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Nothing New Under the Sun

My favourite historian at the moment is Dan Jones, who writes with commendable clarity about even the most complicated topics.  In the summer, which already feels a long time ago, I read his book about the Wars of the Roses, which was a gripping account of the turbulence of the fifteenth century.  I had a wry smile when he wrote that foreign diplomats on the Continent, receiving their news piecemeal across the Channel, shook their heads and marvelled at England’s topsy-turvy politics.  ‘I wish the country and the people were plunged deep in the sea, because of their lack of stability, for I feel like one going to the torture when I write about them, and no one ever hears twice alike about English affairs,’ we are told Ambassador Bettini wrote in a letter home to Milan.

In the October issue of the BBC History Magazine, Jones produced an interesting comparison between the ups and downs of the Middle Ages and the current state in which we find the world, making the point from the outset that if we look a little more closely at the medieval world, there is plenty to see that we may recognise in our own times. 

The article highlighted five areas where similar patterns could be found, starting with medieval climate change, which sparked crises ranging from plague to population collapse.  The start of the 14th century marked not just an unlucky streak of bad weather but the start of a major shift in the climate, which has since been dubbed the Little Ice Age.  A sharp fall in temperatures brought much harsher winters and tougher farming conditions, leading to population collapse, economic stagnation, widespread political instability and some of the worst human and animal plagues in recorded history, all of which created a similar existential threat to the one we face today.

In an era of mass migration, native populations feared for their livelihoods.  If the Daily Express had been around in the 1460s, its front page would have delighted in the story that a group of craftspeople delivered a petition to King Edward IV complaining about foreigners taking their jobs.  Apparently, they said there were too many ‘aliens’ in the country, leading to the king’s subjects ‘being greatly impoverished and not at work’.  This was a familiar lament in medieval England, and throughout the Middle Ages there always seemed to be bands of outsiders arriving. 

As too many people fail to grasp, though they might be beginning to work it out – now that we have no one to drive our lorries, pick our vegetables or kill our animals – migration was good for England then as it is good now.  It boosted the economy, expanded the gene pool and enriched the culture.  But it also made people uncomfortable, unsettled and sometimes violently angry.  Migration, with all its benefits and its problems, was an important historical force in the Middle Ages, just as it is today.

Lethal pandemics triggered mass protests and the rise of populism.  The first wave of the Black Death in the mid-14th century killed between 40 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population.  As we know all too well, our species is still highly vulnerable to rapidly transmissible illness, just as we were back then.  The impact of plagues was not limited to the enormous death toll.  As wave after wave of disease rolled in, serious popular and populist upheaval occurred in almost every major European country.  The region was shaken to its core by the shock of the pandemic, and movements promoting social justice proliferated.  As Jones points out, we have seen in our own times the close links between disease, economic disruption and social protest movements and, in that sense, we are not so different from our medieval predecessors.

Globalisation dawned as explorers sought out new trade routes, though the medieval world was always globalised.  Trade along the Silk Roads moved Chinese and Indian cloth and spices west.  Gold mined in sub-Saharan Africa found its way to the Mediterranean.  Slaves were traded widely long before the Atlantic crossings.  For a brief moment around 1000 AD, when a handful of Vikings settled in North America, it would have been theoretically possible for goods to move between every continent except Antarctica.  By the end of the period, Columbus and others started an age of New World exploration, bringing enormous prosperity for some, abject misery for others, and a revolution in the way that people everywhere viewed the world.

Jones concludes by showing how huge strides were made in astronomy, engineering, medicine and natural science, and major technological advances occurred as a result.  Windmills harnessed renewable energy to grind grain into flour.  New clocks, powered by water or weights, revolutionised timekeeping.  Recipes for gunpowder started to change the nature of warfare.  And institutions for teaching and research – the great universities – were founded.  In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press – an innovation that made it cheap and easy to produce books, tracts, newsletters, pamphlets and any other sort of text.

He highlights how the cultural effects of printing were as dramatic as the changes brought about by the rise of the smartphone.  An explosion in publishing led to a swing towards new forms of protest and what we now call culture wars.  The Protestant Reformation was printed into existence with the publication of the works of Martin Luther in the early 16th century, and the vicious arguments it produced on the page were soon translated into real battles between partisans of the old ways and the new.  The Reformation brought down the curtain on the Middle Ages, but it was the product of a very medieval revolution.  It is easy to believe that we are living today through a comparable reformation of social and cultural norms, underpinned – as then – by communication technology.

Therefore, although there are obviously profound differences between life today and life back then, nevertheless there is also much that connects us.  Our modern world is built on medieval foundations, and many of the anxieties and issues that concern us today were shared, in only slightly altered form, by medieval people.  As the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tells us, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’

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