Dan Jones

Only a mediaevalist can understand the present

Dan Jones says that our own era of disease, superstition, disorder and economic chaos is best explained by those who understand the Middle Ages

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‘It was an age of apocalypse. People across the world lived in fear of a new pandemic disease that leapt with ease from animals to humans, which spread on the breath and moved across borders with alarming freedom. Howls of protest carried through the smashed streets of Europe’s cities as they fell to popular rioting, the citizens and rabble alike provoked to violence by economic catastrophe and widespread political disenchantment. Long and wearisome wars weakened the finances of the world’s most powerful countries, their societies already threatened by global climate change and an unstable food supply. If people did not quite think they were living in the Last Days, there was at least a common feeling that the end of the world was not ever so far beyond the horizon.’

That’s my fantasy blurb for a book about the popular worldview in the 14th century. I know, I know: writing fantasy blurbs for the back of unwritten history books is weird and possibly a bit sad. It smacks a little of John Kennedy Toole’s character Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces sitting in his squalid bedroom, picking his toes and dreaming of a time before the ghastly machinery of the modern world. But I’m doing it here to illustrate a valuable historical lesson. For the paragraph above could, with just a pinch of melodrama, be describing the early 21st century.

The past repeating itself is manna to the professional historian. A good modern parallel not only gives him a sense of self-importance; it also improves his book sales. The past fortnight has seen popular ire at our nose-in-trough politicians reach what one blogger described as ‘1381 levels of anger, at which the only sensible investment would be pitchfork futures’. Considering that this story followed hard on the heels of flu apologists predicting pandemic disease with the potential for a 40 per cent mortality rate, I hope you’ll forgive a poor mediaeval history boy his moment of self-indulgence.

Just imagine. Swine flu, you say? A new strain of a killer disease? One that leaps from animals to humans? One that (might... just...) kill loads of us? Hallelujah! The pestilence is here! It’s the new Black Death! The smirking mediaevalist nods sagely as Fortuna, with a loud belch, spins her wheel and taunts us with the horrors of a world before vaccines, sanitation, Lemsip or those silly blue face-masks. He stands, claps his hand to his breast, and thanks the gods of history for smiling upon him: Thank you Herodotus! Thank you Gibbon! Thank you (especially you) Marx! Then he runs, faster than he has ever run before, to check his last book’s Amazon ranking.

I did not think for a second that I would say this in 2009, but the mediaevalists’ time is here. No longer shall our period be a byword for all in today’s news that is stupid, backward, superstitious, credulous, chauvinistic, Islamist or cruel. It’s time for the world to recognise that the problems with which we now wrestle were experienced and dealt with in spooky parallel by our ancestors some 700 years ago. Where Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellows had the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years War and the Mediaeval Warm Period, so we have Swine Flu, the G20 riots, Afghanistan and Al Gore. The names have changed, but the horsemen ain’t.

Take the G20 riots in London. Many of the protestors no doubt felt very modern, as they used their mobile phones, Facebook etc to arrange their meeting, marching, camping, hollering and bottle-chucking. To the mediaevalist it was all old hat. In fact, the G20 protest was organised, fomented, executed and eventually dispelled in much the same way as Wat Tyler’s rebellion in 1381. There was no camp on Blackheath or battle at Smithfield, but much else was there intact.

For example, both sets of protestors arranged themselves in semi-covert cells in the weeks leading up to the protest. This year they coalesced on 1 April — a day associated for centuries with mischief, topsy-turviness and popular parades. Tyler’s men in 1381 chose the similarly raucous carnival weekend of Corpus Christi, in mid-June. The composition both of our mob and Tyler’s followed a pattern true to most popular rebellions: hardcore radical activists at the centre, the law-abiding disgruntled around them, and criminal ne’er-do-wells looking for trouble at the fringes. Though both movements were to some degree disparate, they moved en masse and had specific targets, both in terms of buildings and people. (The G20 mob headed for banks and hunted bankers; Tyler’s rabble went after houses of law and sniffed out lawyers.) Even the government response was the same: after a certain amount of trembling and hand-wringing, they sent in the heavies, picked off (read: kettled) the ringleaders, and whacked the fringe protestors indiscriminately and as hard as they dared.

Now, I am not saying something so trite as that the G20 riots were identical re-enactments of the Peasants’ Revolt. If we follow Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself once as tragedy and again as farce, then this was very much the second repetition. But what I do wish to point out is that at this time more than any recent other, mediaeval history has something important to tell us. Those constant echoes between past and present are clearest now between the Middle Ages and today.

Am I wrong to be excited? Is it grotesque to think that this is now an intellectually exciting and potentially lucrative time to be studying the Middle Ages? I know it should feel a little bit grubby: in fact, it’s probably the same feeling that roofers got during the 1987 hurricane, or that fills the manufacturers of lavatory paper when there’s an outbreak of that gut-rotting winter norovirus. But put yourself in my shoes. I’ve spent the last ten years reading, writing and thinking about a deeply unfashionable time in history. At university I was lumped in with the nerds (wild thickets of ginger hair, ugly spectacles, unmodulated voices), while the rest of the cool kids (cigs, hookahs, leather jackets, casual f***ing) studied Islamic history, or bloody political thought. Ever since, when I tell people I write about mediaeval England, they have tended to screw up their noses as if I’ve told them I’m a pest control expert and I really, really like my job.

But now, finally, mediaeval history is having its moment, and I intend to be there to see it flourish. The first step? I propose a little club for Spectator readers with an interest in all matters mediaeval. Founder members can be me and the sainted ed (an Oxford mediaevalist, don’t you know?). We can call it the Ignatius J. Reilly Society, and all members must own a deerstalker and a copy of Boethius. Dues will be payable at quarterly sessions to be held in the manorial court at 22 Old Queen Street. Feast days and mystery plays to be announced in due course. Write and let me know if you’d like to join.

Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 by Dan Jones is published by Harper Press.