Sunday, March 3, 2019

What can we Learn From the Middle Ages About Collapse? The Great Challenge of the Seneca Bottleneck

The idea that a collapse is awaiting our civilization seems to be gaining ground, although it has not reached the mainstream debate. But no civilization before ours escaped collapse, so it makes sense to think that the entity we call "The West" is going to crash down, badly, in the future. Then, just as it happened to the Romans long ago, we are going to enter a new world. What will it be? Will it look like the Middle Ages? Maybe, but what were exactly the Middle Ages? It may well be that it was far from being the age of barbarism that the name of "dark ages" seems to imply. The Middle Ages were more a period of intelligent adaptation to scarce resources. So, can we learn from our Medieval ancestors how to manage the coming decline?

Aa some moment during the 2nd century AD, the Roman mines of Northern  Spain ceased to produce gold and silver, depleted after some three centuries of exploitation. The Roman Empire lost its main asset: its currency, the money used to pay for the troops, the bureaucracy, the court, the nobles, and everything else. Without money, there was nothing that could keep the Empire together and, following the great financial crash of the 3rd century AD, the Western Roman Empire faded away into a galaxy of statelets and kingdoms. By the 5th century, Europe was officially in the period we call the Middle Ages and that would last for about a millennium.

Today, we tend to regard the Middle Ages as a period of Barbarism and superstition, truly a dark age of witch hunts and religious wars. But are we sure that it was so? Actually, the Middle Ages were a period of intelligent adaptation to the scarcity of resources, a society that may anticipate our future.

First of all, the people of the Middle Ages faced the problem of the lack of currency. Without currency, there can't be commerce, there can't be a government, and the economy is reduced to local exchanges. But, without a good supply of gold or silver, there was no way to maintain a metal-based currency system. Here, we see a clever invention: a virtual currency based on relics. Relics were mostly human bones that the Church, acting as a bank, would guarantee having belonged to some holy man of the past. That ensured the scarcity and the value of the relic-based currency. Relics also solved a basic problem: convertibility. Any currency, to be of any use, must be exchangeable into goods of some kind. With the economy having crashed, there was little in terms of goods to be purchased during the early Middle Ages. But relics could be redeemed in terms of personal physical and spiritual health. People were eager to have or to be in contact with relics as much as in earlier times they would seek for gold and silver.

If relics solved the currency problem, an economy needs also roads: goods must be transported. We know that the Roman system of military roads had mostly collapsed during the 5th century, as Namatianus tells us in his "De Reditu Suo," and, with the Roman state gone, there was no government that would take care of maintaining the roads. Here, we have another clever invention of the Middle Ages: pilgrimages. People would travel all over Europe and even farther away in order to worship the most precious relics stored in churches and monasteries. Pilgrimages were said to be good for one's spiritual health and well-being, but also created a form of non-monetarized economy. Pilgrims needed food and shelter, and that generated a whole system of support for the travelers, monasteries, hotels, shelters, and the like, in large part based on charity. The local lords were encouraged to maintain the roads going through their domains, again in the form of the prestige they gained by favoring pilgrimages and the associated movement of goods.

Then, of course, if people can travel and exchange things they also need to speak to each other. Here, we have another success of the Middle Ages: keeping Latin alive as a European lingua franca. It was not everybody's language, it was reserved to the clergy, but it was truly universal. An Irish monk could converse in Latin with a Sicilian abbot and both would be able to understand a German priest. That prevented Europe from becoming an unmanageable Babel of languages (any reference to the current state of the European Union is intentional).

Keeping Latin, of course, meant to keep the Roman law codes and, as a consequence, maintain the rule of law, one of the greatest conquests of the Roman civilization. Ah... but you are thinking of witch hunts, aren't you? Weren't Medieval people dedicated to burning poor women all the time? No, that's part of the bad press surrounding the Middle Ages. Witches were NOT, emphatically not burned during the Middle Ages. Look at the data from a recent paper by Leeson and Russ. You see that trials and executions of witches were basically non-existent during the Middle Ages. The age of Witch hunting was the so-called and, - oh, so civilized - "Reinassance".

The use of Latin as not just a lingua franca but also a sacred language meant to create a body of European intellectuals, part of a network of monasteries, all managed by the Roman Church. That network kept alive the body of knowledge that had been gathered during the Classical Antiquity. But weren't people burning books during the Middle Ages? Well, no. Book-burning was not an especially Medieval thing -- you can see in the article by Wikipedia on the subject that book burning is mostly a modern thing. Besides, books written by hand were so expensive during the Middle Ages that nobody sane in his or her minds would engage in burning them.

The Middle Ages also saw an effort to control the violence of the military. During Roman times, soldiers would fight because they were paid and that allowed the government a tight control of the army. But, with the disappearance of currency, armies started fighting in order to loot, creating all sorts of disasters. One attempt to control them was the creation of military orders of warrior monks. During the early times of Christianity, the idea took the form of the militia of the Parabalanoi. They turned out to be unruly and violent, among other things they are said to have killed the Pagan intellectual Hypathia in 415 CE. They were disbanded and disappeared from history after the 6th century or so. Later on, after the year 1000, military orders were created during the late Middle Ages and employed mainly for the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights, the Templars, the Knights Hospitallers, and several others, don't seem to have been very effective as a fighting force since they failed to avoid the Holy Lands to be retaken by the Moslem states. It was a good attempt, but this one failed.

Finally, the Medieval society tried to reduce the oppression of the poor and people such as Benedict and Francis of Assisi made it clear that material wealth was not the only goal worth pursuing. The Middle Ages never were a proletarian paradise, but inequality was probably lower than it is in our society, today. It was also an age of much better gender-equality than anything seen in Roman times.

Then, of course, we know how it ended: with the great economic expansion that followed the Black Death in Europe, currency returned from new silver mines in Eastern Europe: the Medieval cult of relics became just a funny superstition. A metal currency meant new empires and new armies sent to conquer the world that the new European galleons were discovering. The invention of the printing press created National languages and ended forever the role of Latin as lingua franca. National languages also generated nation-states, aggressive and powerful entities that still dominate Europe today. And that created the world of today: aggressive, violent, destructive, unsustainable, and rushing at the fastest possible speed toward its own destruction -- the Seneca Collapse of our civilization.

How about our future? Can we imagine a return to something similar to the Middle Ages, the "New Middle Ages"? It is a widely debated concept, often seen in strongly negative terms because people still see the historical Middle Ages as a "dark age." More than that, most people today seem to find inconceivable that any kind of complex society could exist in the future without fossil fuels. In this view, whatever would emerge out of the coming collapse would be something like "peasants ruled by brigands" or, worse, a new Olduvai world of hungry hunters and gatherers, if not the total extinction of humankind.

Maybe. But it may also be that thisnegative attitude is just as wrong as it was the inability of the ancient Romans to conceive any kind of society without Rome as the capital of an empire. Rutilius Namatianus wrote something like that in his De Reditu, during the early 5th century AD. But he was wrong, the example of the Middle Ages tells us that it is possible to keep a sophisticated civilization despite the dearth of material resources available.

It is likely that the old world can't be saved anymore, and probably it doesn't deserve to be. But, even without the abundant mineral resources that we used to create our current situation, we could be able to emerge out of the Seneca Bottleneck and build a sustainable society based that maintains at least some of the current scientific and literary knowledge by using renewable energy and by means of a careful management of the remaining mineral resources of the Earth -- mining our ruins could help, too, just as Medieval people did with Roman ruins.

We cannot say if our descendants will be able to create such a world, but they will have a better chance if we help them. That means sowing the seeds of a renewable energy infrastructure based on sustainable resources, and to start doing that before climate change destroys everything. We can do that, but we need to start now.

After having written this post, I just discovered a 2013 post on the "American Conservative" about Christian Monasticism that was commented just today by Alastair Crooke. It seems that the idea that we can learn something from the Middle Ages is spreading.


  1. No. the depauperation and despoliation of the environment is quite beyond the imagination of our remote ancestors.

    1. And in addition there is the fossil-fueled population overstoot that will correct itself involuntarily with much harshness if we don't (and probably won't) correct it voluntarily.

  2. Ugo
    To use an outdated catch-phrase - 'nice one'!

    You may be familiar with CS Lewis, 'The Discarded Image'. He was a considerable scholar of the Mediaeval period. I cannot lay my hands just now on my own copy, but I will read it again. This is about mediaeval thought and is an eye-opener.


    1. No.... I must confess that I didn't read C.S. Lewis. But if you think it is a good book, I think I should make an effort to read it. There is a copy at I skimmed through part of it. It is deep stuff, needs some time to be understood

  3. One thing is clear...mankind won't go down without a fight.

    Nature bats last but technology gets to pitch.

  4. Really interesting post, Ugo.. thanks!

    Now here does the MEPP make itself shown: "...another clever invention of the Middle Ages: pilgrimages. People would travel all over Europe and even farther away in order to worship the most precious relics stored in churches and monasteries."

    Religion (like Money) is a Technology which facilitates expending energy faster than would otherwise have happened.

    There was no **need** whatsoever for a sizeable percentage of the European population to traipse—at a clear net loss—from whichever end of the continent to the other.. any more that there is a need today for people of above-average means to fly to Disneyworld... **except for the need for energy gradients to be devolved**. Since the old currency wasn't available to carry out that enzymatic job, another pathway was found.

    1. Lidia, there is no rational reason to prefer a society where pilgrimages are possible to one where they are impossible. There is no "need" of pilgrimages, indeed. But I do think that pilgrimages are a good thing. MEP is the way the universe works. It is the way a candle burns. And I think we should burn ours, maybe not at both ends, but darkness is not what we want.

  5. I think there's a remarkable difference that won't allow us to follow the same adaptation path of our medieval ancestors: 1500 years ago a subsistence economy, based on local farming, fishing and hunting was still possible, the world being largely depopulated as compared to the 21st century. Today, if the economy collapses, we can expect not to be able to even feed the majority of our urban population.

    1. Even at the start of the Middle Ages, it wasn't possible anymore to feed the majority of the urban population. That, alas, is a problem that solves itself.

  6. maybe the catholic church will surprise us after all. ;)

  7. It is a very interesting post but, it seems to me, it forgots a lot of stuffs about the dark age of middle age.
    Well, I'm sorry, I don't agree very much with the post, and I'll try to explan why:

    1.There was no rule of law in the middle age, only the power of the stronger people: the noblemen
    Instead in the Roman Repubblic or even in the Roman Empire, there were the roman rule of law. For sure it was not a paradise on earth, because there were slaves and women didn't vote, but sea and roads were safe and free of pirates and burglars.

    2.There was no commerce in the middle age: only a closed economy.
    Instead during the Roman Empire there were a strong commerce of goods and stuffs from everywhere. Commerce spread off latin language, and also Roman customs and traditions. The Roman life style was trendy, even for no roman citizens, all people around the Mediterranean sea wanted to talk and eat and dress just like roman people!.

    3.There was lots of wars in the middle age.
    Instead during the Roman Empire (even starting from the Roman Repubblic) there was no more internal wars in Europe. Flashpoint were along the Roman borders, and sporadic civil war during the Pompeo-Ottaviano ages. Just because roman army destroyed all enemys and there were nothing of interesting to conquest.

    4.Science and knowlegde grew up in the Roman Empire: the Alessandria library was a nice shining diamond!.
    Instead in the middle age there was a long scientific regress.

    5.There was no pest in Roman Empire, because there was closed sewers and public bathrooms for the people.
    Instead in middle age there was no closed sewers and no public bathrooms, the pest and bad diseases spread out for all europe with millions of deaths.

    6.In the middle age there was pirate flashpoint on the sea costs.
    Instead, during the Roman Empire the Mediterranean costs were safe and free of pirates.

    7.That's true, because of pirates and burglars in the middle age the dealers invented the letter of credit.
    Well, I think it's not enough to say that middle age was a nice place to be, because of letter of credit.

    8.I don't agree with the cause of roman empire collapsing: it was not a matter of lacking of gold and silver, it was not a matter of Return on Investiments rate collapsing or decreasing productivity of the factors, it was a matter of war: less roman effective weapons, older roman tactics, bad roman infantry troops.

    please don't fortget those military facts:

    .At the collapsing era of Roman Empire, the west roman infantry weren't the roman infantry soldiers of the roman repubblic or those men of the first decades of the roman empire. The West Roman infantry soldiers were barbarian people (french, and german people, not sufficient trained, not enough motivatd to stop an invasion, not sufficient well armed to face off the barbarian forces)

    .roman military power had always a light cavalry: the roman tactics during time, never ever developed an heavy cavalry, instead the hun troops had a much heavier cavalry than roman forces. There was a new mobile force on the field: Fire and mouvement are base of miltiary tactic, and hun military forces built a stronger mobile forces for a more mobile war, rather than roman army used to fight more static battles.

    .hun bow was a letal weapon: roman archery and roman cavalry never hadn't this military weapon.

    So at the end of the day, it was the weak roman military force caused collapsing of West Roman Empire.
    Until the roman military forces were just sufficient to stop invasion, the west roman collapsing have been stopped.

  8. Just an editorial note - I think your first sentence is missing the word "Spain". Those mines have to be in northern *somewhere*. :-)

  9. Erased by mistake -- reposting

    Ivan Lukic

    There was only one civilization ever which was based on Hellenic Culture, Roman Law and Christian Faith. That was Byzantine civilization that lasted one thousand years. It was in many ways the greatest achievement of European history but it seems to me that only very small number of Western Europeans know anything about it. For start try to read George Ostrogorsky's "History of the Byzantine State". No need to say that it was medieval civilization.

    1. Yes, the Byzantines faced the same problems that Western Europe faced and they produced similar, but not identical, solutions. It is a long history which -- as you correctly say -- I know less well than that of Western Europe. Islam, too, had similar issues, although they had inherited much gold from the Romans, so they never developed a cult of icons and relics, as European Christians did.

  10. It does seem like empires and nation-states have never been as nice as we would like to think just because we were raised in them, and were brainwashed by their education systems.

    From James C Scott : Against the grain - A deep history of the earliest states ...
    The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization.
    Because of fossil-fuel super states of today, barbarians and everything else are having a real hard time.

  11. Too many resources, and resulting population growth changes the social dynamics from cooperation to growth, overshoot and then competition. A quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss states says that writing and states go together, and writing tends to favour exploitation over enlightenment. Not in this blog, of course.

  12. Hi Ugo,
    I enjoy your blog each week. I'm an archaeologist and have written about the rise and fall of ancient civs (Why Did Ancient Civilizations Collapse?) and focus on society-wide hubris as a root cause. Anyway, I think you make many cogent points about the Middle Ages. I think we have many potential roads ahead of us, and something akin to this is not unthinkable. Ran Prieur had a cogent argument about hybridizing previous sustainable ways of life with what we know now:
    I also just published my organization's own idea of a "New Deal" that may interest you and would fit well with the Balkanization of the Middle Ages (hopefully without the feudalism):
    We're always welcoming of guest blog posts if you ever have something that you'd consider sharing with us for our readers!

    1. Thanks, "S.", I'll try to follow your site and I am planning a series of posts on "Middle Ages 2.0" An interesting subject, for sure!

  13. I would have thought if we hit an energy crunch and things went pear shaped, is that the fact there are approx 450 nuclear reactors around the world and all the associated tanks holding nuclear waste, that these would probably escape into the environment and cause serious long term damage particularly to the genomes not just of humans but mostly everything else. Obviously in a post-collapse scenario not many are going to be studying nuclear engineering and getting paid for it.

    The other point and perhaps more immediate is this. Each country has thousands of landfills with waste, much of which is toxic -at least the leachate coming out of them. For example some time back on BBC4 there was a program called "The secret history of land fills" and it mentioned at the end of it that there were approx 25,000 landfills (old and current) in the UK. In one, they showed a drain which is on the edge of one of these, where water seeping out of the dump was collected. They had a pump to transfer it into some kind of holding tank and presumably treated regularly but they did say if any of this got into the local river beside it, it would instantly kill everything downstream of it. So how many of these pumps are there? Who knows where they are there? A few officials in the councils know perhaps. Will these be maintained? Highly unlikely. So if UK has 60+ million people and Italy is similar, I can conclude they have roughly the same number of dumps and ditto every other country

    This is such a huge mess that it is hard to comprehend. Then if we think of all the pesticide plants, and the whole range of chemical plants and their associated on-site toxic waste, it is hard to see how anyone could be left healthy and I would speculate the effects would be so insidious that the hammer blow that wipes out the population slowly over a few decades in a post collapse to very low levels.

    And while most of the "Western" countries are affected by this toxic load, who knows what vast amounts of toxic trash has been "exported" to Africa and Asia over the past 40 years and would thus affect them too.

    It would be interesting to see if anyone has done any kind of inventory of what we have stored up.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)