Orwell Watch #18: “Back to the Middle Ages” – an era that “exceeds expectations”


From Hildegard of Bingen's "Liber Divinorum Operum"

Just got back from an evening of unearthly beauty, “German Music from Hildegard to Schütz,” performed by Stanford Early Music Singers under the direction of William Mahrt.

Of particular interest was the music of polymath Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine abbess who revolutionized music in the 12th century, and who was also a writer,  philosopher, artist, physician, scientist, mystic and visionary.

Which brings us to the newest installment of the Orwell Watch: In the last week or two, we have heard much of political plans that will “take us back to the Middle Ages,” as if it were a bad thing. What have people got against the Middle Ages?

I say this as a perfectly modern woman who would not wish to subject herself to, say, 18th century dentistry, or even a few years of mid-20th century housewifery.  At the same time, I realize that the Middle Ages had something to recommend them: for instance, the women of Hildegard’s era did not wax their pubic hair or starve themselves literally to death to look like a photoshopped image of anorexic model.  These are women who never stood on a bathroom scale and agonized, who did not feel embarrassed to have gray roots or laugh lines, and who did not torture themselves in a gym a week after giving birth.  I prefer the music of that time to the rumpety-rump-rump remixed music of our own. I prefer the art to most of what I see in MOMA.  I expect a peach from a tree in those days didn’t taste like cardboard.

Moreover, so often the things that are said to “bring us back to the Middle Ages” are, in fact, often not taking us back to the Middle Ages at all, but only to the 1950s or early 1960s – an era I grew up in and, while not ideal, was tolerable in many ways.  I would not wish to go back to it; on the other hand, many Cambodians and Rwandans might view it as an innocent, golden era.

Not so bad, really.

In other cases of “going back to the Middle Ages,” politicians are talking about something that actually takes us back a month or two, before the proposed legislation. Oh, those terrible times of last week!

Why do we look back on the past with horror, and on the present as the epitome of good?  Why were the Middle Ages worse than, say, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, or the time of the Visigoths?  What is the purpose of such political exaggerration? Does it feed our notions of inevitable “progress”?

Civilization always occurs within pockets of time and space, and there are enlightened and dark patches in all eras.  Here are 10 reasons why the Dark Ages were not so dark.

Next, we will tackle the Puritans, that much-maligned group of people with shiny boot buckles and pointy hats.

Meanwhile, Inc.com has a few sales clichés that are worth hooting at, but my favorite is “exceeding expectations.” If a business is consistently “exceeding expectations” – well, isn’t that the new expectation?

Another take on the Middle Ages:

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2 Responses to “Orwell Watch #18: “Back to the Middle Ages” – an era that “exceeds expectations””

  1. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    Interestingly, modern political rhetoric about the Middle Ages also oversimplifies–ignores, really–how Americans have actually viewed and used the Middle Ages, especially as alternatives to industrialism and materialism. Medievalism walked arm-in-arm with the antimodernism of the arts-and-crafts movement, and progressives like Henry Adams and Woodrow Wilson looked to the Middle Ages for models of civic virtue. Regardless of whether or not their perceptions were accurate, medieval-ish video games are now hugely popular, one can attend a medievalist “Renaissance” festival somewhere in the U.S. nearly every weekend of the year–and heck, when Hillary Clinton spoke at the opening of a Smithsonian exhibition about the Vikings in 2000, she made Norse marauders sound like the enlightened love children of John Locke and Mary Wollstonecraft. So I’m not sure the general public views the Middle Ages quite as negatively as politicians using Orwellian hyperbole *think* they do.

  2. Helaine Says:

    LOL @ tags? “PC-Porn”