Being a medievalist is both depressing and uplifting. I see the way W has manipulated the media and become shocked by the parallels between his propoganda machine and the one employed by Henry IV after he deposed Richard II in 1399. I think, my god, we're all still just a bunch of barbairans with a few notable technological advances. Then I go and read about poor HC's freezing situation and I am reminded that the technology upon which we've become so dependent is really very fragile, and we are not so far removed from the days of plagues, freezing, and starvation as we like to believe.
Have we really left the middle ages? Ruthless men still control the vast majority of the wealth, we are still fighting crusades to justify said ruthless men's vanities, in America thousands of people freeze and starve to death every year (many of them children) and we do nothing. What separtates us from our medieval ancestors? The Renaissance, that re-discovery of classical thought and culture? The Age of Enlightenment and rise of the virutes of reason and rationality? The Industrial Revolution maybe? A lot has changed, that can't be argued, but more and more I feel those changes are merely superficial. The poor are exploited by the rich now every bit as much now as they were 800 years ago. Instead of being forced to pay their lord to grind their wheat so they can make bread (one element of a system which made it nearly impossible to achieve financial independence), the poor today are targeted by dozens of financial "assistance" institutions who "help" them get out of debt by offering more loans at interest rates that would make Shylock blush. In 1205 King John began raising taxes across the board to finance his military incursions into France (an attempt to regain the territories which he had just lost). In 2005 George Bush is still raising taxes to finance his military incursions into the middle east. John taxed his barons, who were able to cough up the dough only by passing the burden along to the serfs. W withheld federal funding for state programs, forcing the states to make up the deficit by cutting programs which normally assist poor families and neighborhoods. It's amazing how little has changed.
Depressing as all this is, the continuity is strangely reassuing. Whenever I look around and decide that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I think about how little the world has changed in the last thousand years. The rich and powerful still exploit and abuse those on whose backs they stand, but life goes on. Somehow, despite the injustice, despite the carnage, despite the systematic maltreatment, life goes on. And though my knowledge of classical history wouldn't fill the memory banks of a 5-dollar digital watch, I'm confident in saying that these problems are much older than a thousand years. Exploitation of the poor was not a medieval invention. It was an ancient tradition then, inherited from previous millenia of human existance. And somehow, life goes on. Despite all, there is still love, there is still happiness (not to be confused with love, because it seems the latter rarely stems from the former), there is still joy and excitement and laughter and puppies and chocolate and friendship and watermelon seed-spitting contests and a host of other things worth living for. So yes, the world sucks, but no, it isn't falling apart. Armegeddon isn't on the horizon. The world is just going about business as usual in the same way it has since the big caveman figured out that if he clubbed the little caveman on the head he got extra mastadon meat for dinner. By nature, we are no more civilized than he. Better dressed, yes, but no more civilized.