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January 8, 2006 - We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern













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Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA - and is the author of The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (Broadway Books, September 2004). There he takes us back to 1386, when two knights in full armor faced each other in a duel to the death at a monastery in Paris - the last time the French government authorized a duel to settle a legal dispute.
Ah, so long ago. Those were the days. But things have changed. Don't expect the short and feisty Nicolas Sarkozy and the tall, elegant and intellectual Dominique de Villepin to strap on the steel any time soon.

But have times changed? From the Michael Sandlin review of this book about "14th century France in all its disease-ridden, anarchic, litigious, bellicose glory," where land acquisition and foreign conquest drove the economy, Sandlin comments, "Much like the future of the United States under the rule of Neo-con warlords, one's vocational options in medieval France were few: you either inherited wealth and real estate, or joined the military to help your country acquire further real estate."

That seems to be about where we are now - you're born into the class of people who can, with some effort of course, make it in this world, or you join up, as Lyndie England did when there were no jobs at the local Wal-Mart, and help your country assert control over a key chunk of the Middle East. That's ridiculously oversimplified, of course, but in "cubicle world" - the corporations of America - you find those who can and will rise to some comfort, working for those who started out on third base, as they say. Then there is the underclass - they can join the military, or shuffle along however they can until it's over.

Jager seems to have decided to address that implication of his book, and a bit more, in this, a short column in the New Years Day edition of the Los Angeles Times.

There he argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"

Well, that actually makes sense.

He does mention Barbara Tuchman's bestselling book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1978), and wonders about that mirror thing in the title. This isn't the fourteenth century, but we do have our own "disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague." Yep, we've have AIDS for years and the avian flu on the way - the modern plagues - and too, "the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans" and "religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like 'crusade' and 'jihad.'"

This man may be onto something, and he notes one of his UCLA students recently wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages."

Just so. The same for us.

His main point –

 

We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good - in every sense - as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.

 

Yep, so it seems. Torture is now effectively legal, and we have our own Crusade - but this time not to take back Jerusalem, the birthplace of our Christ, from the infidels. This time we want these same infidels to stop this religious stuff entirely and form secular governments and play nice, economically. But there is a reason the president used the word "crusade" when all this started after the events of September 2001 - without meaning to he was channeling the "collective unconscious" of western history. He stopped using the word (he's not much of a scholar of history) when his people told him that word "caused issues" in the Middle East, but it was just natural.

As for, on the other side, "jihad" - this time around we want to keep the Muslim hoards out of Toledo, the one in Ohio, not the one in Spain.
And as for "rampant religious fanaticism" we now have dueling fatwa calls on each side - as our Osama, Pat Robertson, calls for the assassination of the elected leader of Venezuela and for God to abandon Dover, Pennsylvania. Sigh. The latter ties into our "fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science" - as the State of Kansas, unlike the ungodly in Dover, last year officially redefined science to include the supernatural, so what hasn't yet been figured out and tested by experiment can be taught in public schools as, logically, the obvious work of an "intelligent designer" (the Big Guy in the sky). So stop all that science stuff. Have faith.

A quick aside: Susan Jacoby, in this review of a new book on the Black Plague, mentions this incident –

 

The Muslims in Spain, whose knowledge of medicine was far more advanced than that of European Christians, could do little, because Islam had declared earlier theories of contagion heretical (since God alone supposedly had power over life and death). Ibn al-Khatib of Granada (1313-1374), one of the last great Muslim intellectuals of the Iberian convivencia, or coexistence, bravely declared that the role of contagion in spreading the plague was "firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact." Not surprisingly, he was eventually imprisoned for heresy, then dragged from his cell and murdered by a devout Muslim mob.

 

Why does that sound familiar? Well, these days, doing that Darwin and science thing, relying on "experience, research, mental perception," can get you in trouble. You do recall the University of Kansas professor, Paul Mirecki, who planned a course on creationism and intelligent design, then canceled it when the Christian conservatives raised a fuss, and then got a good roadside beating by a few of the anonymous God guys. That was December 6, 2005 - not the Iberian convivencia of the fourteenth century.

This is the New Middle Ages. So don't be ignorant. Use the right term.

Eric Jager, by the way, isn't an angry fellow. He's quite mellow, as you can hear here, where he's interviewed on National Public Radio about the "trial by combat in Medieval France" book.

He's just a careful academic type. He wants people to use the right terms.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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