Information Age? More like the New Middle Ages

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA and is the author of "The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France."

IT’S ONLY 2006, and people have already dubbed this new century the Information Age, the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age. I have a more accurate name for the 21st century, and I encourage us all to start using it today: The New Middle Ages.

With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?

Nearly 30 years ago, when Barbara Tuchman published her bestselling book, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” her title hinted that we could catch our own reflection in the medieval past. We now live even further from the 14th century’s disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague -- yet the mirror no longer seems so distant. Tuchman wrote her epochal book after the worst horrors of the last century, including an influenza pandemic that killed millions, two devastating world wars and the Holocaust but before AIDS, Ebola and now the avian flu raised the specter of modern plague, before the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans and before religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like “crusade” and “jihad.”


One of my students once wrote, “Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages.” He was partly right. Medieval people thought they lived in modern times -- just as we think we do today. The word “modern” was actually coined by medieval people to distinguish themselves from the ancients. The Renaissance stole the label of modernity for itself and invented a prior “middle age” when classical civilization lay dormant, awaiting a glorious rebirth. The Enlightenment made the “barbaric” and “superstitious” Middle Ages seem even more obsolete.

We now use the word “modern” as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good -- in every sense -- as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us “medieval,” so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.