Bad history and bad policy: the “New Dark Ages” trope

As a medieval historian, I’m periodically amused and annoyed by articles claiming that we’re on the verge of a “new Dark Age.”  A while back I tweeted an interesting 2008 paper from the Strategic Studies Institute titled “From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U. S. Strategy,” that claimed the international system was regressing to the bad old days of “feudal” powers, and suggested that in this “New Dark Age” “the forces of chaos could prove overwhelming” (Preface, v). A very thought-provoking piece, even though I shrugged at the end of it. After all, not to be flippant but if this is really happening, as a medievalist who studies war and governance I should be able to handle it better than most.  A short while ago, I ran across another, more recent article on the “New Dark Ages,” and out of curiosity I ran a search of “New Dark Ages” in Google. The results were suggestive:

  • Most recently, an article in the sensationalist Express from 21 June 2014, titled “The new dark ages: The chilling medieval society Isis extremists seek to impose in Iraq,” by Adrian Lee.  Contains a long list of behavior by ISIS (or ISIL, depending), things which are becoming increasingly documented as the days go by.  True, such borders as exist are gradually resembling Imad ad-Din Zangi’s realm, but while similar in a few aspects, comparisons of the ISIL “state” to the Ayyubid or Mamluk empires would leave most classical Islam scholars scratching their heads. Certainly ISIL’s claim that “[we] took on our responsibility to bring back the glory of the Islamic Caliphate” leaves the impression that these chaps don’t have much of a clue as to what the Caliphate actually was, or how it functioned.
  • An angry USA Today column from 15 May, 2014, “Liberals’ Dark Ages,” which says “We have slipped into an age of un-enlightenment where you fall in line behind the mob or face the consequences.” Well…yes, in the Middle Ages “tolerance” and “pluralism” were at best an unstable habitus founded on perceptions of cost, benefit, power, and profit. But the article sounds a lot more like Protestant England or Counter-Reformation Spain to me…
  • An odd article from The Brooklyn Rail from 3 December, 2013, “Celebrating the New Dark Age” by David Geers. The title is the only place where the Middle Ages are explicitly evoked, as it focuses on the never-ending crisis of modernity…or is it post-modernity. In any case, Agamben has next to nothing to do with the Middle Ages, as I once tried to explain to a colleague of mine in the English Department some years ago (said colleague naturally ignored this piece, obsessed as he/she was with his/her flights of fancy).
  • Article “Back to the Dark Ages of Feudalism” by Gilbert Mercier, 2 June 2014, on counterpunch.org.  Defines “[t]he feudal system of the Dark Ages” as “the social and economic exploitation of peasants by lords.”  Based on that definition, we can draw all kinds of parallels to modern social conditions, so that “The feudal era relation of a serf to his lord is essentially identical to the relation of a so-called WalMart associate to a heir of the Walton family.”  This would be compelling if it bore any resemblance to the reality of “serfdom” in the Middle Ages. Both serfdom and the web of obligations comprehended under “feudalism” (the two are actually separate phenomena) contained a bewildering variety of forms from 500 to 1500, and using the terms as anything other than a convenient short-hand gets us nowhere.
  • Blog post from 19 July, 2013, by Gini Graham Scott, “The New Middle Ages,” which points to increasing inequalities of wealth and the social separation of the very upper class from the mass of “today’s poor underclass” as having parallels to the Middle Ages. I think this is not really far-fetched, unlike many other invocations of the Middle Ages, and in fact scholars continue to refine and complicate our understanding of the medieval poor and outcasts. She points to the increasing tax burden on the poor in England to finance the Hundred Years War, which is accurate as far as it goes.  Attitudes toward the poor changed over the course of the Middle Ages, and there was a further difference (or perhaps a parallel?) in late medieval society. Increasingly, only the very wealthy and well-born had the power to accomplish things in society, while those among the 10,000 or so knightly and gentry families in England were subject to a great number of variables that affected their prosperity. From my own research, I have noticed that the great nobles increasingly acted as creditors and lending houses to their subordinate knights and men-at-arms. And were themselves sometimes held in the power of merchants.
  • An article by Lawrence Murray, “Is a New Dark Age at Hand?” from American Thinker, 27 January, 2008.  Does at least define the “Dark Ages” as the period after the collapse/erosion/disappearance of Roman power in western Europe. Argues that information-age technology will sweep away our modern civilization. Interesting, if not convincing, or having much of anything to do with the Middle Ages.
  • Justin Raimondo, “The New Dark Age: Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” on Antiwar.com, 7 February 2014. This seems to equate government surveillance with the “Dark Ages.” I assure you, medieval monarchs could only dream of having this type of surveillance capability–though their spy networks could be remarkably efficient.
  • A 1996 essay “Living in the New Dark Ages,” written from a conservative Christian perspective, and decrying a “step-by-step dismantling of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” which process apparently began during the Enlightenment with those demmed intellectuals. Not sure how this assumed dismantling equates to the Middle Ages, exactly…
  • Counterpoint to the previous essay, Liam Fox, 4 April 2009, in The Telegraph, “We’re in danger of entering a new Dark Age.” Calls for a defense of the Enlightenment: “The Age of Reason is in danger of gradually shifting into reverse, while the culture of “whatever” – that one word so frequently used to dismiss objective reasoning – is on the rise.”  Not sure what any of this has to do with the Middle Ages…
  • Now, more sophisticated is Noam Chomsky’s “A Rebellious World or a New Dark Age?” from 8 May, 2012. Chomsky surveys the negative changes in capital, jobs, banks, the environment, weapons, etc. The “dark ages” appears as a trope for backward, irrational behavior: “[The United States} is the only major country that is not only not doing something constructive to protect the environment, it’s not even climbing on the train. In some ways, it’s pulling it backwards. And this is connected to a huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that climate change is just a liberal hoax. ‘Why pay attention to these scientists?’ We’re really regressing back to the dark ages. It’s not a joke.”  Well, folks like Roger Bacon and Albert the Great would have regarded as a great joke this assumption that they rejected science and rationality… Sigh.

“For what we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture — a troika that was for Voltaire the central horror of the pre-Enlightenment world; and the political and economic marginalization of our culture. Of course, the Dark Ages were not uniformly monochromatic, as recent scholarship has demonstrated; but then, neither is present-day America. The point is that in both cases “dark” is the operative word.”

In the broadest historical terms, these parallels seem to hold, and on occasion I’ve ruminated in my own mind on parallels between the United States and the Late Roman Empire. But in most respects these sentences are misleading. Torture and the state were already integrated. The relationship of religion to the state was far more complex and uneven than this summary would suggest. There unquestionably was a kind of decline of education, in terms of numbers, but the quality of thought was hardly poor. Religion did, to a certain extent, triumph over reason, debates over the relevance or benefit of reading “pagan” literature suggesting a certain closing of the mind. The greatest Christian thinker of all, however, was himself a product of “pagan” and Christian educations, and the turning from “pagan” learning should not be overblown, nor mis-assigned to religious zeal rather than to a complex cultural and religious reaction to an economically, socially, and culturally failed society. I’ve always had a partiality for Bark’s Origins of the Medieval World, which flipped the coin and took the view that Roman society was bankrupt, and good riddance to it; Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic societies were the heirs of a wrecked and bankrupt society.

What strikes me about nearly all these invocations of the “New Dark Ages” is what bad history they are, and what bad policy will result from this bad history. Whatever may be the current state of the world and the United States, creating a fake historical period as a pillory for your prejudices can’t lead to anywhere good. The Middle Ages (and even that period c.476 – c. 800, commonly known as the Dark Ages) were as complex as any period in history, and were the product of social, religious, economic, demographic, political, and military forces the complexity of which few people have the patience to study. In fact, perhaps the greatest difference between the Middle Ages, commonly construed, and current society is that medieval society was ultimately a hopeful society, a society that would rebuild, recover, rethink, and re-imagine every time natural or man-made calamity struck. Sometimes it could be quite self-conscious about this quality, especially during the twelfth century. Even in the fourteenth century, with war, plague, famine, and religious collapse everywhere, various communities rebuilt and re-imagined their world in such a way as to preserve themselves. That’s not to say an optimistic society can’t also be an oppressive, suspicious society as well–there is ample evidence for that throughout the medieval period. But if we’re really so much better than medieval folk (which I don’t believe), we really need to get past invoking medieval failures of reason, justice, or morality (supposed or actual) as covers for our own political diatribes. I guess we’re really that desperate for a “usable” past. Truth to tell, it’s actually a very “medieval” thing to do.  To invoke the medieval is to be medieval…now that’s an interesting thought.

One Reply to “Bad history and bad policy: the “New Dark Ages” trope”

  1. Nice set of musings on the D.A. trope — where DO you find time to do this sort of thing?!?

    Any thoughts on why the trope is rebounding in the sense of how it came about in the first place? That is, wasn’t it Petrarch and his cronies who coined it (or equivalent) to characterize those bad old ages (i.e., the medieval period) that their Renaissance was sweeping away… and casting light into the darkened corners? I think this is parallel to your observation that the M.A. were ultimately hopeful. So, too, was the Renaissance. They were both looking back at, first, the Rome that was lost that they were trying to rebuild (nicely parallel with the post-Lapsarian theology of the day) and then, second, that less-than-stellar period (by their reckoning) that the Renaissance and its nice shiny newness had managed to supplant (think: Bramante and gold ornaments!).

    Now, however, we are worried, and perhaps rightly so. Worried that we are a collapsing empire, whether that be analogous to Rome, England at her height, the collapse of globalism in the face of jihad on one side or transnationals on the other, or just the collapse of the American Empire (by those who can bear to admit we had one). Whether any of these analyses of the coming (arrived) new Dark Ages is right, it seems to me that it is the inherent pessimism in their framing that we ought to be wary of.

    Your point that bad history can (does) lead to bad policy is very important, so perhaps it is important that we get the metaphor right to begin with. I’d propose that the parallel for the modern pessimism, at least in the U.S., should be Versailles in the 18thC, not the Dark Ages. One visit to Washington theses days should convince anyone that the system there has created an opulent society where those who wish to play must pay (and pay and pay) and live the lifestyle. Didn’t Louis XIV require all his nobles to spend half the year at Versailles where he could keep an eye on them (and bankrupt them by forcing them to live to kingly status)? I’ve long felt like a peasant traipsing through the National Archives and LoC amongst the nobility of those who have an official badge on the lanyard in D.C…. grateful to be able to bask in the golden glow of the magnificence that is the beltway political machine. (I hope you note the sarcasm there). At any rate, this was recently brought to mind by Nick Hanauer’s oped in Business Week, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…” . I am not sure where we are headed, but it is more likely 1789 than 476.

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