Innocent Bystander October 2003

Feudal Gestures

Why the Middle Ages are something we can still look forward to
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With a mixture of distaste and satisfaction Americans last July took in the news that U.S. forces in the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, had surrounded a house harboring the two sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, and after an intense firefight lasting several hours had succeeded in killing them both. The Hussein boys were abominable people by any standard, and few expressions of regret were heard. No world figure sought to reprise the role of Ireland's Eamon De Valera, who in May of 1945, upon receiving the news of Hitler's death, visited the German embassy in Dublin to offer his formal condolences.

What did prove to be something of a surprise was the degree to which ordinary Iraqis refused to believe that Uday and Qusay were dead. Faced with this reality, American officials allowed photographs of the bodies to be made public. Shortly afterward the former CBS and NBC newsman Marvin Kalb, in a radio interview, observed, "In a funny way it's similar to what used to happen in the Middle Ages when, say, a conquering army would come into a town. And they would behead the leader of the old regime and then put that head on a spike and put the spike right in the middle of town so that all of the people could see that the old regime was truly gone."

Kalb's analogy was apt. But insofar as latter-day parallels with the Middle Ages are concerned, he could have gone a lot further. To be sure, the self-perception of people in the developed world has very little of the medieval about it. We inhabit the Information Age. We proclaim the Era of Globalization. We consider ourselves postmodern, maybe even posthuman. But it is also true that elements of a prior regime were never quite eradicated, and in some cases are growing back. The geographer David Harvey once wrote that "modernity is not a time—it's a place." The Middle Ages, one might add, are not an epoch—they're an outlook.

What are some of the medieval characteristics of the present day? Looking about idly, one could point to the growing prevalence of barter as a form of economic transaction. One could note the emergence of something akin to heresy trials, as outspoken people in academe and other areas of public life are subjected to harassment or worse for their political and cultural views. One could cite the new federal insistence that able-bodied people in public-housing projects devote time to community projects—a dusting off of the ancient corvée, which entitled an overlord to acts of service from those living on his estates. Although there is no longer a single Church, as there was in the Middle Ages, some powerful corporations are setting themselves up in its absence as enforcers of social morality. Home Depot is enacting a ban on wood harvested from endangered rain forests. Wal-Mart has banned Maxim and similar magazines from its shelves, and offers only cleaned-up versions of some videos and many CDs. Its drugstores don't stock the Preven "morning-after" pill.

The manner in which movers and shakers wind down their careers frequently has a medieval flavor. Aristocrats of yore often forsook their earthly obligations in late career, entering the cloister and devoting the rest of their lives to study and prayer. In much the same way, modern grandees seek monastic solace in the nonprofit world. Isn't this what the former senator Bob Kerrey has done, taking over the presidency of New School University? And Walter Isaacson, leaving the chairmanship of CNN News Group to become the president of the Aspen Institute?

Medieval society was essentially an oral one, dominated by the spoken word rather than the written text. Words on paper surged in influence during the first several centuries after Gutenberg, but in recent years technology of various kinds has greatly enhanced the capabilities of speech. Nowadays people never have to stop talking. One of the iconic sights in airport men's rooms is a line of well-dressed gentlemen standing at urinals, all of them conducting phone conversations, wires dangling from ear to chin. This post-flight ritual stands as a contemporary analogue, possibly, to the chanted refrains of ancient monks in their stalls at Westminster or Chartres.

But these examples are frankly trivial. There is a far more basic parallel between medieval times and our own. The precise definition of "feudalism" is one of those things on which medievalists can't quite agree—the field is divided into warring fiefdoms—but the historian F. L. Ganshof discerned in feudal society "a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the State." In the West the path away from the Middle Ages was marked by the evolution of governments and nation-states with a sense of responsibility for the public interest rather than merely private interests. Power was no longer a form of property. Social services and protections became a consequence of citizenship, not a private deal between a lord and his vassals, or between a private entity and its clients.

But at some point in the late twentieth century evolution's arrow began changing direction—toward the re-privatization of everything. It was not until the nineteenth century that governments, through local police forces, managed to make an ordinary citizen's personal security a matter of public responsibility. This was a major, if temporary, advance. No one with money relies on such guarantees any longer. More and more people have withdrawn into moated, or gated, communities. Private security is a huge growth industry; in 1970 America had about one and a half police officers for every hired security guard, whereas today the private guards outnumber the police by three to one. Individuals may give titular allegiance to a town or a state, but their oath of fealty is to Securitas or Wackenhut.

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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