Forwards & Backwards: Parallels between the Middle Ages & Modernity

The Middle Ages are popularly supposed to be the antithesis of Modernity. The term ‘Dark Ages’, which is still invoked to describe the pre-Renaissance world, maintains this divide, albeit precariously. When Stephen Greenblatt published The Swerve: How the World Became Modern[i] in 2011, he was roundly criticised for perpetuating an outdated caricature of the Medieval period. In a damning review of Greenblatt’s prize-winning work, academic Laura Saetveit Miles complains that readers are led to believe that ‘bored monks literally [sat] in the dark when not flagellating themselves’. She declares the book ‘dangerous’ on account of its ‘importation of Malcolm Gladwell-esque yarn-spinning into the academy’.[ii]

The patent problem of maintaining that the pre-Renaissance world was literally and figuratively ‘dark’ is that we side-line cultural and political developments that were made before the sixteenth century. More fundamentally, we reveal ourselves to be ignorant of the sixteenth-century term ‘renaissance’ when we suggest this epoch erupted immaculately across Europe. Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, so it behoves us to understand what came before if we are to truly grasp and appreciate what came after.

In a more tangential, thinking-out-of-the-box, sort of way the denigration of the Middle Ages is unhelpful considering the many parallels that exist between our present and this past.

It strikes me that the rise of social media is close to making the twenty-first century’s culture overwhelmingly visual. I would suggest that not since the Middle Ages have images, or infographics, played such an important role in the conveyance of complex information to so many people. In the Middle Ages, images helped an illiterate majority to perceive, however slightly, the knowledge of a literate minority. And just as then, so too are we now beginning to see that so-called experts are being signalled out, both as soothsayers and scaremongers, on account of their perceived ability to assimilate and synthesise large amounts of disparate information. The singling out of experts, whether for the purposes of devotion or demonisation, brings to mind another social division that readily characterises the Middle Ages and Modernity, the rift between the wealthy and the rest. As Silicon Valley billionaires buy up rural real estate in America and New Zealand as a precaution against an upcoming apocalypse, it is apparent that the world’s income gap is staggering large, and it continues to grow.[iii] The situation for today’s Kings of Commerce is analogous to that of medieval monarchs, certainly those who ruled in England, whose annual cash income was larger than the combined yearly revenues of their entire aristocracy: during the thirteenth century, leading English nobles had access to between £1,500 and £5,000 each year. Their king received between £25,000 and £30,000 each year. England’s notorious King John – he of Magna Carta infamy – managed to raise a treasure of over £100,000.[iv]

The social consequences of these past and present parallels are also similar. Before the UK voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, and in the context of a televised discussion about immigration, Nigel Farage, then leader of the anti-EU party UKIP, was condemned for suggesting that violence would likely erupt if the people’s voice were ignored by those in government.[v] He was accused of scaremongering. And yet, in a way, his observation was not far wrong, although this should not suggest that I condone of his demagoguery. Incidents of hate crimes against ‘outsiders’ and ‘aliens’ do appear to have spiked in the past six months and street protests have become increasingly prevalent as people, demoralised by the political process, take to the streets in a physical and desperate gesture to have their views heard. In the medieval period, and prior to the establishment of representative institutions, protests and street demonstrates were one of the few means by which the mass could express their dislike towards the agenda of the mighty.[vi] And as I continue research for my book, I am struck by the use of fancy dress costume to highlight social concerns in the past and in the present at these popular gatherings. Shortly after the release of the Panama Papers, a carnival protest in London called for people to wear fancy dress. Those who opposed the outcome of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum protested in fancy dress, as, more recently, did millions of people around the world, who took to the streets following the inauguration of Donald Trump.

If Stephen Greenblatt has downplayed the importance of the Middle Ages, I am conscious that I could be accused of going too far the other way and making the Middle Ages the answer to everything. Clearly, centuries separate the Middle Ages and Modernity and patent differences do exist between these periods. I merely suggest this: it is interesting – important, even – to observe that across chronology and culture very broadly similar political and social circumstances appear to engender analogous cultural forms.


[i] In the UK, the book’s published title was The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.

[ii] L. Saetviet Miles ‘The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve’, 30 May 2016.

[iii] Evan Osnos, ‘Survival of the Richest’, The New Yorker, 30 January 2017, 36-45.

[iv] D.A. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 (Penguin, 2003), 271-277.


[vi] For example, E. Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival: A People’s Uprising at Romans 1579-1580, tr. M. Feeney (Scolar Press, 1979).

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