Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The New Middle Ages

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The New Middle Ages

Article excerpt

The past is returning. Any return assumes a preceding departure. Perhaps, though, the past never left, and its absence will turn out to have been an illusion. Certain traits embedded in genes don't manifest themselves for some time. That doesn't mean they've disappeared, though; they're simply waiting for the right moment to emerge. That moment-the moment we are at now-could be called a return.

Naturally enough, the idea of a return of the past isn't new. Antiquity asserted the cyclical nature of time. Christian civilization rejected that circle, offering the spiral as a model. Yes, events repeat, but on another level, under other conditions. This understanding of the world was expressed by early Christian thinkers who saw Christ as a new Adam and the Virgin Mary as a new Eve. There are a great many such pairs: Melchizedek and Christ, the twelve tribes and the twelve disciples, Israel and the Church.

At the very moment when the past's departure seems irrevocable, the spiral twists and the return gets its rolling start. We recognize old traits in new occurrences. The spiral can be likened to the DNA helix. Today the helix is turning yet again, and we see emerging from modernity a new Middle Ages.

Nikolai Berdyaev predicted this return in 1923 in The End of Our Time. He described the modern age, which is "colorful and individualistic," as nearing its end, being replaced by an epoch that is much closer to the "profound and collective" Middle Ages. He saw that a revolution was beginning. ("Revolution begins internally, before it is exposed on the outside.") Umberto Eco saw it as well, and announced that "our era can be defined as a new Middle Ages." So what do "the Middle Ages" really mean to us in the present day?

Today, "medieval" is a swear word hurled at anyone we want to accuse of cruelty and ignorance, and so the return of the medieval is a possibility that fills us with dread. This attitude involves a serious misapprehension, but I will not attempt to correct it here. Rather, I will invite the reader into the medieval world, which is admittedly rather quirky. I will do so in terms of the written word, because as a scholar of literature and a writer (an ichthyologist and a fish), my exploration of the medieval and the modern must proceed through an examination of texts. I am not a philosopher capable of taking in the whole, but a philologist concerned with particulars. Even from this limited perspective, we can see that medieval culture constituted a system that was well-constructed and logical in its own way. If it had not been, it could not have worked successfully over the course of many centuries. The duration of the system's existence speaks to its high stability and fruitfulness.

Medieval writings are fragmentary in structure, a literature of cut and paste, or "cento." To borrow Nikolai Leskov's vivid expression, they are like "the patchwork quilts of city women from Orel," sewn up from scraps of fabrics a seamstress once worked with. What does that mean?

Texts were not so much composed as compiled in the Middle Ages. New texts contained, almost consisted of, fragments of preceding ones. Rather than retell an event, a compiler would just reuse the text from a previous account. The Primary Chronicle, the first Russian chronicle, tells of the death of the "accursed" prince Svyatopolk. In describing the prince, the chronicler combines two fragments from George Hamartolos's Byzantine Chronicle: One is about the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the other is about Herod. Why did the chronicler borrow those particular fragments? The answer is simple. The prince's escape and death in a foreign land led the chronicler to the idea of using the text about Antiochus, whose death was similar. The fragment about Herod was chosen because the epithet for Herod was "accursed" and so was that for prince Svyatopolk.

In a similar way, hagiographers would include in their texts fragments from other saints' lives. …

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