] bishops purchased benefices at the price of a year’s income, they passed the cost down, so that corruption spread through the hierarchy from canons and priors to priesthood and cloistered clergy, down to mendicant friars and pardoners…’ This century asks how many of the great financiers of our global financial crisis were found guilty of crimes?  The Financial Times states that (opposed to the myth that no-one was held accountable for the GFC) 47 bankers did jail time, the greatest number (25) in Iceland, 11 in Spain, 7 in Ireland but only one in the USA, where the most invidious were perhaps at play.  Investopedia states:

‘As the last CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard “Dick” Fuld’s name was synonymous with the financial crisis. He steered Lehman into subprime mortgages and made the investment bank one of the leaders in packaging the debt into bonds that were then sold to investors.

While other banks were bailed out, Lehman was allowed to fail, in spite of Fuld’s pleas to policymakers. Fuld claims he never received a golden parachute at his exit from Lehman, but he did make more than $466 million during his tenure. Today, Fuld maintains a low-key public profile, but he is the head of Matrix Private Capital Group, a high-end wealth management firm he helped found in 2016.’

The church, as the primary institution of mediaeval Europe, did good as well. We cannot forget this (in the interests of balance). ‘The Church, not the government, sponsored the care of society’s helpless—the indigent and sick, orphan and cripple, the leper, the blind, the idiot—by indoctrinating the laity in the belief that alms bought them merit and a foothold in Heaven. Based on this principle, the impulse of Christian charity was self-serving but effective. Nobles gave alms daily at the castle gate to all comers, in coin and in leftover food from the hall. Donations from all sources poured into the hospitals, favorite recipients of Christian charity. Merchants bought themselves peace of mind for the non-Christian business of making profit by allocating a regular percentage to charity. This was entered in the ledger under the name of God as the poor’s representative. A Christian duty of particular merit was the donation of dowries to enable poor girls to marry, as in the case of a Gascon seigneur of the 14th century who left 100 livres to “those whom I deflowered, if they can be found”’ (Tuchman). In that seigneur’s words one perhaps finds the chief reason for much of the good that was done back then: a guilty conscience. In our times, we can point at our contemporary institutions like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (whose website is headed ‘ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE: we are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity’) and see that the comparison holds true, perhaps even so far as in many of our current philanthropists doing good for much the same reason as our Gascon seigneur.

            The European 14th century did not have national governments and states as we do. It’s prime institution was, as mentioned, the Roman Catholic Church. 14th century satire and complaints about the church are numerous (think of Chaucer’s character, the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales,  or Boccaccio’s Decameron). Priests are greedy, lecherous and punitive, bishops uncaring, and the church as a whole presented as venal and hypocritical, but we know about these complaints because they were written down and have survived. We also know the church was near universal in its influence. The church’s culture was part of the society’s fabric, its culture – to reject the church’s teachings and hopes abandoned you to limbo.  Tuchman writes that ‘Christianity was the matrix of medieval life.’

            So, what is our matrix? Is it Economics?


            Capitalism is the economics model which expresses how most of us live in the 21st century. A neoliberal view of that says that we may indeed be homo economicus. That is a notion both detested and glorified. Many of us fear our governments have become government of the people by the corporation and for the corporation. Consider (again) that global financial crisis of 2007-09. Did it move us away from the practise of neoliberal capitalism with its enormous inequities and indifference to communal well-being? No; our current pandemic woes show us such.

Many commentators (among them George Monbiot, Naomi Klein, and Dr. Omer Javed [Pakistan’s leading economist]) have pointed to how government actions in and after the GFC simply reinforced the very practices that had produced the crisis, with support for banks, fossil fuel companies and other institutions owned and controlled by neoliberal capitalists. Many fear we may be making the same grave errors with the current pandemic. Our Covid crisis indicates that a debate about lives versus the economy (such a one as they apparently had even in mediaeval times) shows both some faith in government (business could not solve national problems that were beyond the scope of any one business, no matter how large) and much condemnation. It is a case of both contempt for government (that apparently owes its primary allegiance to neoliberal business as usual) and a fundamental belief that governments can be good and do the right thing. ‘Democracy [which our governments allegedly are] aint dead,’ so to speak, just waiting to reassure most of the people; like our mediaeval populace, people now still have faith that democratic governance is our matrix. Thus the apparent parallel paradoxes of knowing the church is greedy and corrupt and yet offers us the DNA of our belief structure in the 14th century, and our contemporary distrust of government while holding out with knowledge that it is all we’ve got and hope that it may remember its democratic ideals.

            Pandemics afflict our world more often than most people realise; usually zoonotic diseases that jump some barrier between wilderness and human society.  We know, we detest, we wish gone the SARS-CoV-2 derived one of now. Most of us will also know of what was subsequently called the 14th century’s Black Death but which those of the time labelled the ‘Pestilence’ or ‘Great Mortality’. It killed about one third of much of the mediaeval old world’s population. Yersina pestis was the bacteria that caused the plague, spread primarily via rats and fleas but with an air borne variant that enhanced contagion. The ‘Pestilence’ fundamentally re-ordered mediaeval society, helping to end feudalism, ushering in an accelerated Renaissance and ultimately the alleged rise of reason and distrust of faith and superstition.

            I say alleged because, just as with papal edicts insisting that people not blame the Jews,  and despite other authorities attempting to have people act responsibly, conspiracy theories and the irrational often held sway in the 14th century. As it does now. Tuchman states that 14th century ‘medical thinking, trapped in the theory of astral influences, stressed air as the communicator of disease, ignoring sanitation or visible carriers…’ While we can applaud our modern medicine for its grasp of bacteria and the immune system and vaccines (or their absence) we can say that, despite the difference in context and the states of medical knowledge, there isn’t that much to distinguish us from the less desirable acts (and thinking) of mediaeval times. We have ex (thank God for the EX) presidents advocating the injection of bleach, and people who assign blame to Sino experimentation, or G5 technologies or UN inspired agendas. Or all of them.

            Mediaeval doctors operated (usually) to the best of their abilities and within the extent of conventional wisdom. Tuchman notes that ‘notwithstanding all their charts and stars, and medicaments barely short of witches’ brews, doctors gave great attention to diet, bodily health, and mental attitude. Nor were they lacking in practical skills. They could set broken bones, extract teeth, remove bladder stones, remove cataracts of the eye with a silver needle, and restore a mutilated face by skin graft from the arm. They understood epilepsy and apoplexy as spasms of the brain. They used urinalysis and pulse beat for diagnosis, knew what substances served as laxatives and diuretics, applied a truss for hernia, a mixture of oil, vinegar, and sulphur for toothache, and ground peony root with oil of roses for headache.’ 21st century doctors operate (usually) to the best of their abilities and within the extent of our conventional wisdom, and they save innumerable lives, despite fools and conspiracists.

            Like our mediaeval brethren, some of us even see the hand of modern Jewry (or some other bigoted substitute) in our current malaise. The media – even Josh Frydenberg – has noted a rise in anti-Semitism, but nothing (hopefully) quite so bad as what happened to Jews all over Europe in the 14th century.  Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull in 1348 ‘in which he said that Christians who imputed the pestilence to the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” and that the charge of well-poisoning and ensuing massacres were a “horrible thing.” He pointed out that “by a mysterious decree of God” the plague was afflicting all peoples, including Jews; that it raged in places where no Jews lived, and that elsewhere they were victims like everyone else; therefore the charge that they caused it was “without plausibility.” He urged the clergy to take Jews under their protection as he himself offered to do in Avignon, but his voice was hardly heard against local animus’ (Tuchman). Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.  For some of our deplorable contemporaries, it’s still down to Judaism, but others blame the Chinese or the UN or simply insist that the sciences of virology and epidemiology  don’t exist. Reason is reviled.

            So it’s true that we may not repeat history but people now are making much the same mistakes as were made about 600 years ago. I wonder if its true that first world peoples value history more than most. Most first nations peoples seem to lack a history of vicissitudes related to pandemics, other than those brought in by Europeans. The notion of ‘knowing that which has come before helping us to understand ways forward’ is a wise one. And thus this essay makes yet another attempt at having us learn from history. Learn of better ways forward. Let us come out of this pandemic better than we were going in.

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