The Greatest Threat in 1000 Years?
I found myself in a discussion group the other day where topics such as Trump and Brexit came up and found myself wondering if this was the first time the validity of democracy had been questioned since 1945. With the constant specter of ideological and religious extremism, financial crisis, ecological disaster and political malpractice (which have all been growing since the end of the Cold War era) it would seem that we have moved into the most insecure period of Western history in almost 70 years. Foundations we have felt were immovable now seem to be shifting and tilting all around us, the value systems and political institutions we have taken for granted - which have held Western society together for generations - beginning to lose their seeming permanence.
Yet this is by-no-means the first time such things have happened. Those living between 1918 and 1939 must have studied the events around them and realized their fragile world was once more beginning to slide, perhaps aware that the solidity of the British Empire was crumbling and that the sanctity of a world order controlled by a hereditary aristocracy - first tarnished in the trenches of the First World War - was now thoroughly in decline. Endless similar historical analogies could be found with similar periods of immense social and political upheaval, revolution, insecurity and impending disaster, from the Sack of Rome in AD410 and the removal of British troops from Britannia in the same period to the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s. But as I was pondering this collective feeling of insecurity one particular analogy came to mind making me ask the question: are we feeling the greatest sense of threat for a thousand years?
One of my favourite subjects to teach at the University of Leicester was Millenarianism and the significance of the year 1000. As this significant date drew near, marking 1000 years since the supposed birth of Christ, a profound sense of fear began to grip the Western world. This was no mere will-it-won't-it semi-laughable concern that all the world's computers would crash and the clocks reset themselves to zero of 1999, but a profound and actual terror that Christ was coming back to judge the living and the dead and that the end of the world was quite literally nigh.
Both the intellectuals and the common people of this period found themselves in a profoundly insecure age not unlike our own. Those who held power operated in the fragmenting shell of the long-dead Roman Empire, re-branded by the Church as the Holy Roman Empire under the Frankish king Charlemagne in AD800. Yet his tenuous control of a 'united' Europe was little more than a fragmenting collection of alliances based around the military power of petty local rulers, and by the era of his squabbling grandsons the West was dominated by Castellans and autocrats; a place where the administrative and religious structure of the Church formed the only common identity and warfare was the means of social control.
This era saw profound natural disaster too, with poor harvests, bad weather and the knock-on effect of disease and starvation, thousands were effected by ergotism contracted from mouldy grain which led to gangrene and fearful hallucinations. The rapacious migration of Viking peoples escaping economic pressures in their Nordic homelands was simultaneously causing massive upheaval amongst the Frankish (central European) and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, while pagan cultures on the fringes of Europe (the Moors in Spain; the Avars in Eastern Europe) were a constant nagging fear.
To men and women of the Tenth Century it must truly have felt as if the world was coming to an end - that God was coming back to judge a cruel and exploitative generation. if such a thing as public confidence in government existed, then it well and truly crumbled and a popular movement began, The Peace of God movement, first declared at the Synod of Charroux in 989, basically a sworn pledge of immunity from violence for non-combatants (the peasants and the Church). Days and places were established in which fighting was prohibited in a world where blood-feud had replaced a unitary judicial system, and so the Peace of God replaced the theoretical Peace of Rome which had once held the West together. Thousands flocked to pledge themselves in massive outdoor services where masses were said and Holy relics of the saints paraded, desperate to win back God's favour, to call for an end to natural disaster, political chaos and moral disintegration; and within a hundred years the aristocracy was on board too, co-opted by the Church to be protector of the defenseless - those who work and those who pray - and the feudal triangle which held the West together for the next five hundred years came to its fullest expression.
So what can we take from this example? On one level 'there is nothing new under the sun,' as the biblical book of Ecclesiastes has it, but on another we should take heart and heed the warnings of the past. Unity and solidarity are better than division and factionalism; working together for the common good beats insular individualism and the selfish control of resources and day. Are we once more living through such a crisis? A textbook entry for the years 2010 - 2025 is going to be an interesting read.