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

‘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’.

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