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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)