what our ancestors were afraid of ? And were they more scared at the era of the plague that we at the time of the Covid-19 ? At the end of the 1970s, Jean Delumeau, in his masterful The Fear in the West (Fourteenth-Eighteenth century), had described a ” pastoral of fear “, where the fears of “spontaneous” – cyclical, permanent, – famine, epidemics, wars and violence that echoed the fears “thoughtful” – by the doctors of the Church – punishment and divine punishment.

In 1995, one of his teachers, Georges Duby, returned to this theme in a book that the editions Text have the good idea to republish. The author of L’an Mil (1967) responded to the questions of Michel Faure and François Clauss, who led him away on the ground, still delicate from the comparison between the fears experienced by the two periods : it was approaching then from the year 2000. But what a treat to stand in the footsteps of the great historian of mentalities who walks this world from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth century !

Read also Jean Delumeau : “Do not be afraid ! “

One of the big differences relates to our relationship with death, the pandemic has further emphasized : “For us, it is a troublesome thing,” explained Duby, it is necessary to be rid faster of the corpse. The transfer to the places of burial operates on the sly. In the Middle Ages, on the contrary, the whole family, the household, the servants, vassals, everyone gathers around the one who is going to die. “The man of this Middle Age, argues otherwise : for him, death is a mere passage to the hereafter, in the order of things, accepted, regulated by a ritual, which consists of ceremonies ; the dying there remains, distributes his clothes, his possessions, bestows his advice. And Duby describe this magnificent custom of the banquet in the church, bringing together people of the family and of the country around a table chaired by the one whose soul is part elsewhere. The poor are gathered, they used to eat. The dead – and the old – are present among the living, not of segregation, as today, with the deceased, that is isolated before disposal, because they confront us with our own anguish of mortals.

If Duby describes a society that is harsh, violent, in which death is omnipresent, it is also, very vividly, a society of mutual aid, of the grégarisme, sometimes weighing in the rest. The fear of loneliness that haunts our modern conveniences ? It was inconceivable in the past, when the only solitary were the lunatics, the criminals, the hermits, the saints. “We didn’t feel alone. Isolation was a gesture of courage. “And of independence, of freedom. There’s also this paradox : almost everyone was poor, but poverty was more present than the fear of misery, both the confidence and the solidarity mechanisms were at work. Duby establish a statement fascinating : this fear arises with the growth at the end of the Twelfth century. The population growth, the rise of cities and throw them in the suburbs of young single men who will not all find work. The solidarities are broken, the needy appear and, with them, the fear of exclusion and the excluded.

Be ready for the last Judgment

In our differences themselves remain open. It is fun to learn that, for the Burgundians, the people of Aquitaine were ” the hands and pédérastes “. Beyond Bordeaux, the Basque people were barking like dogs. In short, the distrust and, therefore, the fear towards the other French, or overseas, or the neighbor, were commonplace. Moreover, the pandemic of sars coronavirus has reignited our fear of the invisible, that flows, that kills when we thought we have pushed the boundaries. This invisible man of the Middle Ages was obsessed with it, because it reflected his quest of God, that he stalked by an obstinate search of signs, wonders, manifesting the invisible. Since it was evident to him that there was another world. In his powerlessness to dominate the forces of nature, that we do know more, any dysregulation became a sign to be interpreted of the end of the world was approaching. The whole Western world is permeated by the anthropology pessimistic augustinian : it is necessary to be ready, be vigilant and interpret. The plague ? A sign of the anger of god. The leprosy ? The evidence on the body of a punishment to a soul corrupted sexually. There is the dominating presence of the fear of Judgment.

It is striking to see that, in recent months, we have fallen into this state of weakness, of inferiority with respect to the nature. The Covid-19 eludes us. And, suddenly, we started to look for an explanation of : the nature takes revenge on us, our excesses that are destructive. As the Middle Ages, fond of, agents of Satan (jews, infidels, sinners), we found our scapegoat : humanity itself. As the European christians of 1348, overwhelmed by the calamity of the plague, we have pens in our cities, closed our doors. And, as among them, who discovered new forms of solidarity to the sick, altruism has sometimes prevailed over selfishness.

the end of the world accepted

Every epoch generates its fears. If the technology, the science have eased our anxiety of the unknown, especially of natural origin, they have made us a gift of a new fear : that of the end of the world. There was the fear of atomic, supplanted by the fear of demographic, climate… the end of the world, the people of the Middle Ages never feared in any way, remember Duby, who in The Year one thousand had swept this myth ; it was accepted as announced by all the Scriptures. It was going to happen and lead either to paradise or to hell. Hence panic fear of the eternal fire and Judgment that you could rush, but there was no anxiety about the disappearance of the Earth. To not even be concerned-it is not the disappearance of animal species, both those terrified of especially. In fact, at the time when it comes to restore order in a world overwhelmed by the Covid-19, we read with interest the solutions that the Middle Ages, and especially the Church, invented to re-establish the order and well : penances, pilgrimages, the crusades, the building of churches, the peace of God in order to purge the violence practiced by the knights…

The remedies have obviously changed. But still the lesson of optimism, this little book of Duby : the many terrors that Europe was at this time assailed did not prevent her from living a prosperous period of growth, conquest and expansion.

On the tracks of our fears, Georges Duby, preface by François Hartog, in dialogue with Michel Faure and François Clauss (editions Textuel, 100 percent). Published on 17 June.

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