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Welcome to the new Middle Ages

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.


  1. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 7 March 2014

    Bert – i’m so sorry to hear about the break-in. I fear security people never get there in time and the robbers know it, just like they know they can escape while the alarm ticks down. This happened to me, though not so many things stolen, some years back. Losing your computer is like losing your library, another point of reference to the middle ages. Plus ca change …

  2. Bert Bert 7 March 2014

    Thanks for the commisseration, Paul – Luckily all my academic work was backed up, either on memory stick or/and Dropbox. But I lost all the electronic books and more than 200 of my favourite movies that I had downloaded on my laptop, and that take a lot of time to download again. Mariana, who always has a lot to do, was less conscientious, or scrupulous in backing up her work – she lost more than 75% of her photos, and she is such a good photographer. It is the irritation caused by these infernal robberies that really angers me. I have a lot of sympathy for poor people in SA, but I don’t believe these thieves are among them; they form part of well-organized syndicates. A policeman told me about a truck, loaded to the brim with electronic goods, that they intercepted near our Northern borders; there is obviously a lucrative trade in stolen goods like those.

  3. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 7 March 2014

    Bert – again I’m so sorry. Every sympathy to Mariana ; I know – I hadn’t backed up either. Call us next time you’re up here.

  4. ilagardien ilagardien 7 March 2014

    sorry to hear about this, bert. it’s a never-ending story. i’m not sure we will cure ourselves of this affliction for a while, yet. what we can not do is stop.

  5. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 8 March 2014

    Really sorry to hear about this Bert. I can just imagine that movie collection and….well no need to rub it in more. I didnt know you were now “with” Mariana. Every blessing and warm wishes from Auckland, New Zealand.

    Excellent piece, yet again. I come here for my regular digest of trends in philosophy in layman’s terms.

  6. Rene Rene 8 March 2014

    I like your comparison of what’s happening in cyberspace with the middle ages. I play a lot of WoW, and it is a much more appealing world than the one we live in.

  7. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 9 March 2014

    That is sad news indeed! The joys of not living in an enclosed modern “castle”.

    The issue in my view with such invasions for high-value easy-to-carry goods is that criminals would only have a “business” if there was a market for such goods. Where do these good go? Who buys them from the thief? Who sells it on? Why would you want to buy them? Is it the price of the new goods that makes a cheap second hand attractive? Is it the consumerist mode we fall into, in having the “sexiest” we can afford rather than what is functional? In this sense, this is not the Middle Ages, but the Consumerist Ages? In the Middle Ages, goods, I assume, were prized for their functional value rather than their “must-have-that-brand” value?

  8. Bert Bert 9 March 2014

    ILagardien – I agree that this sorry state of affairs will last for some time, and I take you to mean that we cannot stop what ‘we are doing’ in the sense that those among us who are trying to contribute in our own particular ways to creating a ‘civilized’ society here in South Africa cannot afford desisting from doing so in the face of minor adversities?

    Rod – Thank you for that; and yes, Mariana and I have been together for more than 4 years, which was not the case when we saw each other in China. I regularly read your posts to get a sense of one’s perspective from as far away as New Zealand (where I have several friends), and always find them illuminating.

    Gary – Interesting observations and questions. I agree with you about the consumerist context, but this is precisely why I used the phrase ‘new Middle Ages’ in the piece – i.e., despite the obvious differences, there are elements that our ‘postmodern’ era has in common with the historical Middle Ages.

    Rene – I can understand your preference for the virtual world; many people share this with you. The only problem with ‘escaping’ into cyberspace (like Case in Gibson’s Neuromancer and Count Zero in its sequels) is that one is fairly impotent regarding real change in political and economic relations when you are involved with WoW. For that, you have to face the messy world of social reality.

  9. Bert Bert 9 March 2014

    Paul – Mariana says she can identify with you regarding her – and your – loss of photographs. We’re sure to be in contact when next we’re in your neck of the woods, and you and Tess do the same, please.

  10. Leslie Melville Leslie Melville 9 March 2014

    Your stimulating article has made me think. Here, for what they are worth, are the results.
    Both the medieval and the remarkably similar futuristic realms of online games are fantasies. Those who play them obssessively, particularly if they are part of a game-playing community, are unlikely to be dissuaded by an offer ‘to contribute meaningfully to political life’, with the promise of becoming ‘individuals’ in a de-capitalized, but newly collectivized world where human cruelty and wretchedness no longer exist – also a fantasy but construed as a reality.
    While for most people today politics has replaced religion in giving meaning to life, there are still those who wish to play chess all day. The chessboard of the philosopher is immense and keeps changing shape, the movements of its pieces are without limit, rules and patterns hard to discern. But no one can steal his chess set, nor deprive him of his endless fascination with it.

  11. Leslie Melville Leslie Melville 9 March 2014

    We fortify our houses to protect our possessions, and a computer can be a whole world of intangible possessions. Primarily, we do so to protect our lives. It is a mercy ( to use a medieval word) that your professional thieves ascertained (if they in fact did) that no one was home and that the footsoldiers would not arrive in time. What we are really afraid of is not thieves (numerous) but robbers (few but devastating).We encounter them on highways and byways over which we have no control. We have more control over our castles, though we fear we might be invaded by psychopathic robbers for whom cruelty and murder are an extra thrill.
    So afraid are we of them that we rarely speak of them, and when we do, we seek to take responsibility for their awful behaviour, and obscurely believe we deserve to bear the brunt of it. We never speak to those who survive their actions. Pointing out that shack-dwellers are more vulnerable than fort-dwellers is evasive. Perhaps the ancient tension between the timid, unprotected settled and the ruthless, armed raider, is insoluble.
    P.S. Don’t you find ‘awaiting moderation’ which precedes comments chilling?

  12. Bert Bert 9 March 2014

    Leslie – Your thoughts are worth a lot, I’d say. You write like a seasoned philosopher, which you may well be, for all I know – hence your striking metaphor for a philosopher as someone who plays ‘chess’, the rules of which metamorphose endlessly, on a virtually limitless chessboard. We can do that as philosophers, artists of all stripes can do it, and academics from all disciplines are in a position to do it too, although many academics, in my experience, are too conventional, unimaginative and self-subordinated to bureaucracy to avail themselves of the opportunity (like Nietzsche’s ‘passive’ nihilist, who finds pre-packaged meaning in existing systems, from religion to conventional party politics). In fact, it is probably true that every human being is in principle capable of ‘creating’ meaning for themselves, like Nietzsche’s ‘active’ nihilist, but few have the courage to do that, without the guardrails of custom. Thank you for your considered thoughts.

  13. Richard Richard 10 March 2014

    Firstly, commiserations to you on the violation you have experienced. Some years ago I worked for a consulting company abroad, among whose projects were analyses of crime and working out “acceptable parameters” for its occurrence. The modern view is that crime is impossible to eradicate, and we must become accustomed to a certain amount of it. Thresholds are calculated, and it is only when these thresholds are exceeded that a problem is perceived. In totalitarian regimes it is obviously easier to police, although even in the old USSR there was substantial crime. Some of it is social, some of it apparently genetic (a link to a recent piece of yours).

    Just another thought on the Middle Ages in current times: it is becoming noticeable increasingly in Europe, particularly with the Muslim arrivals since the end of the War. A sort of parallel society is emerging, whose adherents increasingly govern themselves through religious law (Shariah) and seek autonomy, at least of identity. As the nation-state weakens (in which people both defined themselves and were defined by the land on which they were born or held citizenship) people will define themselves by occupation (slowly happening) and religion. The law will no longer be able to be applied uniformly, but account will be taken of other matters, and no doubt penalties adjusted accordingly. This was how colonial and apartheid law worked in SA too.

    Did Mariana email any photographs? She may find some through that means.

  14. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 10 March 2014

    @Richard – Quite so. Moreover one point to consider is the medieval world would have known far better than the modern world that crime was impossible to eradicate since crime was the result of the Fall – that is to say, of human nature.

    Another for those tempted to think things are worse today, is to imagine what is was like to walk the unlit filthy streets of a medieval town or village after dark, or make your way home through brigand-infested countryside on a moonless night.

    It is interesting to know that one of the main reasons people paid the local ‘cunning man’ or ‘wise woman’ was to find out what had happened to loved ones. It was all you had by way of help with ‘missing persons’.

  15. Bert Bert 10 March 2014

    Leslie – the distinction you make between robbers and thieves is an important one. According to the security people more and more robberies, rather than thefts, are taking place, which is reason for concern.

    Richard – Your comments make a lot of sense, and resonate with Huntington’s thesis concerning the ‘clash of civilizations’, which he saw as the likeliest source of conflict in the 21st century, especially the cultural differences between the West and Muslim culture. Hence, what you are describing, and what Huntington said, seem to be another sense in which we are witnessing a new medievalization of the contemporary world. Isn’t the ‘return of religion’ as a decisive force interesting? Many people believe that the 20th century saw the conclusive secularization of the world, and yet here the very thing that was the dominant force in the Middle Ages, religion, rears its head again.

    About Mariana – she’s learned a very costly lesson about the need to back things up – she’s lost all the e-mails she had in Outlook folders on her computer too! But I’ll tell her what you suggested, and she can ask her friends to whom she might have sent photographs if they still have those. Thanks for that. What concerns us most is the fact that everyone, including the security company and the police, has warned us that the thieves will probably come back some time. We hope by then we will have taken all the necessary steps to prevent them from getting in.

  16. Richard Richard 10 March 2014

    Bert, depending on the email provider Mariana is using, she may find that copies of her emails might be kept on their server. For instance, when I used Outlook Express, I opted for my provider to retain copies to mitigate against just such an eventuality.

    I remember reading, in 1984, Arthur C. Clarke’s “1984, Spring: A Choice of Futures” the quote he had from Nehru: “Politics and Religion are obsolete. The time has come for Science and Spirituality” and thinking about how wonderful such a world would be. However, events have proved contrariwise. It seems that the source of religious thinking has been pinpointed to the temporal lobe; in other words, it isn’t something that can easily be rationalised away. It would all be so easy if people were able to refer to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which distils what religion teaches far more efficiently, but the power relationship inherent in the religious hierarchy is missing (unless of course philosophers were keen to take on the mantle of religious leaders, and their congregants were content to live without certainties!) which is the implicit role of organised religion. As the promoters of secularism become fewer in number, with changing world demographics, the reversion to the Middle Ages can only gather apace.

    In many ways, I think the conception of South Africa post-1994 was the last gasp for rationality and secularism in politics, and I do not expect it to have the veracity to stay the course.

  17. Richard Richard 10 March 2014

    @Paul, of course, one of the reasons for Newton attempting to determine the laws describing gravity was just that Fall! And of course the Wise Woman would also help to find what curse had caused illness.

  18. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 11 March 2014

    I’ve had the privilege of living and working in a number of countries in which the muslim faith is dominant, their conservatives argue the opposite, they in turn are horrified at the march of western values and brands through their societies. I’m not sure that the very visible faith of immigrants/ minorities can be extrapolated into the broad conclusion that there is a resurgence in religion. Whilst our media in search of controversy and thus sales will make the most of any difference, and extremists in any faith make for good press, I think if you talk to religious leaders in western countries they may be of the view that religion is on the decline, Churches are closing, membership is dwindling, if anything atheism and agnosticism is on the rise.

  19. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 11 March 2014

    @Gary – It is most unlikely that ‘religion’ is on the rise or fall because the need for belief of some kind, which is what formal ‘religion’ for centuries supplied, is a permanent feature of human nature. 2,000 years ago it was Stoicism or Epicureanism or Zoroastrianism. 500 years ago it was either Catholicism or ‘Protestantism’; in modern times it’s been Spiritualism, Marxism, Nationalism, Existentialism, Atheism .. or you name it. Orthodox ‘religious’ belief has been in serious decline in some ‘western’ countries for years, but the many substitutes for it there are obvious enough. As for Muslim ‘extremism’, it is the reaction of some elements in a culture under serious attack from all kinds of diverse belief systems in a globalized world. Some Muslims simply explain Islam is now going through its own Reformation.

  20. Bert Bert 12 March 2014

    Gary – You may be right when it comes to established church membership – i.e. that its membership is waning. That is certainly the case in South Africa. But in a broader sense of ‘religion’, which encompasses what today passes for ‘spirituality’, there is a noticeable increase in the number of ‘adherents’ A friend of mine has just completed her doctoral thesis on this, and this is what she has found.
    Paul – this probably has to do with your last observation.

  21. Paul Tornquist Paul Tornquist 18 March 2014

    I have just come across this blog, first by way of an article in Time Magazine about Quantum Physics (a topic on which, to say the least, I had to do some brushing up), and have then found myself drawn from one article to another. Splendid, thought-provoking, accessible, witty. Not to mention the pleasure and joy of a comments section not overrun by trolls (a reference to Middle-Earth, if not to the Middle Ages)

    I thought I’d share some comments from my perspective across the Atlantic. I’m based in Brazil, 4th generation Swedish immigrant (the running joke in our family is that our great, great, great whatever must have boarded the wrong ship, most other Swedes seem to have ended up in Minnessota!).

    The influence of the Middle Ages goes back a long way in this country: Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese Crown from the early 16th century along a decidedly feudalistic pattern. Large tracts of land were granted to loyal vassals in return for their support. Any work carried out on such properties was something done by serfs, not by the landowners, which resulted in a society divided into a very small group of haves and an immense group of have-nots. Winds of change that swept through Europe (Renaissance, Reformation, even the Enlightenment) in the Colonial Period largely bypassed Brazil until massive European immigration was implemented in the mid-19th century, finally ushering in the Industrial Revolution and creating a (still relatively) small middle class.

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