Perhaps I should explain
One of the most frequent complaints I receive — in email, much more than in Comments — is that I propose a return to the Middle Ages. Variants include “living in the past,” & “fighting battles that were lost five hundred years ago.”
In the first case, were the tables turned, I would wish the pundit, “Bon voyage!” In the second, well, I’d be happy to return to the 14th century, or even the 7th for an extended vacation, but am unable to find a flight, or book accommodations with my debit card. To the third objection, let me suggest that all the best battles were lost five centuries ago, & what better time to fight them again, than now that our enemy has been lulled into complacency.
The battles I have in mind are on points of principle. While it is true that I have an aesthetic preference for centuries anterior to my own (or let’s spell that “anteriour” in the obsolete manner), battles are seldom fought on aesthetic principles; more often on doctrinal ones. (Except, some of the aesthetic issues may also be doctrinal.) “It would be nice” to build cathedrals again in the Gothic style (or better, Romanesque), but as gentlemen discovered in the 19th century, it can’t be done in the same way, without the same centuries of preparation.
Consider the organ, for instance. Let us suppose, for sake of argument, we could build a new organ on genuinely Gothic lines & install it within a church built ditto, with so much attention to detail that no technology later than, say 1450, were insinuated into the works. This would still give us an instrument with a three-octave range or better, & keyboard sharps & flats; & there is music enough to play on such an instrument. Let us then devote tireless efforts to restoring the finest defunct acoustic & musicological desiderata.
What we cannot reproduce, is the background silence of the Middle Ages. The auditor of that organ, in 1450, walked into the church from a world without background mechanical noise. In that time, birdsong was explosive. The human sounds — the sounds for instance of the London Cries that Orlando Gibbons set in a montage for voices & viols — dominated the town market. Not the motor but the creaking of the cart was audible, & the beautiful clop of horses. Noise enough could be heard in the towns — often it was singing, for before the ghetto blaster, everyone sang — but there were in all Europe very few places where, by walking one mile, one could not be in open country, away from all that. Imagine, on such men, the effect of the church organ. We cannot share that. Imagine, for that matter, the effect of the bells, as when they sounded from every belfry across Christendom of an Easter morning.
It is not the design of the organ, but the background silence that interests me here. What was the consequence of giving that up? What has been the effect on men’s souls of surrounding their ears, minute by minute, day & night, with the throb & clatter, fracas & din of our vile mechanical devices? We shut this out to remain sane, but even in small towns, even on the modern, industrialized farms, open your ears to apparent quiet & you will only become conscious of background irritations in a lower decibel range. To which bird-slaughtering wind turbines are now being added.
Example: the whine made by a television signal, which I have detected three floors away in the quiet of night, though I could not hear the programme. It must have been part of the diurnal soundtrack all along. Or more obviously, how the motor-boat discord plays in cottage country. And here I do not mean motor-boats within rock-throwing distance, but those many miles away, detected only when no boat is nearer. The ear picks all this up, but the mind deletes, or runs it together into an ignorable sludge. At what cost to hearing?
At what spiritual cost, do we suffer constant sensual irritations? For the audio deprivation, of holy silence, is matched by deprivation for each of our other senses. The sights, smells, tastes, & also the tactile qualities of the modern, viciously ugly environment, have an aggregate effect. We are brutalized, sensually & materially, & this in turn has moral consequences.
Among my motives, in walking decades ago through some of the more backward parts of pre-electrified India, was to hear & see what human life had been through the ages of silence — & real darkness to view the stars at night, when the first thin fingernail of moon arrives as something astounding. And before mass literacy, when people could remember stories & tell them word for word; & lullabied their children to sleep. Before news arrived hourly.
It was a hunger I had already developed through canoeing, in parts of Canada where the noise gives out (till one is alerted to the passage of an airliner, thirty thousand feet up, & a full day’s rowing away). In the Canadian wilderness, once portaging a canoe more than a thousand paces, I recall a moment when I felt my life suddenly restored — for I had finally made enough distance for that. And the bark of the birch trees through which I was struggling suddenly declared what “whiteness” is, & why it is important. Too, I could suddenly recall a Bach fugue, note by note; & realized that this musical composer had understood a principle of growth in living things: the Lazarus principle, in A minor. My ears & eyes had suddenly reopened.
Now, none of this has much to do with the Middle Ages, for I am touting virtues of any low-tech society, that were indeed available all the world over before Gutenberg started making his infernal racket, or rather, some idiot put a steam-press to the thing.
So let us try to get this argument back on the old Roman road by noting, first, that the word “mediaeval,” in the form medium aevum, goes back to the early 17th century, & the concept a little before that. The intention was to demarcate a great blank space between the ancient & the modern; to indicate a period that no longer required to be studied or understood — the historical equivalent of “flyover country” for seaboard liberals in today’s United States.
I use the term myself with conscious irony, for to me this “middle” is like “Middle Kingdom” to a Chinese. That is to say, the opposite of peripheral. Nor is it a geographical term, nor ever was it. Instead, it is the norm to which we may return after a period of warring states, though it last centuries. The past cannot be repeated, but Christendom could nevertheless be restored. It survives in the hearts of men who remain Christian & civilized, who have not become pagan & barbaric again. Indeed, Mediaeval Man was ever trying to rebuild this Christendom, in endless waves of “reform,” so that we might say what defined the Middle Ages was a constant effort to restore the Middle Ages.
My interest in them began with perception of their formative importance to modern history. The West wasn’t discovered in 1492, just as Canada wasn’t invented by Pierre Trudeau. To understand what fell out in the 16th & 17th centuries, one must understand what it fell out of. But this is just an argument for intelligence over stupidity — albeit not an easy argument.
The ancient world has also faded from the consciousness of nominally educated people, along with the world of the Reformation, & when I look at most political history today I see that it is predicated on the assumption that our world began around 1750 AD, everything prior being relegated to a chaos before all worlds. That is part of the reason why “democracy” is taken so seriously, & why the State in its present bureaucratic form is accepted as inevitable; why even where the “prehistory” is taught, it is forced into anachronistic categories — even art history frozen into national cubes which could have meant little or nothing to the artists. At the cutting edges of political thought, we see the timeline further truncated, so that 1993 becomes the terminus ad quem, all human experience before the Internet re-allocated to the Dark Ages. But here again is nothing more than a catastrophic failure of education.
To those still aware that history exists, & that it might contain more than they absorbed by rote with grade-school clichés, history can provide a much richer sounding board, than can what is flashing past in mass media.
There was no moment during the Middle Ages, or none of which I am aware, when all was right with the world. There is no aspect of the Middle Ages — more than a thousand years of history spread over a very large geographical area — when some polity was realized ideally suited to the human condition. Indeed, mediaeval history, as all known history, is a mess of sin & error; an era of constant crisis, just as we have today. Which takes us to our boilerplate Catholic observation, about the fallen nature of this world, & man.
Grant & concede all such points, as I try to do, parenthetically on all occasions. Mediaeval Man, Catholic by disposition wherever Holy Church had weaned him from his pagan state, never abandoned this parenthesis. It is thrilling to see how discontented he was with everything he had achieved, & modest in allowing that others had probably done better.
“I cry, I cry, & I cry again,” writes Pope Gregory VII in 1084, to anyone who will listen. “The religion of Christ, the true faith, has fallen so low that it is an object of scorn, not only to the Devil but to the Jews & Saracens & pagans. … These keep their law, as they believe it, but we, intoxicated with the love of the world, have deserted our law.” … He goes on to catalogue the desertions.
It is a flagellation, even a self-flagellation, typical of that time, & to the twenty or so generations either side of it. But do not suppose his catalogue was over-hyped. Gregory referred to terrible things: blood & carnage, tyranny & perversion. And yet it showed, for that age, a degree of self-knowledge greater than our own. It also displayed the aspiration to be worthy of the Christian calling, to build better & truer on the Gospel model, not merely externally but in each human soul. That is what I find so attractive about the whole epoch, in which politics could often (but far short of “always”) be subordinated to a higher, divine cause; & the territorial states, in all their preening pagan pompa, themselves came to recognize & even defer to this higher authority. And did this because their princes feared God.
A single word, “feudalism,” is employed to consign everything to dust. How many of the “educated” living today, who use this word as a sneer, have the slightest understanding of the conditions in which it arose as a system of land tenure; or for that matter, of what it consisted? That men were forced to serfdom not by edicts of Church, or kings, but when freeholdings were smashed by fresh waves of pagan invaders. That it grew spontaneously as the only possible method of defence, against such as Viking raiders; that Christendom struggled for centuries against pagan enemies both external & internal, especially towards the northern frontiers. Or that the state system which emerged from Westphalia was itself a form of pagan recrudescence — the Church again compelled to submit, by violence, to secular lords.
The physical & historical circumstances of the Middle Ages cannot be replicated, which is a good thing; & the institutions, except the Church herself, were products of their time & place. I have never dreamt we could restore such things, any more than it is in the human power to raise the dead. But that is not the purpose of the historical inquiry. It is instead to see how the aspirations of Mediaeval Man — whom we remain, so far as we are Catholic — were operated upon. For these were men motivated as we would be, upon taking to heart: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is in that sense a history more relevant to our situation today, in the deliquescence of pagan modernity, than is the dead end of modern history.
Which is not to say that modern history should be forgotten. That would be an act of stupidity comparable to neglecting everything between Alaric & Luther. It should go without saying that much can be learned, even of a non-technical nature, from the modern experience; especially from what was Christian in it, which by doctrine will include “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame.” Certain notions of human liberty, for instance, or of mercy, were better realized within modern times, & may be worth keeping as more Christian than what we did before, together with genuine advances in arts & sciences.
Our task is not to return to the Middle Ages, but to restore in ourselves the Catholic aspiration which animated men in those times. It is to live out our lives as Christians, in a land Christianized as much as possible; ideally to restore our earth to the worship of God’s glory. But of course, only God can do that, & we must fail, as men have always failed; as Mediaeval Man knew that he must fail. But by the grace of God he would fail nobly.