Towards a New Medievalism
February 29, 2020
Modernity is dead. This is a rather explosive statement, but one that, I feel, can no longer be disputed. Although here we must clarify for all parties just what is meant by “Modernity,” and the “Modern” world. It is, of course, no mere matter of the past decade, or even the past century.
Modernity, rather, is the state of the West in the aftermath of the Middle Ages. We may speak, as Spengler and others have done, of the ‘Modern’ world in contrast to the ‘Classical’ world and the ‘Medieval’ world. The point at which the Modern world began—the point at which the Middle Ages ended and Modernity commenced—is naturally a matter of some dispute. There are three years I might postulate for this break. The first is 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the very last of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire was extinguished from the world. The second is 1492, when Christopher Columbus alerted all of Europe to the existence of the New World across the Atlantic Ocean. The third is 1517, when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. All three years have their merits as the point when the Medieval world came to an end. But as we can see from their cluster, the period from 1450 AD to 1550 AD seems to be the definitive break. When the fifteenth century began, the West was still a Medieval world. By the midway point of the sixteenth century, the Modern world had begun.
In that light, perhaps, we might modify our opening statement. Modernity may not yet be dead; however, it is dying, and as it dies a new age is being born. We might consider ourselves in a kind of interregnum, a fluid period in which the new and old worlds coexist as that which will be is formed out of that which is and was.
Does any of this seem familiar? It should. There is one other “interregnum” period in the history of the West that immediately comes to mind, a period in which the old world was dying and the new world was being born. This, of course, is the Renaissance. We ought not to consider the Renaissance as a unique epoch of history in its own right; in most ways that mattered, from the societal to the political to the religious to the technological to the artistic, the Renaissance can be seen as belonging to the Medieval world. And yet it is not quite the same as the Middle Ages. Those categories—the societal, the political, the religious, the technological, the artistic—were in many ways as they were in the Medieval era, but they were actively changing; what had been was losing its grip, and the modes of being which those categories would take on in the Modern era were coming into harder, sharper focus. The Renaissance, then, was both death and birth. It was the Medieval world in its death throes, and the Modern world exiting the womb.
The Renaissance, classically and stereotypically, has been looked at as the ‘rebirth’ of learning brought on by the recovery of ancient Greek texts that had been lost in the West during the Middle Ages. This recovery had already begun in the later Medieval period, the ‘high’ Middle Ages in which Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe; the great works of the Scholastic philosophers, with Saint Thomas Aquinas at their head, flowed from this. But the Renaissance was a recovery on a grand scale. Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Xenophon, and countless other figures became, once again, part of the intellectual fabric of Western thought and culture. The transition from the Medieval world to the Modern world was not solely due to this recovery; there were countless other factors at play. But it is nonetheless difficult to understate the importance of this renewal of the thinking and writing of the Ancient world. If it was not the only driver of change, it can be argued that it was the straw that stirred the drink.
So, then, if our current world is in an “interregnum,” in which the Modern world is dying and the next phase of history is being born, we might expect for a similar recovery to be taking place. And, to our great surprise, we may look around and find it. It is a kind of mirror of the Renaissance, our own age’s recovery. It is the next logical step. The Renaissance was fueled by the recovery of the thought and writing of the Ancient world. This new interregnum we are in, I argue, is fueled by the recovery of the thought and writing of the Medieval world. We are beginning to be in the grips of a New Medievalism—a Neomedievalism, if you will.
If these terms sound familiar, they should be. The great writer and philosopher Umberto Eco has beaten me to making this point by several decades. He makes it particularly well in his essay “Living in the New Middle Ages,” part of his 1998 essay collection Travels in Hyperreality. Dr. Eco makes the case that we are, even now, beginning to experience the coming of a new Medieval period. He lays it out in terms that, from the vantage point of 2020, seem prophetic:
What is required to make a good Middle Ages? First of all, a great peace that is breaking down, a great international power that has unified the world in language, customs, ideologies, religions, art, and technology, and then at a certain point, thanks to its own ungovernable complexity, collapses. It collapses because the “barbarians” are pressing at its borders; these barbarians are not necessarily uncultivated, but they are bringing new customs, new views of the world. These barbarians may burst in with violence, because they want to seize a wealth that has been denied them, or they may steal into the social and cultural body of the reigning Pax, spreading new faiths and new perspectives on life.Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality
But, of course, we are not exactly headed into a retread of the Middle Ages, in the West or in the entire world. Contra Marx, I do not think history repeats itself, either as tragedy or as farce. I prefer the line often but erroneously attributed to Mr. Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I believe that the present age is about to rhyme twice over—with both the Medieval age and with the time of the Renaissance.
Simply put: I believe our present age, in the end times of Modernity, can be likened to the time of the Renaissance, in which the old world was dying and the new world was being born. That, I feel, is happening right now. And, as in the Renaissance, I believe this interregnum will be marked by a rebirth of stalled learning, and a recovery of lost knowledge. The Renaissance’s time was marked by the recovery of the knowledge of the Ancient world. I believe our time, our age between ages, will be and has been marked by the recovery of the knowledge of the Medieval world. We are about to embark upon a renewed spirit of the Middle Ages—the thing I will again call Neomedievalism. Moreover, I believe the signs of this are already incredibly clear in our present world, and have been for some time. Let us focus on three particular signs that mark the broader trend.
The Three Horsemen
The first sign, and perhaps the most readily obvious, is the broad growth in the study of the Middle Ages. In the current universities of the West, this study is termed “Medieval Studies,” and since the dawn of the 20th Century it has grown by leaps and bounds. Though initially begun in the 19th Century, in the past few decades the intense academic study of the Middle Ages has expanded at a rapid pace; as Wikipedia notes, numerous new centers for medieval studies have opened in both Europe and the Americas. Academic interest almost always precedes a broad revival, whether in the case of a writer or a thinker or in the case of a cultural movement. An increase in the study of the Middle Ages uncovers new texts, introduces new perspectives, and invites new opportunities to learn and relearn the ideas of Medievalism.
And, indeed, the second sign I would mention is just such a relearning of this idea. The intense philosophical and theological activity of the Middle Ages might be said to have reached its apex in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church’s foremost thinker. In addition to the thought and writing of the Middle Ages more broadly, Saint Thomas’ thought in particular has seen a potent revival in the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st. This is the movement of so-called “Analytical Thomism,” pioneered by such British and American philosophers John Haldane, G.E.M. Anscombe, Peter Geach, and Anthony Kenny. The name was coined by Dr. Haldane; it was a recognition that Saint Thomas’ thought had much to offer practitioners of the analytic tradition. Combined with the revival of virtue ethics pioneered by Alasdair MacIntyre, each passing year since, arguably, the 1980s has witnessed a greater and firmer rediscovery and reapplication of the philosophical and theological ideas of the Middle Ages. This is something more than Medieval Studies; this is the active taking of Medieval ideas and putting them into practice today. This is very much the sort of thing I mean by Neomedievalism—going beyond the mere study of the Middle Ages and actually breathing new spirit and new energy into those ideas, arts, and modes of life which have their origins in the Medieval world.
This renewal of the medieval has also, quite unsurprisingly, taken root in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church is perhaps the greatest lasting legacy of the Middle Ages; it is a Medieval institution, the most potent and powerful one that has survived in Modernity. As the afterglow of the Second Vatican Council fades away into the past with the rest of the 20th Century, as that generation of reformers grows old and dies, the Church has begun to slowly but noticeably rethink its “new openness,” and to readopt decidedly Medieval attitudes toward the ideas of Modernity. The revival of the Old Rite of the Latin Mass, a mere few decades after it was believed to be dead for good, is a particularly strong example of this; so is the revival of classical forms of devotion and prayer, from the praying of novenas to the return of abstaining from meat on Fridays. Even Pope Francis, rightly regarded as a product of the Second Vatican Council, has shifted the Church in a Medieval direction with the writing of his encyclical Laudato Si. The popular press has foolishly branded this a ‘climate change’ encyclical. Instead, it is a deep and profound meditation upon the faults and failings of Modernity, filtered through the lens of the damage that Modernity has wrought upon the natural world. Writing for First Things magazine, R.R. Reno got it right with the very title of his essay on the encyclical: “The Return of Catholic Anti-Modernism.” Mr. Reno sees Laudato Si for the profoundly unModern work that it is, calling it “perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.” He further notes that, in contrast to his two predecessors, Pope Francis “has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity.” Unlike Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’ text reflects a renewed hostility by the Church towards the Modern world, a hostility it held from the very beginning of Modernity up to the Second Vatican Council. One might look at all this and say that the Church’s return to the Medieval way of order was only a matter of time; that the Second Vatican Council did not represent some enormous new beginning but simply an attempt that has failed. The Neomedievalist spirit within the Catholic Church may only intensify, not weaken, in the coming decades—and this will assert a significant influence on the West more broadly.
These are three signs. There are others I could list. But I believe I have made my point. As the Modern world dies completely, we are seeing the birth of a new age, one which I believe will make use of the Medieval world in the same way that the Modern world has made use of the Ancient world. The Renaissance and its revival of the Classical brought Modernity into being; our Neomedievalism, which has already begun and will continue, will in time bring to life the age that follows Modernity, whatever that age might be and whatever we shall call it when it is finally here. Umberto Eco once wrote an ‘unpublished fragment’ to conclude the essay I quoted earlier in this argument. It can be read here, and in it Dr. Eco expresses some reservation about the prospect of a New Medievalism. Dr. Eco, the consummate Modernist, says that “we cannot forget that Galileo was right, and no dream can convince us that he was wrong.” Dr. Eco seemed to realize that Neomedievalism might put an end to the Modernist and Postmodernist aspects of study and life which he cherished so much. I suspect he was right; whether this ending of the Modern is ultimately for good or ill, we shall have to wait and see.