Feudal Gestures

Why did I think of something today I read almost two years ago? There have been a lot of postings recently on Adholes about memory in branding. I think what Cullen Murphy says about oral communication being the main form in the Middle Ages is similar to what we see in the media today, dominated by short term memory and noise, as well as the privitization of operations overseen by the government for the past 100 years (remember the trustbusters and muckrackers from American history class?). But unlike medieval society, our society is dominated by extremes of populism (power to the individual) and indomitable global corporations (by the average person). History leads us to believe that in the Middle Ages, Joe Schmoe was a non-entity in the eyes of Church and king.

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Excerpts from Cullen Murphy’s “Innocent Bystander” column, The Atlantic, October 2003

“…To be sure, the self-perception of people in the developed world has very little of the medieval about it. We inhabit the Information Age. We proclaim the Era of Globalization. We consider ourselves postmodern, maybe even posthuman. But it is also true that elements of a prior regime were never quite eradicated, and in some cases are growing back. The geographer David Harvey once wrote that “modernity is not a time—it’s a place.” The Middle Ages, one might add, are not an epoch—they’re an outlook.

What are some of the medieval characteristics of the present day? Looking about idly, one could point to the growing prevalence of barter as a form of economic transaction. One could note the emergence of something akin to heresy trials, as outspoken people in academe and other areas of public life are subjected to harassment or worse for their political and cultural views. …Although there is no longer a single Church, as there was in the Middle Ages, some powerful corporations are setting themselves up in its absence as enforcers of social morality. Home Depot is enacting a ban on wood harvested from endangered rain forests. Wal-Mart has banned Maxim and similar magazines from its shelves, and offers only cleaned-up versions of some videos and many CDs. Its drugstores don’t stock the Preven “morning-after” pill.

…Medieval society was essentially an oral one, dominated by the spoken word rather than the written text. Words on paper surged in influence during the first several centuries after Gutenberg, but in recent years technology of various kinds has greatly enhanced the capabilities of speech. Nowadays people never have to stop talking. One of the iconic sights in airport men’s rooms is a line of well-dressed gentlemen standing at urinals, all of them conducting phone conversations, wires dangling from ear to chin. This post-flight ritual stands as a contemporary analogue, possibly, to the chanted refrains of ancient monks in their stalls at Westminster or Chartres.

But these examples are frankly trivial. There is a far more basic parallel between medieval times and our own. The precise definition of “feudalism” is one of those things on which medievalists can’t quite agree—the field is divided into warring fiefdoms—but the historian F. L. Ganshof discerned in feudal society “a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the State.” In the West the path away from the Middle Ages was marked by the evolution of governments and nation-states with a sense of responsibility for the public interest rather than merely private interests. Power was no longer a form of property. Social services and protections became a consequence of citizenship, not a private deal between a lord and his vassals, or between a private entity and its clients.

…I am unabashedly an admirer of outsourcing,” General Barry McCaffrey, the nation’s former drug czar, once stated when asked about the American use of private military forces in Colombia. “There’s very few things in life you can’t outsource.” By now there seem to be none that we don’t. Well, wait, there’s one: tax collection by the Internal Revenue Service. This is still a government monopoly, though precedent exists for a vastly different regime. Under the system known as “tax farming,” a monarch sold to entrepreneurs the right to collect the crown’s taxes; the entrepreneurs contracted to pay the king a certain sum, but could keep anything raised in excess of that sum. How commoners loved this system! A modern version would turn tax collection over to, say, credit-card companies and trial lawyers. It wouldn’t be long, I suspect, before we saw some heads on spikes in the town square.”

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