Why Some Conservative Thinkers Seriously Want the Return of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages see a resurgence of interest among the alt-right and some conservative thinkers.

Of all the political and intellectual surprises that come at us every day now, one of the more unusual is the strange resurgence of the Middle Ages as an influence on our times.  A number of conservative thinkers have proposed that as modernity and liberalism led humanity to a dead end, we should look to the medieval period for inspiration on how to remake our world. This idea has been expressed through memes and writings of the alt-right and has found its way all the way up to Presidential advisors. 

One reason for the appeal of the Middle Ages can be seen in popular memes spread through alt-right online forums. They feature the Crusader battle call “Deus vult!” which basically translates to “God wills it”. It is used as a Christian version of “Allahu akbar” - a call to action for the Western civilization in its supposed war against Islam.

Another way that the Middle Ages fascinate people has been proposed by a number of conservative blogs and thinkers - they are newly seen as a time of traditional values that celebrated god, masculinity, homogeneity instead of diversity, and traditional gender roles. 

The “Middle Ages” is generally considered to be the period of history that goes from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE to the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, when Constantinople was sacked. Another way to mark the end of the medieval period is the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century. 

A Deus Vult meme image.

It’s common to regard the Middle Ages as a dark period in human history, without many accomplishments. The historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote the “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” called the period full of “barbarism and religion”. This historical time is also associated with the terrible epidemic of “Black Death” - the bubonic plague that killed 20 million people in Europe, 30% of its population at the time, in the middle of the 14th century.

This negative point of view on the Middle Ages has been challenged of late, with new scholarship pointing out that the era had some achievements, like the majestic Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals that sprang all over Europe, leading to architectural and artistic innovation. The period also saw the eventual transformation of feudalism due to factors such as agricultural inventions, leading to increased population in city centers. 

People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Middle Ages were also a period of great growth of Islamic power. Muslim armies conquered the Middle East, with the Islamic world becoming three times as big as the Christian one during the height of its influence. The intellectual life that was missing from Europe was thriving in cities like Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus.

The spread of Islamic control resulted in the Catholic Church launching a series of Crusades - military expeditions to rescue the Holy Land from “infidels”.  The Crusades were first began in 1095 AD, with Pope Urban II issuing the infamous “Deus Vult!” battle cry for Christians to raise an army and fight Muslims.

The “Deus Vult!” memes that spread through alt-right communities on 4chan, reddit and other social media harken back to the Crusader story. They are essentially calling for a modern-day Crusade against Islam.

The allure of the Crusader narrative is not only demonstrated by the alt-right Crusader memes, but is echoed in conservative intellectual circles. 

A Crusade meme image.

Having embraced the alt-right while at Breitbart, President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has at times expressed apocalyptic rhetoric that seems to be anticipating a coming religious and class war. It is hard to really know all the nuances of what Mr. Bannon thinks as this somewhat reclusive figure rarely weighs in on events and issues publicly. But considering the access and intellectual heft Mr. Bannon is said to bring to the ear of the President, discerning his views is a very telling endeavor.

To that end, Mr. Bannon has spoken of the current period of time as a point of crisis, with capitalism and Judeo-Christian values under attack, especially from radical Islamists. 

Trump Crusader meme.

Bannon’s seemingly strong feelings on this subject were on display during his 2014 talk at the Vatican.

“And we're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” said Bannon.

This certainly sounds like Crusader talk. He suggests that the Judeo-Christian idea is facing a grave enemy that can only be fought by armed Christians. Interestingly, in the same speech, he also paints the current age as the Dark Ages, another way the Middle Ages are described.

Bannon also spoke about the appeal of Putin, linking it to the Russian leader’s support of “traditionalist” values, especially as he’s advised by Alexander Dugin, a philosopher who follows the work of the controversial Italian thinker Julius Evola. Bannon’s remarks seemed to indicate that while he does not support Putin’s kind of government, there was some merit in his approach.

“We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” said Bannon.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon participates in a conversation during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Julius Evola was considered a leading proponent of Traditionalism, a philosophy that sees the idea of equality-oriented liberalism and “progress” as mistaken, advocates traditional gender roles and seeks a return of hierarchical social structures like castes. Evola saw European feudalism during the Middle Ages as a great example of such a society.

Anti-Semitic and sexist Evola is known for inspiring Italian fascists, including Benito Mussolini himself, modern neo-Nazi and nationalist parties in Europe, as well as the far right movements in the United States.

“Julius Evola is one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century,” said the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer

Mr. Spencer also found it very significant that Mr. Bannon knew who Evola was. 

“Even if he hasn’t fully imbibed them and been changed by them, he is at least open to them,” he said. “He at least recognizes that they are there. That is a stark difference to the American conservative movement that either was ignorant of them or attempted to suppress them,” said Spencer. 

If you think knowing about Evola is not the same as supporting his ideas, an article by Breitbart from when it was run by Bannon listed Evola as one of the foundational thinkers of the alt-right movement. It was co-written by another alt-right standard bearer - Milo Yiannopoulos.

Alexander Dugin, another philosopher mentioned by Bannon at the Vatican, is called by some “Putin’s Brain.” He is a Russian thinker known for his close associations with the Kremlin. Dugin espouses an Evola-influenced philosophy that also ties into Traditionalist values, seeing the Renaissance and everything that followed, including technological progress, as a debasement of human nature. His goal would be to return to the values of the Middle Ages and restore a Eurasian empire on the basis of the former Soviet Union, with Russia at the head.

Returning to the Middle Ages or turning to them to look for inspiration, and I am not speaking of merely reproducing – that’s impossible to do. But we have stood on the path of modernity. We’ve stood on the path of modern totalitarianism regardless of whether of the first, second, or third theory. We’ve exhausted all of their possibilities, built all three models. We’ve built liberal civilization, communist civilization as part of such an experiment, and we’ve even built fascism. We can now compare everything before us. And if all of this does not satisfy us, this means that the most important mistake was made not in the 20th century and not even in 1991,” said Dugin in an interview.

While history is always important to study, what does one make of this unexpected brew of racist and sexist ideologies inspired by fascist and radical Russian thinkers combined with American Christian white nationalism? Sounds like an explosive cocktail.

If you don’t have enough Crusader spirit, here’s a video that can get you into just such a state:


Cover image: Circa 1250, A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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