By Danièle Cybulskie
I love the Middle Ages. It was a vibrant and fascinating period, full of light and life. That said, I can’t for one second deny that the medieval period featured some pretty horrific moments. In 1190, the Jewish population of York, England, fled to Clifford’s Tower where dozens of people killed their own families and themselves rather than suffer the wrath of the people outside. In the later Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for large-scale persecution, torture, and execution in the name of the “greater good”. The Crusades were a long, drawn-out nightmare all their own, and later centuries saw neighbour turn against neighbour with accusations of witchcraft (although not the famous Salem witch trials, which occurred in the Early Modern Period).
People tend to look back on these moments with horror – and rightly so – but also a sense of disbelief and self-righteousness. We like to distance ourselves from the ugliness and violence, and to convince ourselves that these actions belonged to an unrecognizable time. We think that the space of several hundred years insulates us from that barbaric mania, but all of these events involve a common factor: human beings whipped up into a frenzy of fear.
Contrary to popular belief, these instances were not between communities that were constantly at war. Most of the time in most of the places across Europe, diverse communities shared resources and space, and they muddled along together, even if they may not have agreed on some fundamental issues. The peace was uneasy and frequently broken; however, people got along a lot more than we imagine they did.
But, humans being humans, rumours began to spread about the strangeness of “others”. Rumours were spread about Jewish people sacrificing babies and cheating Christians out of their money; accusations of witchcraft were hurled against women who dared to live their lives outside the norm; and charges of heresy were brought against those who questioned authority. People blew on little sparks of fear and ignorance fed the fires until they flashed over into anger and violence. When the dust settled on these horrific chapters of history, people were appalled and full of regret. Queasily, they vowed to do better, as humans have done since the beginning of time, but everyone wondered in their secret hearts what they would have done had they been there.
Lately, across the world, people have once again turned to the politics of fear help them to gain power, and once again, this tide of terror has swept the fearmongers to power. If the violence and hatred we’ve seen in the wake of Brexit and the American election is evidence of things to come, fear is once again at a critical point. Neighbour is nervously eyeing neighbour, both domestically and internationally.
When I was younger, I thought that Roosevelt’s words meant that if we only have our own fear to fear, then there is nothing at all to be afraid of. Now, it seems clear to me that this means something very different: it is our own fear that brings out the worst in humanity – the part of our nature that is truly frightening.
The whole world seems to be afraid right now, which means that we are approaching a flashpoint that could turn just as ugly as did those horrific incidences of medieval violence I mentioned earlier. We must not allow that to happen. It is precisely when we are most fearful that we must be most courageous, in both the smallest and the largest of ways. If we truly believe that we have learned from history, that we have changed, that we would never make people so terrified that they’d kill themselves rather than face the ugliness outside, then we must walk the walk. We must have the courage to call out oppression, to speak up and stand up for our neighbours, to hold fast to the reason we hold up as a symbol of our enlightenment, and to show compassion for one and all.
In the Middle Ages, ordinary people did not have the freedom to organize in such large numbers, or to speak truth to power in the way that we do now. Before we close our eyes and our hearts to those who are marginalized or blamed or in danger, we must consider how we, too, will be judged by history. We must not let ourselves be divided by fear, but to be united against those who wish us to tear us apart.
As a woman, writing on the Internet, I have my own fears about speaking my truth, but remaining silent at so critical a moment in our planetary history is not an option. As a woman, as a Canadian, as a citizen of the planet, I will do whatever I can to hold the line against hatred and xenophobia. Each one of us must look back at the mistakes and the horrors of the past and decide how our actions will shape the future, for there is nothing so frightening as fear, itself.
Visit Danièle’s website: danielecybulskie.com
Follow Danièle on Twitter:@5MinMedievalist
Top Image: King Herod sitting amidst the Massacre of the Innocents – from British Library MS Royal 2 B VII f. 132