Pessimists often compare today's troubled America to a tottering late
The medieval world was a nearly 1,000-year period of spectacular, if haphazard, human achievement -- along with endemic insecurity, superstition and two, rather than three, classes.
The great medieval universities -- at Bologna,
Instead, medieval speech codes were designed to ensure that no one questioned the authority of church doctrine. Culturally or politically incorrect literature of the classical past, from Aristophanes to Petronius, was censored as either subversive or hurtful.
Career-wise, it was suicidal for, say, a medieval professor of science at the
Similarly, at Berkeley or
Today, a fifth of American households have zero or negative net worth. The shrinking middle classes struggle to service trillions of dollars in consumer and student debt to big banks -- in the manner of medieval peasants.
In the medieval world, impoverished serfs pledged loyalty to barons in exchange for their food and housing on the manor. In the modern world, progressive government is the bastion that distributes entitlements on the expectation that the masses show their political fealty at election time.
Despite spending some
The ruling cliques of the medieval court were full of insider knaves and scoundrels, plots and intrigue. Compare the current scandals, lies and hypocrisies of our Beltway cloister in
Closeted scholiasts wrote esoteric treatises that no one read. These works were sort of like the incomprehensible "theory" articles of university humanities professors who are up for tenure.
To talk to the masses, the Latin-speaking elite spoke localized slang that would centuries later become English, French and German -- the medieval version of our electronic grunts and made-up words on Twitter and email that are forming a new popular language.
With ancient borders long forgotten, medieval elites relied on massive walls, moats and keeps to stay safe -- sort of similar to what we see with the present-day gated estates of Malibu and
Today's zillionaire lords drive BMWs and fly in private jets instead of riding huge warhorses. They may wear jeans and flip-flops in place of robes and crowns, but their wealth and influence are as unlimited as the splendor of the lords of the medieval manor.
The great architects of the late Middle Ages could design majestic cathedrals at places such as Chartes and Rouen. But debt, incompetence and quarreling meant that their construction -- unlike the earlier construction of the Parthenon -- took centuries to complete.
The blueprints and mock-ups for
For their roads and water, isolated medieval fiefdoms relied on the crumbling ancient infrastructure of long-gone
In 21st-century America, we rely on -- but could never again build -- structures such as the
Medieval mass entertainment -- puppeteering, mimes, jugglers, acrobats -- was far different than the sort of entertainment that troubadours and bards performed for the lords. In our age, think of the gulf between the symphony and reality TV, quiz shows and the
There is one great difference, however, between the medieval and modern worlds.
People living in the first millennium believed in transcendence and a soul, and sought to keep alive culture until civilization returned.
People living in the second millennium increasingly live for their appetites without worry about what follows -- with little awareness of what has been lost and so not a clue about how to recapture it.