Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Defense of Darkness

Writing the kind of work that I do, I'm frequently accused of being pretentious -- of trying to elevate the significance of my own obsessions by recasting them in the heroic language of the past. (And if that bothers you, boy, are you going to hate this latest show.) That's an accusation that I'm not necessarily prepared to refute -- but even greater than that sin is, perhaps, the period of time that I choose to fixate on -- not the classics of Greece and Rome, nor the enlightenment of the Renaissance -- but rather, on the Dark Ages themselves.

Why, some have speculated, would anyone choose to fixate on those benighted and barbaric times? Particularly when they're surrounded by the ideals of democracy and humanism and all that good stuff? Because, I counter, it's in the Middle Ages that the modern man was born. Current scholarship favors the Renaissance, but I disagree. My reason? Here's, say, nine.

1) The language that you and I speak? That I'm writing in right now, and that you're reading? Medieval. Dating in its earliest form to the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, at which point the island was renamed to Angle-land, or, as we know it today, England -- and its brand-spanking-new language, English.

2) The two largest religions in the world today? One of them -- Islam -- was born in the Middle Ages, when the merchant Mohammed supposedly received a vision from the Archangel Gabriel -- and the other, Christianity, also rose to prominence in this time. They came into conflict in a series of wars known as the Crusades -- memorably evoked (by name!) by President Bush during his tenure. So that animosity and vitriol that fuels most of our current wars and blog posts and whatnot? Born -- naturally -- in the Middle Ages.

3) That middle-class that politicians talk about (and cater to) constantly? And the union system that wields such devastating power of our economy? Can be traced directly back to the rise of guilds of skilled artisans that were emerging as European cities swelled in size.

4) Our entire legal system -- one of common law, with a trial by a jury of peers and founded on the concept of legal precedent, accountable to the state rather than to the church -- we largely have Henry II to thank for, thank you very much.

5) Angsting over your last relationship? We have the Middle Ages to thank for our whole existing concept of courtly and romantic love. The significance of this can't be underestimated. The chivalric code of Lancelot du Lac may seem silly and archaic, but he was a pioneer for the fucked-up relationships that we're struggling through now. The gender roles and combinations may have shifted recently, but the template we still use for relating to each other was born a thousand years ago.

6) Then there's concept of individual liberty, and the limitation of state power. All effectively articulated in the Magna Carta, a medieval document that subjected executive authority to the law. The document's easy to romanticize -- in reality, all it was really doing was taking power from one thug and dividing it among several -- but it started a dialogue, a language, and a system of thought that eventually led to Oliver Cromwell and John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

7) Maybe this whole conversation seems silly and annoying, and you just want to nip down to your local watering hole for some libation. Beer and wine have been around for nearly as long as our species has -- but the distillation of liquor? Whether you want to order a brandy, scotch, whiskey, vodka, or gin -- all of them were discovered in the Middle Ages. Even if you abandon those and grab a beer -- the whole concept of brewing hops into beer, and thereby being able to control its flavor and consistency, was born then as well. Even the bar you're sitting in exists because of the Saxon alehouses that preceded it.

8) The literacy that enables you to read windy and rambling blog posts -- for that, you can thank yet another medieval invention: the printing press, which for the first time in human history enabled us to disseminate written information widely, without relying on monks copying out every letter by hand. (Oh, by the way, Catholic monasteries? Those centers of learning, which are responsible for the preservation of nearly all of the texts we have both from this period and before? We can thank the Monastic Rule of St. Benedict.)

9) Or the country that you occupy (assuming that the bulk of my readership is in the United States) -- although we have pretty solid evidence that the country had been discovered by both the Chinese and the Icelanders previously, it was the voyage of Columbus that brought our continent to the attention of European civilization.

So why does any of this matter? Because the vast bulk of what you do, think, or feel, can be traced directly back to a single period of time. My own religious faith, political ideology, theatrical profession, racial identity, sexual relationships, and alcoholic fraternity -- all achieved their current form within a single millennia. That's *extraordinary*. And to not be conscious of that fact seems to me to be failing to acknowledge *why* any of us believe the things that we believe, or behave the way that we choose to behave. It is to live in profound ignorance of why we are the way we are.

Which is, perhaps, why I -- throughout my career -- keep coming back to the romances of the medieval writers. I find something modern in Malory's imagination. And we haven't evolved as much as we like to believe that we have.