Loose Medieval Metaphors

Copyedits for my academic book arrived in my email yesterday. My blogging will likely be a little sparser for the next three weeks. Or I’ll write twice as much. There is no middle ground! Today is quick.

Medieval metaphors are flying around these days, as medieval is a shorthand in our national discourse for “bad,” “backwards,” or “unequal.” We have descended into an age of acute inequality, so people turn back to “medieval” as a way of describing it.

That’s nonsense. It’s not like the Middle Ages were happy times one-person one-vote liberal democracy or anything, but the really important elements that shape modern inequality – technology, globalism (also a force for equality, in some ways), Wall Street, and so much else – are the very definition of modern. It’s true in terms of state power, too. Sure, medieval rulers would have liked to be able to track you like the NSA does, but they couldn’t. It’s only once our entire lives enter a searchable digitial sphere that suddenly a body like the NSA can exist and imperil us.

Over on medievalkarl.com, Karl Steel takes on the notion of the feudal wealth gap. He writes:

We’re living in an era of unprecedented wealth, although perhaps not an unprecedented era of wealth concentration. What distinguishes 2014 from, say, 1014, is that the plutocrats couldn’t have fed everyone well even if they chose to try; lord knows they couldn’t have provided quality medical care and top-notch education to all of the poor, because they couldn’t even provide it to themselves; they couldn’t have extended the life of all the poor by decades, because even the rich back then, whenever that was, tended to top out at 40 years.

Also read his piece on religious warfare as an Enlightenment problem.

The possible now is very different from the possible then, for good and for ill.

And now, back to copyedits.

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