Shortly before the end of the last century, Georges Duby (1919-1996), a great specialist in the Middle Ages, offered a comparison of fears, but also of their management.
Paul Dembinski – Director of the Finance Observatory
Not so long ago serenity, even euphoria, prevailed in the Western world. Today, the mental landscape of the West is quite different: confidence in the binomial market and democracy with dimensions of the world is dwindling, the apprehension of tomorrow is progressing and highlights the vulnerabilities of our societies.
Shortly before the end of the last century, Georges Duby (1919-1996), a great specialist in the Middle Ages, proposed a comparison of the fears, but also of their handling, of the year one thousand with those of the end of the IIe millennium.
In the year 1000, the fear of misery occupies, according to Duby, the first place, with the bad harvest as the main cause. The author insists, it is not poverty that scares then, but misery that rhymes with famine. The fear is not about personal marginalization, as is often the case today, but it is indeed a collective fear. Indeed, in the community, both family and village, there was room for everyone. If poverty struck, it therefore struck everyone in the same way because of solidarity. In other words, the inequalities were erased at the time before the vital nature of the need and the lords played the game by opening their attics.
“Our solidarity mechanisms are less inclusive and therefore the anxiety of dropping out is more personal than a thousand years ago.”
Today, we are afraid of an economic downturn with the key to the loss of a few points of GDP. Such a shock strikes first the most fragile who thus risk marginalization; certainly, not hunger and indigence, but the loss of their dignity and their place in society. It is by this yardstick that we scrutinize prices, energy availability and the waltz in the prices of raw materials and agricultural commodities. Our solidarity mechanisms are less inclusive and therefore the anxiety of dropping out is more personal than a thousand years ago.
Duby then addresses “fear of the other”, essentially the fear of invasion. Western Europe in the year 1000 experienced this. The fear of the other also had a religious dimension, that of confrontation with “unbelievers”. In our societies, the fear of the other is also present. It feeds populism and the locking of borders. And even if religiosity is in free fall, the fear of the other retains a strong cultural dimension.
“In our societies, the fear of the other is very present. It feeds populism and the locking of borders.”
In the order of the fears of the year one thousand, that of the epidemic comes next. Misunderstood diseases spread quickly, wreak havoc and move away to return – for some – a few years later. This situation reminds everyone of the fragility of existence and trivializes death. Today, after the waves of the coronavirus, we took – albeit reluctantly – a booster shot of modesty and humility about the limits of medicine.
At the end of this comparison, two differences should be noted. The first concerns the fear of climate change which, in a short time, has become a major concern of populations and governments. A thousand years ago, natural disasters were read in terms of divine punishment, which gave them an eschatological significance.
The second difference is that Christianity and its eschatology – the perspective of the Last Judgment and life after death – was the unifying principle of society and gave it the resources of resilience, energy and inventiveness, to fight and ultimately overcome all fears.
Today, technological innovation is the sole bearer of all promises of brighter tomorrows. The future will tell us if it is enough to mobilize and give us the necessary courage. As for transcendence, it has lost its place in our collective mentality. Is it final? History is full of twists and turns.
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