Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What did the Middle Ages ever do for us?

Sometimes it is hard to resist temptation, a Madeleine Bunting column is such a rich source for a blocked blogger. Eric at the Trots cannot really be bettered, but I will still rise to the bait of a truly terrible piece. This time she has got carried away reading Mediaeval history. And joy upon joy it confirms to her that we are at fault for everything, society is fragmented and that we are "baffled and insecure" - and it is all the fault of the Middle Ages. Yikes.

Her discovery of "one the most influential and controversial books of medieval history of the last 20 years", R I Moore's 1987 book, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, has got her all aroused. Excitedly, she continues, "The relevance of its argument today is uncanny". Actually, there is nothing uncanny about it. It is part of the process of writing history. Whilst it is clearly a distortion to project the concerns of contemporary society backwards, inevitably what often interests historians are the aspects of the past that concern the present. Even with my scanty knowledge of early history, I would have thought that persecution of groups is hardly a phenomenon that only emerged in the Middle Ages. Instead, the gloomy turn of her mind has joyously leapt on a study that confirms her interpretation of a "fear of Islam" that is rooted in anomie rather than the corpses of the arbitrary victims of Jihadi terrorism.

My specialism is the 19th Century, and if Bunting had paused for breath she would have thought about all the Gothic revival buildings littering our towns and cities and realised that other ages felt an affinity with the Middle Ages too. For 19th Century radicals, it was a period when skilled workers could control their own destinies. William Morris saw it as the unity of art and craft; for Peter Kropotkin it was an exemplar of mutual aid.

Take your pick of "cultural shorthands" - as for myself I have always been suspicious of utopias based on idealised pasts as well as imagined futures, and so reject the use of history as polemic. All that Maddy's disastrous article proves to me is that a little learning is a dangerous thing, especially if posted on Comment is Free.

3 comments:

Shuggy said...

Even with my scanty knowledge of early history, I would have thought that persecution of groups is hardly a phenomenon that only emerged in the Middle Ages.

Indeed. The thesis, from what I could gather from Maddy's post, was that state persecution of groups was an essentially medieval phenomenon. Words like 'Romans', 'Christians' and 'lions' immediately sprung to mind.

Jura Watchmaker said...

It's not a Comment is Free piece, Peter. It carries all the weight of a Guardian newspaper op-ed.

KB Player said...

It's unsporting of you taking on Mush Brain. It's shooting fish in a barrel, or peeing on the bathroom floor. She's the first chapter in Fisking for Dummies.