Neomedievalism explained: 7 key megatrends that are transforming XXIst century

In brief: neomedievalism in prognostics is a bundle of at least 7 interconnected megatrends in the following areas:
(1) International relations: the emergence of a network state
(2) Demography and migration: the new Great Migration
(3) Religion and ethnicity: their growing impact on political dynamics
(4) Law: the crawling emergence of legal pluralim. i.e. many legal standards on a single territory
(5) The economy: the feudalization of capitalism and rising neofeudal risks
(6) Technology: debilitating information overload and a new illiteracy
(7) Urban planning and governance : the triumph of popular reasonability over “cold” rationality.

This essay sketches them all in more detail.

A new wave of 7 network trends is permanently changing our civilization. Instead of mocking them, let us describe them in order to discover how to go about saving liberalism.

“But that’s medieval!” – we say when bashing someone’s backwardness. And let’s face it – we say so with a sense of superiority, believing that what the backward need is some proper education and more prosperity. But that’s not true. The approaching era, in which those blowing themselves up in the name of Allah often times have both money and university degrees, requires different solutions.

But what is this new era? Both “new Middle Ages” and “neomedievalism” are mentioned in differing, often unrelated, or even in opposite contexts. Neomedievalism is a bit like “postmodernity” – one can categorize many divergent things with this label and the term will still hold.

The above backwardness (irrationality) may be called the new Middle Ages, as can be religious fanaticism, the fascination with medieval motifs in pop culture, long with the demands of deurbanization.

Berdyaev’s curse

Unfortunately, the term “new Middle Ages” has suffered bad press, because one of its early users, the Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev, paid it a backhanded complement. In his catastrophic essay “The New Middle Ages” (1924) Berdyaev talks about the mysterious nature of the past, declaring here and there concrete postulates for deconstructing governments, stopping the circulation of information, or shutting down the stock exchange. In such a world we would go back to a simple life in small communities organized by religion. This regressive vision is marked by the trauma of the First World War. Because civilization’s mad rush forward had led to death and destruction, as Berdyaev thought, we need to turn it off, or at least go back to a lower level of complexity.

What’s interesting, a similar understanding of the term the “new Middle Ages” is sometimes encountered on the reactionary right. On the other hand, the left wields this term as an insult or accusation – if you are saying something which is too conservative for my liking, you are endorsing a “new Middle Ages”.

These extreme, colloquial understandings of the term I call Berdyaev’s curse. I’ve experienced this many times when presenting the concept of network neomedievalism, which is a useful tool in prognostics. Before I could even start a conversation, I first had to listen to what each person thinks of when they hear the term “the Middle Ages”, why it was bad (or good), and how one can (or cannot) speak of the Middle Ages today.

However, to understand neomedievalism, what is needed is “the virtue of moderation”, as Poland’s Bronisław Geremek, both an outstanding medieval historian and a politician, once put it. We need a calm and unprejudiced approach. This is crucial as neomedievalism has nothing to do with the liberal bashing, conservative whining, or with medieval motifs in pop culture. It is rather a new language suitable for describing the reality of the 21st century, and useful in prognostics. It assumes that macrostructures and processes typical of the medieval period are currently resurfacing – and in fact that they might to a greater extent organize our reality. For this reason we should look at reality not from a short or mid-term perspective, but rather from a historical distance. This enables us to perceive in the background longue durée processes, those phenomena which were masterfully captured by the French historian Fernand Braudel and the Polish-American thinker Immanuel Wallerstein.

This new viewpoint is necessary, because Europeans seem to be living in an ahistorical “glass-house” and are unable to draw conclusions from the past. Precisely because of this, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk says that Europe has to grow old, that is, to philosophically digest its historical heritage, in order to find a new language to describe the multi-layered transformation of the world. Only upon finding this language will we be able to create solutions for our complex civilizational problems. In the same vein, I propose that we first should look within the modern trends for analogies of the processes typical of the transition from Antiquity to the medieval period, and secondly to the later Middle Ages.

This will allow us to describe seven interconnected megatrends. The first is neomedievalism in international relations, the British political scientist Hedley Bull being its father. The others will be elaborated upon the basis of the recommendations of Umberto Eco and our modern state of knowledge concerning prognostics and the dynamics of globalization. These are “medievalisms” in the following dimensions: demography, religion and ethnicity, law, economy, technology, and urban planning. What’s interesting, these phenomena constitute an integral plexus – that is, they affect each other and evolve jointly. If reality starts to dovetail with past ages in so many dimensions simultaneously, it absolutely requires a description!

(1) International relations: a network state

In the academic dimension, neomedievalism in international relations is what has best been described. Hedley Bull developed the concept in his work “The Anarchical Society” from 1977. Already then, nearly 45 years ago, he perceived that we are headed towards abandoning the classically-understood sovereignty typical of traditional nation states. Thus, in the future we will have multiple, overlapping centers of power, identity fragmentation, countries uniting into bigger entities, and the development of nonterritorial international organizations, but also a technological unification of the world. The future also means the erosion and transformation of states’ roles, ones increasingly dependent on non-state actors.

Bull does not use the language of network theory, but he does speak of networking and stratifying power centers, as well as about codependency, which is a distinctive feature of globalization. Although neomedievalism does not inherently possess a global reach, as there may be regions functioning according to different rules, Bull’s theory seems to remain true in 2020 – non-state actors, such as Google and Facebook, are currently more powerful than many countries, and the European Union is a perfect example of countries united into bigger blocks, bonded by grand ideas (analogous to Christianity in the past). In this and related veins, the political scientist Jan Zielonka was developing Bull’s ideas in his book “Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union” (2006), in which not only did he showcase that the EU is today a peaceful empire expanding thanks to soft power diplomacy and economic pressure, but also that it is created in a medieval fashion. Unfortunately, in the next years, Zielonka discontinued his development of neomedievalism, perhaps because of the criticism of political scientists who do not see the purpose is using historical analogies as tools for analyzing reality. And that’s too bad. When one reads his recent works concerning the crisis of liberalism or the EU (e.g., “Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat”) it is plain that the author does not know how to react to the crisis. This inability stems from the impossibility of crossing and transforming language, which (following Wittgenstein) dictates the limits of imagination. Putting it differently: from within an ahistorical liberal paradigm, certain processes and solutions are simply not visible, and others – even if they are – seem to be nonsensical, terrifying, or impossible to implement. Meanwhile, it is precisely these historical references that can unlock our imagination and give us solutions.

If we accept the historical perspective, then the current impotence of European intellectuals will become clear – indeed, a similar impotence was experienced by the Roman elites. The time came when they strove to regulate the dynamics of the cultural and political crucible of Europe in the times of Pax Romana, but without a clue as to what the various fractions of the divided populace desired or believed in. Seneca’s successors wrote treatises on equality, tolerance, and the necessity of peace, whilst politicians were scratching their heads on how to organize the angry masses and to prevent the brewing revolts. It was a thoroughly modern dilemma: if the populace more and more often does not dream of the tolerance which the elites urge, than what language should be used to speak to them?

Magnum in parvo – in the footsteps of Umberto Eco

Let us then push the wheels of history forward and write about what everyone currently treats with silence, but which will be spoken of – without embarrassment and loudly – already in ten years’ time. As to not fall too deep into speculations, lets hold to the intuition of Eco as a medieval expert.

The essay “The Return of the Middle Ages” (1976) is an example of what in Latin is called “magnum in parvo” – immense richness of content in a small work. In this essay Umberto Eco presents a sketch of the concept of the new Middle Ages, outlining or sometimes only pointing to the dimensions in which to look for neomedieval phenomena as civilizational trends. After weeding out unimportant connotations, Eco presents his own list of processes and structures whose emergence in the world may be seriously considered neomedieval. These are: (a) a large socio-political unit, comparable to Pax Romana; (b) unification of the world through, amongst others, a common language and technology, as well as social consequences of such unification; (c) religion and ethnicity as an important part of identity; (d) great migrations, bringing customs from other parts of the world; (e) metropolization of cities and the alienation of social groups; (f) under-information and trivialization of information; (g) a tendency for continuous upgrading without concern for primary cultural sources. On the basis of these and other flashes of intuition it is possible to identify a plethora of surprisingly medieval processes that will gain speed in the upcoming decades. Here they are.

(2) Demography and migration: the new Great Migration

Eco writes that one sign of the new Middle Ages is mass migration, which “brings new customs and new outlooks on the world” and propagates them from within a large political entity guaranteeing regional peace. Pax Romana was this kind of entity, and as we know from e.g., Zielonka’s neomedievalism, the European Union is currently such an entity absorbing peoples. There are many more similarities between the EU and Rome: both have a post-war structure, meaning they were created as a result of war exhaustion; both strive to expand their area of influence; they both witness the rivalry of different missionary religions; and finally both have developed a concept of multiculturism in order to manage a culturally complex populace.

Those who witnessed the migrant crisis in 2015 do not need being reminded, yet it is worth stressing that the EU is and will remain an area of great migrations – mainly from the territories of the Middle East and Africa – that introduce new customs and cultural norms derived mainly from Islam. In 2015 alone a million migrants arrived in Europe; the trails expand and shrink according to international politics, mainly those of Turkey and the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The topic of migration is often misunderstood, trivialized, demonized or passed over, even though it must be accepted as a permanent element of the European reality for the next century. According to the prognosis of Bruno Kahl, president of the German Federal Intelligence Service, given during his lecture “Zur Zukunft der internationalen Ordnung“ for Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung (2017), soon over a billion people will be seeking to emigrate from their place of residence, and more often than not their aim will be Europe. According to NATO’s lecturer Gunnar Heinsohn, this is related to the high birth-rate and low demographic absorbency of many economic systems in the developing countries. If within a social system five or six people are competing for one place, then the rest are left to fight over resources, to partake in internal revolts, or emigrate.

In any case, the migrant potential of the world will be increasing and this will also be affected by climate change. The great migration is a fact, and its counterpart is the Völkerwanderung, the great migration of the barbarians which changed the cultural landscape of Antiquity and created a new civilization after its collapse. This is why we will witness similar cultural and political phenomena to those experienced by Rome. Awaiting us are segregation, religious fundamentalism, and the screams of the angry masses. But also, the promise of salvation and a search for shared values in order to hold everything together.

No, I do not mean at all that the EU will collapse, as proclaimed by extreme conservatives and the agents of Russia’s influence. Quite the contrary, Pax Europeana, just like Romana, can last centuries with wise management. What’s more, our economy does not depend on agriculture, trade, and conquest, so in contrast to Rome during the period of stagnation, we have good resources for managing the growing complexity of Europe.

(3) Religion and ethnicity: cuius religio, eius regio

The Middle Ages were an era of religion. When one branch of Christianity dominated the market for religious services in Rome, it became the spiritual and political mortar for the whole empire. Later, in surviving Rome’s collapse, it became the Christendom of the medieval period.

Religion played an important sociological part in Pax Romana. It acted as a psychological safe haven for those alienated from their homeland, who for economic reasons traversed immense distances; it was also a refuge providing fellow believers with, for example, a place to sleep and food – first in Christian communities and later at the parish. Very few today are aware of this, as well as of the fact that Rome in the 1st century A.D. was an enormous cultural crucible inhabited by a million people, though without access to modern communication technologies.

A similar return to religion as a mortar and a refuge from an unpredictable world may we witness today, both among native EU inhabitants as well as among migrants. A common religion helps to overcome the feeling of exclusion and helps to deal with the shock of cultural distance – that is, the cultural otherness of the host country. Just as Judaism before, Christianity, paganism, or the Imperial cult often came into contact, and frequently poached each other’s believers. Today, we have interactions between two fractions of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), between different branches of Islam, or a-religion – that is an agnostic-atheistic worldview. At the same time, religious identity overlaps with class and ethnic identity, creating a still impenetrable mixture for sociologists.

It is already visible that these interactions occur according to the rules of network theory – that is, where specific ethnicities and specific religions are important variables. They influence the dynamics of movement, housing choices, and even create segregation in line with certain rules. Poor understanding of these factors and claiming that it will suffice to provide migrants with a good job and education to make them integrate, is an immense foolishness, one for which Western Europe will pay with separatisms, revolts, and cultural Balkanization. Whereas in the past Western Europe’s opertaing rule was cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion” – that is, the ruler chooses the official religion for the territory), today this rule applies again, but backwards. Today the rule is cuius religio, eius regio (“whose religion, their realm”, meaning the factual majority of the territory implements their own civilizational practices as the dominating ones).

(4) Law: one territory, many legal standards

As Michał Zabdyr-Jamróz claims in book “Miasta w nowym średniowieczu” (“Cities in the Neomedieval Era”), we are headed toward a world where legal pluralism is beginning to emerge – that is, where on the same state’s territory different legal systems pertain to different people. Indeed, migrants bring along with them their own legal systems – and if they don’t quickly integrate, they may wish to adhere to their own tried and true systems. The situation where a judge before a hearing asks the accused, as in the Middle Ages, “Under what law do you live?” and will issue a ruling according to that legal system, may become reality.

If you think this is nonsense, then just look at France. Islamic communities, despite president Macron’s efforts, do not want to publicly declare the superiority of French state law over religious Sharia law. Similar is the situation in England. As Piotr Kłodkowski, an orientalist, states in “Cities…”, solutions typical of the past used in India or the Middle East are today seen in Europe, a good example being the British Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which remains outside of the legal system of the country in its settling of civil disputes amongst the Muslim community. Another such example would be the issue of Islamic marriages, that is, religious ceremonies binding for the local communities, yet not recognized by the state. How to deal with that? Here we approach some trouble. When in April 2020 the British court of appeal concluded the invalidity of Islamic marriages, one could hear both approval of the decision, as well as criticism pointing out the tremendous harm done to women. Indeed, this decision implies that women can assert their rights exclusively in the religious legal system, which at baseline is discriminatory.

(5) The economy: ethical feudalism where capitalism fails

Although we are living in a capitalist system, it is experiencing a crisis. Not only in relation to the COVID-19 epidemic. One does not need to read Thomas Piketty to notice that societies of late capitalism are inflicted by poverty among certian communities and the middle class is experiencing a crisis. In the places where capitalism is failing, a new feudalism will step in.

The feudal system was a set of obligations between lords and vassals. As Tacitus wrote, “to those who lost their homes and fields to thieves, or escaped from tax collectors and cannot regain their property, search for manors of the rich and become their subjects”. Similar choices will be made by the Western precariat – a social class which is marked not by poverty, but by continuous fear for their future. The precariat for many reasons is not capable of saving enough to have a financial safety net in case of, for example, illness. It was the precariat of France that created The Yellow Vests, the precariat in England is responsible for Brexit, it is the precariat that en masse votes for the so-called populists who promise the people a return to their proper place in society. These people are in a state of existential anxiety and continuous uncertainty. They are capable of sacrificing much of their freedom and are willing to promise unconditional loyalty in return for safety, predictability, and unthreatened health care. If politicians or business actors propose such solutions, they will find followers. The current feudalization of capitalism does not entail that capitalism will disappear. It will rather evolve in the direction of social-democracy and feudalism. Increasingly, not only companies with a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) postulate, but also social groups are demanding encoding into capitalist mechanisms the ethics of responsibility, stressing the importance of business entities providing care over the local communities. The spitting image of medieval paternalism! The pandemic will greatly increase the speed of these postulates evolving into political programs, as it is causing rapid impoverishment, mainly amongst the least financially-safe working class and the middle class. Just as epidemics in the Middle Ages plagued feudalism with crises, so will they plague capitalism today. The speed of the feudalization of capitalism will be proportional to the shrinking of the middle class, at least within Western civilization. Moreover, the expansion of neofeudalism will be stimulated by technological progress.

(6) Technology: under-information from overload and a new illiteracy

Why? Because of the expansion of algorithms and the growing under-information of society.

Let us begin with the latter. In medieval times information was lacking. Because of the non-existent communication technologies, information was passed on orally and later by the written word. Illiteracy was dominant, there was no media, and their only counterparts were the bards, innkeepers, and town announcers declaring the will of the lords. Today, however, the media are enormous, multichannel information sources, who – willingly or not – partake in the fluid structures of political power, selecting information and creating a vision of reality for their audience. It often happens that the amount of available information is so great that it is impossible to choose what to focus on and what to trust. This is how under-information is born of overload: the human brain’s information capacity is exceeded and results in confusion. This is one step away from the new illiteracy – that is, the inability or conscious refusal to absorb information about the world. A human with too much information is indeed no different from one that has none. Why? Because he will end up like the donkey in Aleksander Fredro’s poem that was given hay in one manger and oats in the other. Without knowing which is better to eat, he ate none, and died of starvation surrounded by food. The situation is further made worse by social media locking people in information bubbles – that is, in virtual worlds of seemingly coherent information, where in fact they often are a falsified small piece of reality.

In order to sort out this overload, our civilization is investing in computer algorithms which organize reality. Such organizing, however, is done according to specific criteria and interests, which in turn gives the owners of the algorithms a lot of power over human souls. This is power-knowledge – power over what a certain person will consider knowledge and what they will know about. The ability to create convictions that technological giants (GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc.) have in their hands gives them the capability of shaping human behaviors, a power which is greater than that which the strongest intelligence services of the world have.

(7) Urban planning: reasonability instead of rationality

The above processes also influence urban planning. The concept of spatial planning and cities’ self-perception as globalization centers is changing. According to Eco, today’s metropolises are often areas of segregation by affluence or ethnicity, where human alienation is becoming increasingly more visible. Why is this so? Today we would answer that responsible for that lies i.a., with the rule of hierarchical networking, which tells us that certain processes spread unevenly according to certain criteria, creating centers and peripheries (e.g., a hub and spokes).

Under the leadership of Rudolf Cesaretti, the researchers behind the work “Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities” (2016) have shown that today’s cities resemble medieval ones much more than in any other period. Including in the area of spatial planning. As Michał Zbdyr-Jamróz points out, today new urban solutions more often than not are based not only on the rationality of experts, but also on deliberative methods, in which emotions and the subjective judgements of social groups count at least as much as the calculated verdicts and rational conclusions of planners. This was so in the Middle Ages, which did not apply the nonpersonal and abstract rule of rationality, but the rule of common sense. In effect, the development of cities has allowed for a high degree of spontaneity. Moreover, just as in the medieval period, today’s cities increasingly promote “soft” regional identities, thanks to which cross-border cooperation is growing.

Neomedievalism. The reciprocal relation of 7 key megatrends

The spiral of history. How to adapt to the New Middle Ages?

These seven medievalisms listed by Eco are not a closed list. They entail merely an outline of mutually related phenomena, and each one warrant book-length treatment. Another book could be written on the topic of how to react to these trends, in order to prevent our society from derailing in the future. With all certainty the logic of some of the described phenomena threatens liberal democracy in the long term. It seems that at least part of its heritage can be preserved, but the question is: how much? Amongst the strategies for dealing with the new Middle Ages I would include:

  1. Weakening legal pluralism. This might be acceptable to some; however, its normalization may accelerate the deep cultural fragmentation of Europe. That is why systems for the least invasive erasing of parallel legal systems within the EU must be established.
  2. New multiculturalism. This will be necessary not only to combat legal pluralism, but also in order to stabilize dangerous trends from the overlapping economic, cultural, religious, and ethnic alienation. The current multiculturalism model, which is responsible for many of its ailments, must be reprogrammed, for example, in the spirit of Jagiellonian multiculturalism, whose ideas provided an exceptional period of religious tolerance in Europe.
  3. Codification of European values. This could take the form of a European constitution defining civilizational heritage, which it would protect unconditionally. Such a step would allow for the legal embedding of the axiological minimum needed for unity which is lacking today. The 14th-century Islamic historiosopher, Ibn Khaldun, claimed that without a sense of social unity and a shared goal (asabiyah) civilizations cannot last. This is well-worth heeding.
  4. Proteus’ adaptation. In the case of some of the processes, which from the liberal standpoint are unacceptable, Proteus’ adaptation could prove effective, which means one that will retain the liberal essence simultaneously changing the form to a more acceptable one for the other side.
  5. Strengthening selected European Union institutions. The EU needs economic liberalization and a digital union, for which it should bear responsibility. However, because of the neomedievalism of the European Commission it should delegate part of its responsibilities to the Council of the European Union. The European Committee of the Regions also ought to be strengthened at the expense of the European Parliament. This will allow for more adaptive management of the political and cultural fragmentation, and it might grant national parliaments more say in the EU legislative process.

While sharpening swords to fight for Pax Europeana we must remember that the old is making a return or repeating itself not from someone’s backwardness. Something completely new is approaching, albeit in old shoes. History is neither linear nor cyclical. It is neither a process in which everything is unique nor is it a process in which everything repeats itself. History is rather a spiral – each period is unique, but typical processes of the past come back cyclically in a new form. The old laws of humanity (physical, networking, biological, psychological, anthropological, sociological, etc.) are responsible for the eternal repetitions. In turn, technological progress, which affects everything, is accountable for the uniqueness. As also is – to a limited extent – moral progress, which lasts as long as we remember the mistakes of the past.

Dr Greg Grzegorz Lewicki

This is the English translation of an essay "Let us forge swords for the New Middle Ages" that has been originally published on July 10th 2020 in Gazeta Wyborcza's long-read weekend magazine and was subsequently re-published in other media both in print and online. Translation from Polish by Amber Steele-Zielińska. The ideas from the essay have been explored by the author in various papers, including “Cities in the Neomedieval Era” anthology prepared in the framework of the European Capitol of Culture.