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A medieval light on modern day darkness

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'When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child ...'

Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle AgesSo begins Johan Huizinga's famous The Autumn of the Middle Ages (known in its original translation from the Dutch as The Waning of the Middle Ages). Although distanced from us by that 'half a thousand years' there is much in Huizinga's stunning portrait of a strange, assiduously studied, yet in so many ways still alien period, to evoke sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling, resonances in the modern imagination.

The world Huizinga sketches seems far from our own. 'There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness [and these] came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health. The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils.

'Honour and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty ... all things in life had about them something glitteringly and cruelly public. The lepers, shaking their rattles and holding processions, put their deformities on display ... The administration of justice, the sales of goods, weddings and funerals all announced themselves through processions, shouts, lamentations and music.'

For modern readers of Huizinga, however, there is a curious phenomenon that we might call, for want of greater precision, a kind of double vision. The first (Dutch) edition of The Waning of the Middle Ages appeared in 1919 so that the contrast between Huizinga's present and the world when it was 'half a thousand years younger' is already a century out of focus, so to speak, and while 21st century life has incomparably eclipsed medieval counterparts, there are aspects of the comparison that remain at least intriguing and, in some cases, enlightening.

There is much in modern metropolitan life that remains 'glitteringly and cruelly public': social media, for example, ensures the strident publicity that documents every move of individual lives for the multitudes who value this sort of display, and the corruption of social media by anonymous trolls provides a species of cruelty unimagined even by people half a thousand years ago who were particularly adept at cruelty and torture.

There are no lepers parading in western city streets, but the homeless are everywhere, camped nightly on the very doorsteps of the institutions which, as the recent royal commission relentlessly revealed, have so callously exploited them.


"It might have been expected that, in an essay such as this, the natural world would be a sort of sleeper: it was there then and it's still recognisably and reliably with us now. Not so, of course."


Honour and wealth are still fervently enjoyed, and often pursued as ruthlessly now as ever before, but are accompanied by degrees of power and influence largely unimagined in the medieval world by any except the highest ranked clergy and princes. And although it is no longer true, even in Europe, that the  sound of church bells 'always rose above the clamour of busy life ... and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere', the power of the church and senior clergy remains real and contentious as yet another royal commission has clarified.

And then there is the natural world. As Huizinga memorably pictures it: 'Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger than in our present lives [i.e. circa 1919], so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise.'

For the people of the Middle Ages, the natural world was a given. The seasons came and went in their due order: there were tough winters and abundant springs and variable, sometimes unpredictable autumns and the relief of summer sun and pastoral celebrations. It might have been expected that, in an essay such as this — comparing certain aspects of medieval life with some equivalents of the 21st century — the natural world would be a sort of sleeper: it was there then and it's still recognisably and reliably with us now.

Not so, of course. What we now know is that in the elapsed 'half a thousand years' which so fascinated and excited Johan Huizinga, the health of the planet, our natural world, has deteriorated catastrophically. The UN report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) provides a stark and contemporary warning:

'According to the conclusions of the 455 experts and contributing authors from 50 countries who drafted the report ... up to one million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction, some within decades, including 40 per cent of all amphibians, 33 per cent of marine mammals, and another 33 per cent of shark, shark relatives and reef-forming corals' (Jeffrey Kluger, Time).

About 50 years before Huizinga began his medieval researches, Matthew Arnold was prefiguring the IPBES in his poetic and apocalyptic way:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, climate change



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Existing comments

One area in which Medievals are advanced over Postmoderns is their ability to conceive and accept life in the context of death, "sub specie aeternitatis" - a very different attitude from the frantic flight from death manifest in the "carpe diem" pursuit of self- gratification in affluent western societies with their mandatory "bucket lists" and denial of ageing.

John RD | 11 June 2019  

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