Here’s the longer post I promised the other day on Parag Khanna’s Financial Times article. I just can’t resist writing about the twelfth century, the High Middle Ages, and the thirteenth, when everything started coming apart.
I’m still trying to figure out what Khanna is trying to say. He's got a potpourri of observations but doesn't put them together into anything coherent. When people say that something is medieval, in general, it's not a compliment and refers to "the dark ages" and a lack of enlightenment, which, by some accounts, came later. He’s also got his centuries mixed up. If he’s talking about Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, that’s the thirteenth century into the fourteenth. And he leaves a lot out, like how intertwined governance and religion were and that states as we know them were just developing. I'll address just a few of his points.
"Numerous centers of power." Well, okay, but Matt Eckel points out that the physical and communication separation was much greater in the thirteenth century than it is now. Plus one of those centers today spends more on defense than all the rest combined. The Crusades were an attempt to globalize war, and the Mongols were pretty good at that sort of thing too. Economically, there was some trade, but nothing like the financial globalization we have today.
Khanna frequently discusses the alleged movement from states to smaller units - corporations and city-states, which might have some resemblance to the thirteenth century, but the movement is in the opposite direction. In the thirteenth century, states were forming from smaller units like duchies and principalities. It wasn't pretty - see Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. The title indicates that she thought there are parallels, too, but I've never been clear on what they were. If (and I think it's a big if) we are indeed moving away from states today, it's the opposite direction, which is likely to combine many of the downsides of the thirteenth century.
"[T]the Middle Ages was actually an era of great invention and discovery." Um. Technology did well in the thirteenth century and was trashed in the thirteenth. A good book on that is The Medieval Machine, by Jean Gimpel, which got me started on my obsession with the twelfth century. So Khanna is being sloppy here. The eleventh into the twelfth centuries were a time when a lot of technology was applied and improved, like water mills on streams, but it wasn’t comparable to modern science, and it stopped and a lot of the technology fell into disuse after that.
And America becoming Byzantium...I don't think so. Or that it's remotely desirable. Just read about the lives and deaths (mostly deaths) of the rulers of Byzantium. There's a reason the adjective byzantine means what it does.
So let me give an overview of some things I think we can learn from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Rome, the globalized empire of its time, fell in about 500 CE. The empire fragmented, from the outside in. The globalization trends of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (the Crusades, the Silk Road) crashed in the fourteenth century with devastating plague that globalization brought to Europe. The argument has been put forth that the world of the first decade of the twentieth century was globalized. Another big crash in World War I. Does globalization always precede a major crash?
In 500 CE, Britain was in the forefront of figuring out how to go it alone. There may or may not have been a tribal leader by the name of Arthur who may or may not have done great things. But an idea like Arthur probably was needed to get through. As Rome’s influence shrank, the rest of Europe and North Africa fragmented.
The Umayyads conquered large parts of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 700s.
Around 900, the Slavs migrated north from the Balkans. I would love to learn more about this, and would appreciate any references.
The Normans (Northmen/Norsemen), at about the same time, were occupying parts of France, Sicily, and Russia (along rivers, from the north). Then their descendents invaded England from France in 1066, occasioning a change in the language and several wars of succession over the next century.
The First Crusade started in 1096, against the Byzantine Empire in Jerusalem.
By the late 12th century (late 1100s), England and western France were closely aligned through Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Plantagenets. Eleanor had been married to Louis VII, king of France (Paris) before she married Henry Plantagenet, so there was more than a little personal animosity involved in what transpired. Plus a strong woman trying to exert her power. France was divided into north and south, langue d'oiel and langue d'oc, different ways of saying "yes." And Languedoc/Occitania overlapped Eleanor's lands and abutted the Moslem Andalus. The Cathars there were developing their brand of religion outside the only True Church, which had sway over the western part of Europe, Byzantium having earlier split from Rome.
More crusades. Eleanor went on one of them. Meanwhile, Genghis Khan was giving China and Russia a hard time, and China itself was trying to come together from smaller groups.
Eleanor sponsored her "courts of love," and her daughter by Louis, Marie of Champagne, was patron to a number of poets and writers, including Chrétien of Troyes. Chrétien and others wrote of King Arthur's court, drawing on earlier British writers. But the French writing had a twist: knights would ride off into the forest "where no path was." In short, they were writing about (and this may have been a part of Eleanor's courts of love) a sort of individuation and thinking for oneself that threatened the Church, which was thoroughly entwined with what there was of the state.
There seems to have been a general movement toward this sort of independence in Europe. There were a number of centers of such spiritual thinking outside the Church: the Waldensians, who were mostly in Italy at the time; Wolfram of Eschenback’s Parzival, which clearly is related to Chrétien's writing with a middle-German touch and some significant sympathy for Islam. In 1215, the Magna Carta was signed in England, modifying the absolute power of the king.
Of course there was a counterrevolution; Arthur stories were developed by churchly types, in which the knights might ride off where there were no paths, but they quickly met a religious hermit who told them the official meanings of their adventures and recommended regular confession, which had been made mandatory by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1204. And it got worse. Church and state combined to unify France, which meant killing the Cathars in Occitania from 1209 to 1215. "Kill them all, God will know his own" was the instruction given the north French armies.
Meanwhile, Genghis Khan was spreading his empire from China through Russia. As the Germans advanced their Northern Crusade to convert the Polish and Baltic pagans, Alexander Nevsky stopped them at Chudskoye Ozero/Peipsijarv/Lake Peipus in 1242 with Mongol help or tactics, but this was the beginning of occupation of the southern and eastern Baltic shorelands by Germans, Swedes, Danes, and Russians, which lasted into the 20th century. Russia was coming together at that time, too, from principalities like Muscovy, Yaroslavl, Kievan Rus, and Pskov.
The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were mostly built during the thirteenth century; the characteristic church architecture of the twelfth was the more human-scale Romanesque. One might wonder if the point of the Gothic cathedrals was intimidation. I know I've felt like an ant crawling around in Paris’s Notre Dame.
The Templars, leading lights of the Crusades, were accused of corruption and heresy and their leaders burned at the stake in the early fifteenth century. Bands of thugs roved throughout Europe. Mongols occupied China. Boyars and princes, Muscovy and other provinces clashed in Russia. Plague epidemic in Europe, brought back from Asia along with all those silks.
It seems to me that two big themes that emerge from these two centuries are the human urge toward autonomy and the violent response from the powers that be, and the effects of occupations. The first seems to me to be the most striking analogy to our time. I would put the 1960s in the place of Eleanor/Marie/Chretien/Wolfram/Cathars/Waldensians and the religious right in the place of the various churchly forces that put down those heresies. C. S. Lewis, one of the favorite authors of today's religious right, came out explicitly in favor of the heretic-killers of the twelfth century in, I believe, The Allegory of Love. I keep wondering what our world would be like if the reformation against the Church had taken place in the early 1200s instead of the early 1500s.
The Middle Ages brought a lot of population redistribution and occupation. Some occupations bred intense, multicentury-duration hatreds, while others integrated the conquerors and conquered. Slavs and Normans built today's Russia with the help(?) of Mongols. China, however, retains a suspicion of Central Asia, expressed in the Han need to keep Tibet and Xinjiang under control. For that matter, the Russians felt it necessary to subdue what is now Kazakhstan during the nineteenth century. The Baltic States retained their identity while their cousins east of the Narva were mostly overwhelmed by those Slavs and Normans. The Moors were run out of Spain with great animosity. I don't see a clear pattern, but the details of the various occupations and their outcomes might provide some insight into today’s occupations and their likely outcomes.
So I just don’t get what Khanna means by “the new medievalism.” It seems to be a cover for his hobbyhorse of an increase in power by non-state actors like cities and corporations, but the evidence he provides is thin.
I’ve got a hobbyhorse in this post, too. I think that the development of the Arthur stories, particularly in the early thirteenth century, tells us a lot about what was happening then. But evidence for that, and pretty much everything else in that time, is thin, and my interpretation is quite unorthodox.
A few more cautions about medieval history. The Cathars were completely wiped out, and the victors write the history, so I regard anything we "know" about Cathar beliefs as highly unreliable. Most of us learned the Arthur stories from Thomas Malory, who smushed stories from many sources together in the 15th century and added in a lot of "and then he smote him with his sword, and his brains spilled out." Malory liked that stuff about brains spilling out. Chrétien and Wolfram were writing about other things. Richard Wagner went back to Wolfram for his Parsival, but added in a lot of Richard Wagner. If you want to know what Chrétien and Wolfram said, their works are readily available. C. S. Lewis and others gave us a lascivious view of the courts of love, but that probably reflects their prejudices more than the history. Once again, we don’t entirely know what went on.