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(DV) Pfaltz: How Far Have We Come?







How Far Have We Come?
by Minna vander Pfaltz
May 2, 2005

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Feodalis is Latin. It dates from the Middle Ages. Feodalite is French (feudalism). It dates from the 17th century. Feodum means fief and so feodal means either “that which concerns the fief” or the obligations incident to such a situation. A fief is land held in return for loyalty and service -- and protection. Feudalism, according to Marc Bloch, was “born in the midst of an infinitely troubled epoch” in which people lived in a “hateful atmosphere of disorder and violence” (Feudal Society, Volume I, p. 3).

One of these disorders was the collision of Western society with the Islamic states. Another came from the East: the barbarians. And then there were the Vikings from the North. The barbarians and the Vikings passed, leaving traces of their being behind to tantalize and offer up notions of culture to come. The confrontation with the Islamic world, however, was ideological and continued for centuries, draining the coffers of the West. At the same time, it enriched the intellectual ditch The Church had managed to cast civilization in the name of God. Aristotle, Humanism, Astronomy, Medicine, Art, Philosophy: all were enriched beyond imagination. However, this intellectual knowledge was a threat to the powers that be and fear pushed men into enclaves and fighting was everywhere in an attempt to establish a single hegemony. All of this is lost on present persons.

The memory of men -- and I do mean men -- is short, it is said. The historical memory of Americans in particular quite simply does not exist. History to the American is right now; even four years ago is too long a time into the past to be within the grasp of memory. America writes its history as it needs it. And so humanity's capacity for illusion -- or perhaps that is delusion? -- continues unabated. There are no lessons to learn from history.

So, here we have in the Middle Ages a society existing in perpetual terror, if not of invasions then of natural disasters. Constant warfare, always the fear of destruction: the mind can only take so much terror-inspired tension before it breaks. Before it indulges itself in aged mythic thinking and belief in confluences, contingencies and coincidences that smack of superstition yet all explained away as the Will of God--which no man may know. Pray. Stick to the straight and narrow. Have (blind) faith. Eventually, there is numbness. Vigilance lapses. The mind gets tired, as does the eye. There is no ability to discriminate. Let someone else tell me what is so, what to do. I'm utterly at a loss. I'm frightened. To the superstitious mind, to the mythic mind, everything is frightening and you have no idea when Nature is going to stomp down on you and destroy you. More fear. More paranoia. More dysfunctionalism. So to help contain the paranoia, walls and palisades were built, then as now. As much to keep outsiders out as to keep insiders in. Without containment, things might get out of control. People, then, gathered together in ever more tightly knit units. For protection. A modicum of safety.

And then, to relieve the tension, legends spread like wildfire. Mysteries, miracles and magic abounded in stories, tales, beliefs in one mystery or miracle or another. That is, people made up their world. That is, they resurrected the fables of ancient religion and clothed them in unfamiliar garments in order to explain what was happening. And would happen. Saints, angels and, especially, devils (demons) abounded to explain the good and the bad and the ugly that brought about a state of perpetual strife. Organized religion only added fuel to the conflagration. Then as now.

Waves of fear swept over the populace over everything, whether manmade disasters like war or natural disasters like pestilence and weather perturbations and diseases and the loss of food sources. The world was coming to an end. Everywhere people looked there were signs of the impending Apocalypse. The world was doomed. Paranoia strikes deep. Everyone wondered, "When will the blow fall?" Even an inspired vision by an obsessed or possessed individual would start a panic that would take over the minds of the people and they would dash about mindlessly ignorant of their ignorance. Thoughtless and numb. In the year 1000 -- abetted by The Church. And in the 21st century. Nuclear warfare. Global warming. Environment destruction and extinction. We're all doing to die.

In a general state of insecurity, some say, the obstacles to communication are many. Overwhelming. Even when the same language is used, more or less. Economics, trade, helped. There was even trade in slaves, white, black or otherwise. This was actually not a very lucrative business. But it continued nonetheless. Sanctioned by religion. After all, heathens are less than human. It was seen as a kind of protection, to enslave others: they might rise up and bring calamity. More calamity. If you couldn't conquer them, you could kill them or enslave them. Even your own kind if so required. Anything to keep the piece. Peace. Expanding borders, creating buffer states. But most important of all, create your own language . . . and call it a universal language. Because you are the most important. Economics, trade, becomes oppressive. It becomes the end-all and be-all of existence. If it isn't controlled, it will overwhelm you. Let us, the economists, the traders, take things in hand. Trust us. We know what we're doing.

So people sought protection. Who wouldn't? Kinship ties were tightened. Not just blood-line kinship that is, but that by association, by in-group. Making one's surround sound. People subordinated themselves to those considered more powerful. They chose to bow to authority figures and people who had a good show of force and do what they were told, which was only necessary to survival. Bucco. El Capitano. Falstaff. MacArthur. Schwarzenegger. These power groups included merchant houses as well as militarily powerful individuals. The CEO and WTO and DOD. The overlords were not simply kind hearted. They were interested in getting richer and more powerful. But, of course, if you didn't see fit to encumber yourself, you would eventually pay because when horror descended upon you these entities would not be able, though capable, of protecting you. Saving you. Only God can save you. Some people gave up their land for protection. They gave up their land and became serfs. Because of fear. And that serfdom lasted for centuries, though by contract it was in perpetuity. How many farmers, to protect themselves from encroaching foreign threats and the threat of financial ruin, have given over their farms to the House of Norman, the House of Burgundy, the House of Plantagenet, the House of Munchschausen, Monsanto and Archer-Daniels-Midland and XX? They became serfs. They are serfs. They have a steady income, via salary. They have protection from imagined foreign threats. But they do not have their farms. How many farmers who have sold out know they have sold out? How many, like the Medieval peasant farmer, are unaware that the farm is no longer theirs to pass on to their heirs. Oh, yes. Their heirs may stay and farm the land if they like. But they do not own it. Either. Not any more. They are serfs. And if they go into the city, they work for The Man, the conglomerates but gain nothing. They just work today, tomorrow, yesterday and the day after. They, too, own nothing. The banks own them. Serfs. Serfs are expendable. Put them in the front line to be run through by swords and pikes and scythes, and run over by massive horses and tanks and artillery. For their protection. For the protection of their families. Their country. Their children. God is on their side.

The tie of kinship was the essential element of feudal society, whether of blood or vowed loyalty; yet people still felt unprotected. These ties could easily be ruptured by the strong emotions and violence that appeared willy-nilly in sudden outbursts of passion. People break under pressure. Behavior becomes erratic. Selfishness takes over in the name of protection. Protection means power. Power means protection. Whoever's got the better offer gets the support--and the spoils. Whatever works NOW. Damn and shoot traitors, even if they just mention their dissatisfaction -- do this while traitoring. The people will follow because it's good for them. It's protection. But they're still afraid. Until they become numb and it doesn't matte! r any more. Numb body. Numb mind. Peace is War. Or is that War is Peace?

In general, health was not good in the Middle Ages. People died young. There was infant mortality. Undernourishment amongst the poor, over-indulgence amongst the rich and starvation run rampant. So, too, the modern age. There was an overall insensitivity to the plight of other men. Other men than oneself and one's immediate functioning plot of existence. People were pretty callous in those times. But, then, death was always stalking them, mostly via wars that were seen as fated, as unavoidable, as necessities to life and liberty. And all of those natural disasters were sent either by god or demon. You were going to die anyway, no sense in getting sentimental over it. Life. Other people.

This was the Middle Ages, from about 900 to about 1300, or thereabouts. This is life now.

People tend to become so involved in the immediate situation, the immediate happenings of their times, that they do not see themselves or their times in perspective. This is most apparent in societies that are historically shortsighted -- or blind. I see no difference between the Middle Ages and the Present. Now. And so I wonder: how far have we really come?

In attempting to cope with the vicissitudes of a paranoid life style, the Medieval mind developed Nationalism and Empire-building in order to protect borders. But borders keep being borders; there really is no buffer zone lest it be, as in Korea or Vietnam, a manmade desert, a poisonous no-man's land. Biological warfare was well known and much practiced in the Middle Ages, though usually of a rougher sort: water would be despoiled and dead animals, usually cows, would be catapulted into castle compounds. Now, it is despoiling water, introducing diseases, gas, atomic fallout. That is, more and more machinery for the destruction of Others, of threats -- real or not -- was developed until society, the world, became a military-minded monster ever geared for war. Destruction. Such a society is founded upon fear. It is paranoid. Knights were errant. They were called mercenaries. Now they are called contractors. Knights Templar?

Of course, after this there was a kind of renaissance. But who wants to wait 300 years --again?

Let us remember that it was the Crusades into the Holy Land, the Middle East, the Muslim world, that brought about this renaissance, the influx of knowledge and intellectual advancement. How, is the West, the New World, in the same stultifying plight as the Medievalers? Is this time, now, our Dark Ages -- albeit damnably comfortable?

Buddhists might say that humanity is on the great wheel of Samsara: over and over again repeating life, repeating the same mistakes, wallowing in suffering like a pig in mud. The only difference is that pigs wallow in mud for a particular reason: to keep cool and to keep the flies off.

Our hubris is not the stuff of Greek tragedy. Those heroes sought the reason for society's ills--and then acted on their findings. They expunged themselves of their ignorance and cursed their existence. And gained enlightenment. It is unfortunate that we have chosen to found our society on Rome rather than Greece. All of the insightful men of Roman legion were cast out or killed.

Really. . .how far have we come?

Minna vander Pfaltz is an expat writer living off her teaching activities and can be reached at, even if you wish to chastise her.

Other Articles by Minna vander Pfaltz


* A Shriek in the Wilderness
* How to Unpickle a Nation