History: why we still like to live in the middle ages

Frundsberg Festival Mindelheim

M anche say that the Middle Ages ended with the Renaissance. Others cite the invention of printing, the Reformation or the discovery of America as the end of that era. And the very bold even claim that the Middle Ages were only over when the French Revolution swept away the Holy Roman Empire. But these days one can get the impression that the Middle Ages are still going on.

Because in the hit parades, musicians from In Extremo, who play ancient instruments such as the market bagpipe, the trumscheit and the hammered dulcimer, recently ousted Madonna from the number 1 spot. There is a pilgrimage traffic jam on the Way of St. James. In the children’s rooms, boys sit in front of their computers, playing the mass online role-playing game "World of Warcraft aspire to a life as a warlock, paladin or death knight.

The historical novels of Iny Lorentz or Ildefonso Falcones, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, are about itinerant whores and cathedral builders. And the whole youth movement of the Gothics is – as the name suggests – nothing other than a great medieval carnival, in which the era is viewed through the slightly narrowed perspective of a black neo-romanticism and plundered as a costume treasure.

But why all this? What do young people find so attractive about a stinking epoch, which was essentially characterized by hunger, plague, fear and lack of freedom? No matter whether you get your medieval picture from George Duby’s scientifically flawless description of Europe before the year 1000 (at the beginning of "The Time of the Cathedrals") or from Umberto Eco’s novelistic free portrayal of the world around 1300 (in "The Name of the Rose") – there is always a gallows or a funeral pyre at every corner, even a rotten tooth can mean death, and foreign newcomers do not bring multiculturalism and latte macchiato, but it is the Vikings or Mongols who want to plunder and desecrate a bit.

According to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga: "Misery and infirmity were less relieved, they came more forcefully and more agonizingly . the piercing cold and the anxious darkness of winter were more essential evils. Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and greedily, they differed even more sharply than today from wailing poverty and depravity."

The Middle Ages were colorful and intense

But it is precisely these differences that make the medieval world so fascinating for us today: it was – although superficially colored by dirt and darkness – more colorful, more multifaceted and more intense. Huizinga described the fascination as early as 1924: "When the world was still half a millennium younger, all events in people’s lives had much more sharply defined forms than they do today. The distance between suffering and joy, between misfortune and unhappiness, seemed greater than for us; what was experienced still had that degree of immediacy and exclusivity which joy and suffering still possess in the minds of children today."

Since then, the differences between the present and the Middle Ages have become even greater – the diversity of the forms of existence has further decreased. In the Middle Ages one could still be a monk, a warrior or a peasant. None of these options are open to us today.

Sure, there are still a few soldiers and farmers, but for none of them is their whole life so much determined by this "state" defined, as was the case for warriors and peasants in the Middle Ages. Even beggars were not simply social failures who had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path of life, but had their place in the divine plan of salvation.

Today there are not even craftsmen as they understood themselves in the Middle Ages – as true creators who could create a completely new object from a piece of stone, metal or wood with their art. Such things, like the few monks, exist at most in tiny museum-like niches of society. Instead, we are all mere consumer citizens and henchmen.

Neither religion nor superstition means anything today

The supernatural, which was omnipresent and commonplace in the Middle Ages, has also completely disappeared from our modern life. Neither religion and superstition, nor trance and vision mean anything anymore. She is no longer needed as a consolation in the face of death. Because we have also repressed death: Until we are 70, we act as if we will live forever. Without these aspects, our life is like an MP3 file, with all the sounds cut off that are said not to be needed.

But many notice the difference. And they use the virtual possibilities, at least in their free time, to assume one of the numerous identities that no longer exist. In role-playing games or at medieval markets, everyone can be a warrior for a few hours without shedding blood, a sorcerer without fearing the punishments of hell, or a sword smith without having to pass on this status to his children and grandchildren.

The best thing about it is that you don’t have to know too much about history. On the contrary, the popularity of the Middle Ages is due in large part to the fact that it tastes less like school than, for example, the ancient world. It is precisely the vague idea that most people have of the Middle Ages that makes them so attractive as an almost inexhaustible supply of identities.

Swiss historian Valentin Groebner explains this fertile vagueness in his very stimulating new book, "The Middle Ages Don’t Stop": "Medieval material appears as a heterogeneous pool in which everything is equally distant and can be combined for different purposes."

The Middle Ages as a playground

The reception of the Middle Ages today is based on individual play instinct and lured by commercial seduction. In official politics, on the other hand, the Middle Ages no longer play a major role as a source of meaning. Almost only right-wing unsympathetic people refer to the Middle Ages: Milosevic and his Serbs derive their claims to Kosovo from the Battle of Blackbird Field in 1389.

Umberto Bossi and his Lega Nord dream of a renaissance of the upper Italian city republics that put the fear of God into the German emperors. And the Swiss nationalists from the SVP environment refer to the battle victories of the Confederates against Charles the Bold. Groebner: "These revenants of an aggressive national medievalism are not pleasant phenomena." Truly!

There are, however, unpleasant political phenomena that stand just apart from the Middle Ages: the propagandistic toadies of the Bush administration. They follow Donald Rumsfeld, who, with his words about "Old Europe gave our continent its rightful place in the museum.

Since its founding, the USA has seen itself as the anti-medieval par excellence – the country without kings. For America, as Goethe already noted, has "no decaying castles". One invoked instead the democratic antiquity. Washington has more columns than Rome and Athens, and antiquarian architectural forms characterize even the Town Halls of the province. Authors such as Edward Luttwak, who interpreted the USA as heirs to the Roman Empire, took up this theme.

Europe, on the other hand, they see as eternal Middle Ages: anti-Semitic, fragmented and threatened by Muslim invaders, but now even without strength for crusades. Their historical analogies are as subtle as a blow with a morning star: David Levering Lewis, in his book "God’s Crucible," has described the "crucible" as a "crucible gleefully depicts what an Islamic Europe would have looked like if the Arabs had not been defeated by Charles Martel in 732. With this annihilation fantasy, the writer took revenge on a continent that did not want to join in the war in Iraq.

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