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Tweeting our way back to the Middle Ages

  • 03 November 2016


'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.

Huizinga'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