How far are we from the Middle Ages?

I am part of the 99%. I “get by”. I have to decide between paying bills and spending money on repairs (that are probably needed because I didn’t have enough for maintenance). One big repair or medical bill and I’m on a downward spiral that could potentially cost me my home, or even my life. Me and almost everyone else.

beggerI am also part of a different (I’m guessing) 1%, the ones who know history. I know that for most of the past most of the population was one bad harvest away from starvation, one epidemic away from deadly illness, one accident away from spending the rest of their lifetime maimed, blind, or otherwise unable to care for themselves. Even lucky people who lived out their lives without accident or major illness would get old, and due to the social structure (in ancient and medieval Europe, with which I am most familiar), the deaths of your family could leave you without a way to support yourself.  If you couldn’t fulfill the duties of a tenant, another household could be installed in your home. Unless the church or friends would take you in, and you’d be another mouth to feed and no way to generate food by yourself, or abilities to trade, you’d find yourself on your own.

This is where the old witches and hermits of fairy tales came from, they had enough knowledge and strength to find or create a shelter where no one objected, could forage or beg for enough to keep from dying. Those were the exceptions who impressed people. I expect that most old folk, unable to gather enough firewood to stay warm, or find enough food to survive, simply died. The more lucky (perhaps more pleasant) elders, stayed with those who were willing to feed and shelter them in exchange for their wisdom, and from human kindness. Modern homelessness looks different because we have no wild places for people to survive, we have no skills for living from nature if there were, and mostly because we have different expectations. We have the theory that this is not supposed to happen, even though historically, it’s the rule rather than the exception.

In the Middle Ages, people were told that whatever state they lived in was part of God’s Plan. They were meant to be poor, they were meant to be sick, or old. They were supposed to accept their portion with patience, and were told that they’d be rewarded after they died. Now we feel that people shouldn’t have to be hungry or sleep outside, that if they have an illness that can be treated, that it should be. But it happens anyway. Itpolice cutting homeless tents would be too gross and “disrespectful” to give our leftovers to the poor as an act of charity, no, we create a middle step and put our extra food in dumpsters, so they must risk injury or arrest so they can get it from there. The police drive the poor away from public view so we can forget they exist- sometimes stealing and destroying the few possessions and shelter they have left. Laws are passed against being poor, and are as unsuccessful as those against abortion, or prostitution, or other acts of desperation taken by those who have nothing left.

“Might makes Right!” In theory, we don’t agree with that, yet how different is the bank that automatically takes hefty ‘fees’ from what you deposit when you’ve bounced a check, as soon as you put more money in. Can you tell me that it cost them $35 (several hours of someone’s time) to process the simple fact that you ran out of money? But can you get paid in cash these days? Probably not for anything you can live on. You need an account to even cash your paycheck, and if you try to keep just enough in to keep it open, they deduct it down into the negative. How is that different than armed men coming into your cottage and taking your pig and grain stores just because they are better armed and trained?

The Stanford Prison experiment demonstrated clearly how giving people power over others leads to abuse of that power. In the smallest groups, the biggest, strongest person or animal- or at least the one most willing to smack down the others to get his way- leads. When the size of groups rises to the level of communities and nations, often there is a recognition that survival of the group is increased when we nurture the individuals in it, even the weak ones. Wisdom and knowledge become a survival advantages.

As an historian, I feel we should look at the longest lasting civilizations, Egypt, China, India perhaps- find out how they handled keeping the strong from preying on the weak. In the wild a herd creates a circle to protect the calves, we know that we need to protect our young, and those who nurture them. (Humans take unusually long to reach an age where they can survive on their own.) If we are ready to discard the Medieval Christian philosophy of accepting inequality as Divine Plan, we need something to replace it. A recognition that insuring that the individual members of the group prosper is good for the group as a whole will probably do. It may be hard to convince those that have been getting a bit extra to share, but I think it will be worth it.


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