Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading R.I. Moore

Someone at The Guardian (Madeleine Bunting) has discovered R.I. Moore. Specifically, Ms. Bunting has read Prof. Moore's The Formation of a Persecuting Society, published first in 1987, now reissued in 2007. The book, if I may be so bold to say, is part of the medievalist's canon. You simply need mention his name and people know the book, or at least the argument. You may not agree with that argument -- and indeed many don't -- but you have to acknowledge the subtlety and intellectual deftness of Moore's work. But enough about that. Read the book.

Anyway, Ms. Bunting wants to draw parallels between "medieval times" (the phrase makes my skin crawl) and today. She starts with a meditation on the meaning of "medieval" and how Christmas and children's films are steeped in that pseudo-medieval fantasy that's so familiar. Then, she talks about the more tawdry bits -- anxiety about the apocalypse, perceived threats by Islam, and (here's where Moore comes in) the creation of a state bent on categorizing, controlling, and subjugating entire groups of people.
"It makes a mockery of the idea that we use "medieval" as a term of abuse to fling at others, when really it's a term that correctly defines enduring and deeply shameful characteristics of our own society against which history warns us to be scrupulously vigilant."
And so perhaps Ms. Bunting is right, in the end, that we should remain vigilant, since
"the horrific lessons of the 20th century can leave us no room for the complacent belief that this weapon of political advancement has become redundant."
Ms. Bunting does a pretty good job here but she seems to be tending towards the same trap that I've warned of before on this blog. Context matters. Bunting seems to admit as much:
"One can see the pattern in 16th-century witchcraft trials and religious persecution, right up to the Holocaust or the informants of the German Democratic Republic. All follow a pattern first laid down between the 11th and 13th centuries, even if many of the circumstantial detail differs." [my emphasis]
The problem, however, is that that circumstantial detail -- brushed off as rather inconsequential here -- is exactly what matters. History doesn't repeat. It echoes; similar but not the same, recognizable but distorted. The witch trials were not the same as the papal inquisition in Languedoc. The Bush administration is not the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Ms. Bunting et al., don't try to recreate the past and don't look for the past to be recreated. In other words, don't learn about the past so you're prepared to fight the previous war. Be prepared to fight the next war.


magistra said...

One of the differences (it seems to me) in the formation of persecuting societies now is that there is not yet a clear sense of where the boundaries should be placed: who 'we' are as opposed to 'them'. Twelfth and thirteenth century persecutions were working within and creating both a religious boundary (true Christians v others) and proto-nationalistic boundaries e.g. Edward I expelling Jews. At the moment in the US and the UK, there are conflicting ideas about whether the problem is alien religion, alien nationalities, alient ethnicity or alien 'values' e.g. whether you are anti-Muslims, immigrants, brown people or fundamentalists as a whole. It's particularly confusing in the UK, where the most conspicuous group of new arrivals are largely white and Christian (but Eastern European). It's if a way is found to link and line up these identities (as with the medieval conspiracy theories of Lepers, Jews and Muslims) that the biggest problems start.

magistra said...

I am also doing some meme-tagging, but with a historical twist.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks for the comment, Magistra (et Mater). I agree that those questions or "boundaries" are really problematic. Nonetheless, the thing that seems to unite them is that they're almost always artificial and therefore arbitrary. Sigh.

And I'll leave the meme-tag to one of my fellow writers...