In the 1970s the famous semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco published a collection of essays titled Travels in Hyperreality, in which he elaborated on a variety of interrelated topics, such as wax museums, holographic representation and our evident fascination with the Middle Ages. In fact, he argued, although we think of ourselves as modern (or one might add, postmodern), much of what we believe in and do has its roots in the Middle Ages. Eco also alluded to the longevity of, if not a renewed inclination to religion, and related phenomena such as terrorism and the appearance of cults as evidence of the “return” of the Middle Ages.

Eco’s claim, that the Western world displays a sustained enthrallment by the medieval period is also easily corroborated by the continued emergence of medieval motifs and themes in television series, movies, online games and books — just think of Game of Thrones, the book series made into an extremely popular television series, or the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft that did not yet exist when Eco wrote this book.

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the “world” of the Middle Ages today. Many people feel alienated in a world where they seem powerless to contribute meaningfully to political life, and in the ever-expanding space of globalisation where individuals virtually (pun intended) disappear. This is even true of many of the technologically-savvy young people of today. In the movie, Second Skin (a documentary on World of Warcraft), one is introduced to tech-savvy young people (mostly men) who “met” one another online in the course of playing the game, and subsequently decided to move closer together in “real time”, too; to the point of co-habiting in a house, where they spend the bulk of their time playing World of Warcraft. When they go out together, they do so as the avatars that they have chosen for their battles in cyberspace, with exotic “medieval” names like Dragon Master or Red Demon.

This virtual world of kings, queens, barons, sorcerers, guilds, armaments and monsters is infinitely simpler to understand than the economic upheavals of today, let alone the shenanigans of the postmodern world’s superpowers, which cannot be taken at face value, given all the overt posturing and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring (think of Putin and the Russian army on the Ukranian border at present, and the credibility of his assurances that they do not intend any military action, except as a last resort, for instance).

But despite the immensely sophisticated technological world in which we live, there is another sense in which we seem to be entering a new Middle Ages. One often comes across reports of the existence of various kinds of slavery today — that of so-called sex-slaves, of people used and abused for manual labour in sweatshops for Western corporations’ manufacturing purposes, and for manual labour in places like Dubai, where they slave away for a pittance and are housed under inhumane circumstances. That’s pretty medieval. So is the return of piracy on the oceans.

But to return to the internet, cyberspace, or virtual reality — as far as I can tell, this constitutes the truly “new” Middle Ages. Most people who know anything at all about the Middle Ages would have seen or read about fortified castles surrounded by moats, with a drawbridge that can be pulled up, and a protective portcullis to seal off the inside from the outside when hostile forces threaten the castle’s inhabitants. In concrete terms this is not common today, but compare the cyberspace, or space of flows, of the internet. In the course of the last decade “internet security” has become a common concern, and apart from back-ups on memory stick or in some “cloud”, everyone who wishes to prevent losing the work (written, photographic or otherwise) stored on their computer, unavoidably requires a security programme such as AVG, Trend Micro or Norton to protect their files from a multitude of “malware”. These range from “Trojans” or other spyware to those “viruses” that summarily cause your entire system to collapse. Sometimes attackers like Wikileaks get into heavily fortified virtual castles, but mostly it is the sinister agents of the biggest cyber-castles, like the National Security Agency in the US, who infiltrate the small castles in which most of us spend time to spy on us.

Remember the recent James Bond movie, Skyfall, and the conversation between Bond and the new Q, who tells Bond that he could cause infinitely more damage with his laptop (and the internet) than Bond could in physical terms? The movie is out to demonstrate the awesome power of cyber-attacks on “real” targets, although its overt theme is the enduring need for “footsoldiers” like Bond, who do still have a place in international espionage, but whose activities are increasingly framed by the new “medieval” landscape of cyber-castles surrounded by defensive moats in the guise of anti-virus programmes, complete with drawbridge and portcullis in virtual form to protect what is inside.

In South Africa we have our very own version of a new Middle Ages. Some time ago Lindsay Bremner and Marlene van Niekerk wrote about things that are relevant to this in their contributions to a book called Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After (Judin and Vladislavic, editors). Bremner argued that the spatial divisions and exclusions that had existed in apartheid South Africa along political lines had simply been replaced by divisions articulated along lines of economic exclusion (think of the multitude of security complexes and villages in this country, resembling medieval castles or fortresses), and in this regard she aptly wrote of the “criminalisation of space” in post-apartheid South Africa.

Van Niekerk, in turn, wrote about “the upmarket gym” in South Africa, and vividly evoked the familiar image of individuals travelling between their homes and the gym in motor cars, exchanging one relatively secure space for another. Effectively, this means that the space between these two enclosures is turned into negative space, as when a medieval traveller hastens from one fortified castle to another. I wrote “relatively secure space” for the simple reason that, with the possible exception of President Jacob Zuma’s bomb shelter at Nkandla, there is no absolutely secure space in this country, as my partner and I rediscovered recently.

I was visiting my son a few kilometres from our home, and my partner was with her daughter just down the road, when our security company called to inform us that the alarm had gone off in the house and that there was movement in several of the rooms, as shown by the electronic eyes. Our castle’s security — its moat and drawbridge — had been breached, and the defensive systems had been activated. Although our footsoldiers — the security company’s agents — had an electronic presence in our house/castle, they took about half an hour to get there, by which time the thieves were long gone, taking our two laptops, a flatscreen TV and my partner’s expensive camera with them.

Just like medieval raiders they had planned their breach of our perimeter walls carefully; they had taken note of the exact time when the security firm’s vehicle, parked not far down the road, had left for a shift change, and in the time this took they had opened a small window expertly, shoved someone small through it to open our electrically operated garage door from inside, brazenly parked their car in our garage, closed the door, loaded the stolen items in the car, opened the door again and absconded. By means of the different times the phone calls were made by the security company to our respective mobile phones, we worked out that it took the thieves less than 10 minutes to force entry, take these items and escape with them.

During his investigation of the theft scene the fingerprints expert told us that in Port Elizabeth alone he did more than 30 fingerprint searches every day, adding that, although most people don’t acknowledge it, we “live in a war zone”. Another way of saying the same thing is that in South Africa we live in the new Middle Ages of the unavoidable need to fortify your home, like a medieval castle.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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