Future Shock In The Middle Ages

A major journalistic and Hollywood myth about the Middle Ages is that they were static. At worst, this is expressed in terms of a thousand years in which nothing much happened except peasants rolling in middens (one always wants to ask why) and witches being burned. In actual fact, just like almost all other ages of Man, the medieval period was one of wrenching social change and future shock, as well as an extremely unpredictable physical environment. Why else was a major theme of medieval writers the inconstancy of fate and the mutability of this sublunary world? “Seeing each day that the periods of time are rushing to their destruction,” begins a charter of Stephen of Blois, “that all the pomps of this collapsing age and the flowers and roses of blooming kings and the garlands and palms of emperors, dukes and all rich men are withering away, and that all separate things are suddenly reduced to one and all things hasten with swift flight to death…..” As dutiful children of Plato, the medievals believed that only what never changed was good, and like many other cultures projected their desire for changelessness onto God, precisely because they did not find it in human society.

Posted on April 10, 2009 at 09:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, The Past Is Another Country

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Bold Diomedes
    on April 17, 2009 at 04:18

    although i’d be glad to accept the argument that the medieval period was full of intellectual and social transition/upheaval/change, there’s a much easier argument for their obsession with the immutability of the good the true and the beautiful.

    namely, they didn’t have refrigerators. meat rots quickly. and besides, people die… alot. i’d suggest that it wasn’t social but the physical mutability of their day to day lives that spurred their investiture in the divine.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on April 17, 2009 at 07:47

    Welcome, Diomedes! Well, I did address the immutability issue in the last sentence. You’re right, though, the almost Japanese melancholy of the charter quote is more about physical than social mutability, and I think I shall tinker with the squib to reflect that better.

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