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The Return of Medieval Madness
Witch hunts, excommunication and iconoclasm are back with a vengeance.
How much of what went on in the Middle Ages and early-modern periods do we look back on with abhorrence and a certain amount of perplexity? Burning witches at the stake, lynch mobs, self-flagellation – what possessed people to do such things, we wonder. But take a step back, look about and you see many of these practices are still flourishing today, though they go by different names. Here are just some of them.
Let’s start with excommunication. Excommunication meant so much more than being banned from taking communion. It involved you being shunned, shamed, spiritually condemned, even banished. Only through some kind of heavy penance – often a very public, lengthy and humiliating contrition – could you and your reputation be redeemed.
Excommunication became a powerful political weapon. It was dished out to enemies of the faith to destroy their legitimacy. Often it was used as a punishment for sins as minor as uttering the wrong opinion.
What are no-platforming and cancel culture if not a modern form of excommunication? Qualified, competent professionals are hounded out of their jobs and publicly shamed just for uttering the wrong opinion, often simply for a misjudged choice of words. Even just the wrong pronouns.
As often as not, their employer wants a quiet life, so he bows to activist pressure and sacks the target of the witch hunt. Cancel culture is excommunication.
Today’s religions, however, are not the many sects of Christianity that once perforated Europe, but climate change, education, the NHS, gay rights, trans rights, the European Union and multiculturalism. Even coronavirus and the lockdown have become sacrosanct.
Intellectuals of the right and left, from Polly Toynbee to Nigel Lawson, have described the NHS as Britain’s religion. It has replaced the Virgin Mary as the divine matriarch. Why this worship? I suggest it goes back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the state began to replace the church as the main provider of education, welfare and healthcare. After 1945, it was just a matter of time before the welfare state achieved altar status.
Articulate any kind of wrong-think and you risk the baying mob lynching you on social media and elsewhere for your heresy. You are put in today’s equivalent of the stocks while people jeer at you and humiliate you. Your career and reputation are burnt at the stake.
Smear someone with labels like far right, transphobe, homophobe, conspiracy theorist or – most effective of all – racist, and if the label sticks, that person is effectively excommunicated. It doesn’t matter if it means misreporting, quoting out of context, strawman arguments or intellectual dishonesty. The important thing is to get the smear to stick. Innocence is no defence. Nor was it in the witch trials of Medieval times, which were held before kangaroo courts of the local clergy. Meanwhile, anyone who defends the witch is assumed to be another witch, so most stay quiet.
The Inquisition began in 12th-century France as a way to combat heresy and dissent. The judges were the priests. First the Inquisition targeted Cathars and Waldensians. The movement spread. In Spain, Jews and Muslims were singled out, as its leaders sought to impose Catholic doctrine.
Who are today’s inquisitors and today’s priests? Social-justice warriors, climate-change activists, Guardian journalists, organisations such as Antifa – there is no shortage of woke police. Any type of victimhood can get you priest status. One of my daughters, brainwashed by social media, leads the charge in my family.
Priests and kings, lords and ladies would all make great shows of their piety, faith and devotion. Today we call this virtue-signalling. Your behaviour, your actions and your conduct are far less important than your belief system.
A new practice has emerged where we must bend the knee. When the American footballer Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the US national anthem, it was a powerful act, made by his own volition. But kneeling has morphed into something else, a tool of subjugation, something you are shamed into doing. Bending the knee is no longer about the importance of black or any other lives — it is a tool of control used under the pretext of fighting racism. Rest assured, those in prominent public positions are being monitored. If they try to avoid bending, the online lynch mobs will form.
The recent spate of statue destruction shows that iconoclasm – the belief that icons, images and monuments should be destroyed for religious or political reasons – is alive and well, too. In the Middle Ages, Jewish texts were especially targeted by the iconoclasts. Thank goodness that today all such anti-Semitic sentiment has been eradicated. Not!
Nor has serfdom gone away. The medieval serf had to spend half his working week tilling his lord’s land in exchange for his lord’s protection and the right to work his own land. In the 21st century, with over half of everything you earn making its way to the government via tax and inflation, the ordinary citizen hands over half his working week to the state in exchange for protection and the right to keep the rest.
Today’s conditions are nothing like as harsh as they were then. We have much more freedom of expression and freedom of movement. Modern technology and living standards far exceed their medieval equivalents. But the proportion of our time we must give is the same.
What about self-flagellation – flogging oneself to inflict pain and drive out evil? Today we might call this going to the gym. No, a more likely equivalent is the culture of self-loathing and apology – acknowledging your white privilege and apologising for the sins of your forefathers.
Then there is the unequal distribution of wealth – of land in particular – that’s improved, hasn’t it? Back in the Middle Ages the land of Britain was predominantly owned by the crown, the church and the barons. Today is no different. Half of England’s land is owned by less than one per cent of the population – the crown, the state and a few corporations and aristocrats are still dominant. There are 65million people in the UK and 60million acres of land – that should be roughly an acre each.
Jakob Fugger, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, is calculated to have been one of the richest men in history. By his death his wealth amounted to two per cent of European GDP – a much higher proportion than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet have made.
How did he make his money? Mining, banking, but perhaps above all, by selling indulgences. He struck a deal with the pope so the latter could raise the money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Fugger took half and Pope Leo X the other half. It sounds rather like one of those public-private partnerships. His indulgences cancelled every sin. There was even a progressive fee structure – royalty paid 25 florins, everyday laborers just one.
Selling indulgences was big business. It still is. Today we have carbon credits; our charity industry, with its annual income of £50 billion, equates to roughly two per cent of UK GDP. According to David Craig in his book, The Great Charity Scandal, less than 50 per cent of donations actually end up going towards charitable causes.
In the Middle Ages, there was no shortage of prophets of doom declaring the end is nigh. Nostradamus was the most famous. Thomas malthus was another, though he came later. Whether it is Project Fear in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, climate-change experts or those permabears who see nothing but looming financial catastrophe, they are in even greater supply today.
Obscurantism was the practice of presenting information in a deliberately imprecise and abstruse manner, to forestall further inquiry or understanding. Ever heard a central banker speak? Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, found his own name for obscurantism – he called it ‘purposeful obfuscation’.
Church Latin was obscurantist. The Bible was not translated into local vernaculars until the 1500s. The clergy bitterly opposed its translation. Why? Until then, only those who understood Latin could understand its meaning. It gave priests a monopoly. Priests would interpret the sacred text and the word of God in ways that suited their own interests, or the interests of the Church they worked for. Today’s experts – whether in climate change, sociology or virology – do exactly the same thing.
The new technology of the printing press – the medieval equivalent of the internet – and Martin Luther’s exposure of the corruption of the indulgences industry helped inspire the Great Peasants’ Revolt in Central Europe and the overthrow of Catholic hegemony. Is not a similar insurrection taking place today? A silent, ill-equipped, uncoordinated majority, aware of what is going on but unable to stop it, hoping that voting for Trump or Brexit or some other way of giving the establishment two fingers will stop it. But it won’t.
There are so many more parallels. Sacrilege and blasphemy have become hate speech. Blockades and sieges have become sanctions. Alchemy has become quantitative easing and Modern Monetary Theory. Censorship has become, well, censorship.
Where does it all end? Another Peasants Revolt or Great Peasants War. Here is the bad news – and I don’t mean to sound like Nostradamus – on both occasions the peasants lost. Badly. Even though they were in the right. I fear we will lose this culture war. Even though we are in the right.
This article first appeared at Spiked.