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Tweeting our way back to the Middle Ages



'When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now.' So begins Johan Huizinga's magnificent The Autumn of The Middle Ages which was first published in 1919. A second edition in 1921 became the basis for an outstanding translation published in 1996.

Detail from cover of Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of The Middle AgesHuizinga's evocation of the medieval world has a cinematic immediacy reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal but exceeding even that masterpiece in its portrait of what Huizinga calls the 'passionate intensity' of the day-to-day medieval world.

'There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they 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 ... all things in life had about them something glitteringly and cruelly public.

'The lepers, shaking their rattles and holding processions, put their deformities openly on display ... Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger then than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise ... pure darkness or true silence ... [or] the effect of a single small light or ... of a lonely distant shout.'

The medieval ambience in Europe, whose sights, sounds, maelstrom of movement, flourishes, gestures, affectations and deceptions Huizinga so brilliantly conjures, died hard and slowly, and it took centuries for its 'cruel publicity' to give way to ideas of personal privacy, introspection and a degree of expected and accepted reclusiveness.

Relatively swift and summary change of the deeply ingrained, ritualised forms of medieval existence was not possible unless achieved by fiat or coup.

As far as England was concerned, this happened on the morning of 14 October 1066. As historian Harriet Harvey Wood argues, 'one fact [about the Battle of Hastings] is undisputed: it wiped out overnight a civilisation that, for its wealth, its political arrangements, its arts, its literature and its longevity was unique in Dark Age Europe ... In the general instability, lawlessness and savagery of the times, Anglo-Saxon England stood out like a beacon.'

In the English-speaking world at least, the idea of personal privacy came slowly. It had to be slow by its nature and in any case a desire for privacy necessarily created suspicion in the political and diplomatic echelons of society because it was undistinguishable from secrecy, and secrecy most often meant plotting, and plotting meant trouble.


"The Romantics with their emphasis on introspection and individualism contributed powerfully to the concept of the self as a private world, the details of which might or might not be revealed depending on the nature and inclination of the individual consciousness."


Thomas Wyatt in the court of Henry Vlll and Christopher Marlow, Shakespeare's contemporary, and Shakespeare himself all knew very well the dangers of seeming to be too private, too secretive.

Lower down the scale, among the less educated, and even the moderately educated, there was not time for introspection and personal reclusiveness and not much taste for behaviour that seemed self-regarding and disjoined from the real world. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ... '

The Romantics with their emphasis on introspection and individualism contributed powerfully to the concept of the self as a private world, the details of which might or might not be revealed depending on the nature and inclination of the individual consciousness. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein combines the Gothic taste for evocatively located horror stories with the Romantic fascination with individual consciousness and imagination and could not have been written in the frenetically public world of the Middle Ages. Wordsworth's recollections of childhood in The Prelude include fearful memories of tense self-discovery as his private world unfolded: 'I heard among the solitary hills / Low breathings coming after me, and sounds / Of undistinguishable motion, steps / Almost as silent as the turf they trod.'

Curiously, while privacy continues to be valued and sought in the 21st century perhaps more strenuously than ever before, its milieu is once again the furious turmoil of aggressively public revelation, exhortation and threat that distinguished Huizinga's scarifying portrait of the medieval world. In our age, 'all things in life' once again have 'about them something glitteringly and cruelly public'. Or to put it another way, we have social media — 'computer-mediated technologies that allow individuals, companies, NGOs, governments, and other organisations to view, create and share information, ideas, career interests, and other forms of expression via virtual communities'.

Social media were crucial to the success of the Arab Spring uprisings and are often similarly vital in emergencies, collaborations and creativity. But they also allow and facilitate 'cruel publicity', anonymous vilification, defamation and abuse, pseudo revelation and — to put it mildly — untruths.

Like the Roman God Janus, who was much cited in the Middle Ages, the extraordinary phenomenon of social media is two-faced. Janus looked simultaneously forward and back and was the God of beginnings ... but also of endings.


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

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of The Middle Ages



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Existing comments

It can truly be said that every century creates its own Middle Ages. From brutal, superstitious and sordid through to spiritual, chivalrous and beautiful. Just where social media fits into this milieu is problematic - all of them to some degree, I'd say. It's easy to deceive on social media, and then we're found out. And because we're not necessarily connected emotionally, or perversely, because we invest too much emotion, retribution is swift and distantly cruel. 'Online community' sounds like a contradiction. But is it? Beautifully written article, Brian, and one that, because I can relay very easily my thoughts about it to you, makes social media worth perseverance.

Pam | 03 November 2016  

Western society seems to be sliding down hill with remarkable speed when compared to the decline of the Greco-Roman cultures that preceded the Dark and Middle Ages. Does this fascinating article indicate that we are rapidly reverting to the Middle Ages? Our society is certainly becoming increasingly barbaric, evidenced by war, interpersonal violence, legislated destruction of human life and the abandonment of truth in most things including science and the humanities. We obscure this far more effectively than the culture of the Middle Ages did. Oh for another Renaissance! The European Renaissance was lead by Christianity and Catholicism with a number of visionary Popes (Sixtus IV and Clement VII particularly). Our world ignores Christianity and its Popes. I wonder where the new world renaissance will come from.

john frawley | 04 November 2016  

It should go without saying that the medieval world was technologically primitive compared with our world, which has made itself dependent on the science that could ruin it. I sometimes question if our internet experience has only heightened our awareness of violence in the world, and all in the privacy of our own home. It is a relief sometimes to get away from online and notice how very peaceful the world itself, and humans, actually are.

Philip Harvey | 04 November 2016  

John Frawley probably does not intend to say that the Renaissance was led by the papacy, but we need to remember that the Renaissance was a driving force for the Reformations (Protestant and Catholic), in fact are synonymous historical continuities in many ways. The division of the Latin Church of the West in the 16th century is a highly ambiguous inheritance that we live with to this day. Exactly who we turn to to blame depends a great deal on your personal allegiances and perspectives.

Philip Harvey | 04 November 2016  

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