Imagining the New Normal

In recent years, the people who think about disaster preparedness, as well as pundits and journalists, have talked a lot about “the new normal.” Google it; you’ll see. All that talk moves in two directions:

First, it derives from more than a decade of recognition that, following major disasters, the in-the-moment piques of misery and grief subside pretty quickly as survivors restore their lives to some kind of normalcy. Think about it this way… When was the last time you contemplated the lasting effects of Hurricane Katrina? What about 9-11, which seemed so earth-altering at the time? And when, until very recently, did you give any thought to the societal impact of the Spanish Flu of 1917-1920, which killed around 50 million people worldwide? There is a kind of return to normalcy. It is partly enhanced by our lousy collective memory, the ease with which we forget the bad stuff. Of course, the restoration that comes after a disaster isn’t entirely a return to how things were before, but it is a new normal.

Second, the scientists and others who have observed the global climate crisis and modeled into the future its various manifestations – harsher storms, more destructive fires, likelier pandemics, etc. – speak of a different kind of new normal. That is a normal in which floods, tornadoes, droughts, fires, decreased food production, mass animal and plant extinctions, and new and more devastating viral and bacterial infections become, well… normal. We are making the world abnormal, and we are getting used to doing so.

Valerie Gache /Getty Images

My goal in this blog isn’t to scare or mortify, but to encourage moments of insight – Boom!  And in the case of the new normal, the medieval historian in me – always looking back to learn about now – wants to offer a little context:

An Early Medieval New Normal:

Take the example of Lutetia, the Roman city that eventually became Paris. Here is a rendering of what the city looked like around the year 250 CE.

Lutetia / Roman Paris c. 250 CE

Lutetia, a large open city situated mostly on the left bank of the river Seine, had all of the important features of other important Roman urban places – an aqueduct, a forum, an amphitheater, baths and fountains, major military crossroads, and a cemetery that lay outside the confines of the city (the cemetery is that lighter-colored semicircular area in the lower right; the line running through it is the aqueduct, which ran out 26 kilometers to a series of springs in the present-day department of Essonne). Lutèce was packed with people – around 10,000.

A momentary aside: after 150 CE, Lutetia possessed a monument, a pillar that historians now refer to as the “pillar of the boatmen.” The pillar was a gift or, better perhaps, a kind of pay-off, a way for the merchant pliers of goods along the Seine, members of the ancient local people called the Parisii, to gain favor with the Roman authorities who had recently invaded their territory.

Interestingly, the pillar offers a useful illustration of the rapid syncretic changes that the religious moorings of a society can undergo in changing times. Some faces of the stone blocks depict local Gallic gods and myths, like Tarvos Trigaranos (the bull with three cranes); others depict a broader regional set of Celtic religious deities and mythological beings, like Cernunnos, the horned forest god; and some faces show us members of the Roman pantheon that made their way into local prominence, including Jupiter, Mars, and Fortuna.

Well, getting back to the main thread, this is what the future Paris looked like by around 450 CE:

Civitas Parisii / Post-Roman Paris c. 450 CE

Here we have what is left of Lutetia, in the period of the decline of the Roman empire in the West. We should blame Rome’s decline on internal political disorder and factionalism, as well as on an increase in the kinds of authoritarian and patriarchal protectionism that, in all times of crisis, appear to be much-loved by the ultra-rich, the political prostitutes who do their bidding, and those large segments of any population ready to blindly follow anyone claiming to possess easy answers to hard questions. Much of Rome’s fall was self-induced. But internal disorder was not enough to doom Rome. Populations in locales like Lutetia also found themselves ravaged by plague, among other diseases, and by the war, food dislocation, and economic disintegration brought by mass migrations and political breakdown.

The dramatic changes in the demography and geography of the place, might hold some relevance to our present circumstances of global pandemics, punctuated economic crises, global warming, etc. Here is what became the new normal:

The population of Lutetia declined from 10,000 people around 150 CE to perhaps a mere 4,000 by 450 CE! Even the name of the place changed. After most of those with Roman heritage, wealth, and political skills abandoned the place, the Parisii reclaimed their place as best they could. They restored its local identity and name, albeit in Latinate form. For a while they called the place Civitas Parisii (meaning, roughly, the town belonging to the Parisii people).

The population, as the rendering suggests and archeological evidence confirms, moved to the island, now called the Île de la Cité. Notice that they took with them whatever stones they could gather from the various buildings of the decaying Roman city. That is, they destroyed the infrastructure built by the Romans in order to fortify their island retreat with a defensive wall. A ruined aqueduct; no more amphitheater. Also notice that the old cemetery, posited well outside of town as was the Roman custom, came to be overgrown, and it ultimately disappeared. In its place arose a number of burial sites, some which came into existence as hiding places for the bones of Christian martyrs killed in the third and fourth centuries, in the period when the Roman empire violently resisted the increasingly potent new religion. Those little grave sites became some of the most powerful places in medieval Europe: the royal Basilica of St. Denis, the Cimetière des Innocents, the monastery of St. Genevieve. The blocks that made up the pillar of the boatmen got hacked into parts and laid down, sometime between the late 4th and the 7th century, as foundation stones for a church dedicated to St. Stephen, the one above which Notre Dame was erected centuries later.

What lessons can we learn from looking back at the unraveling of the social order of Roman Paris? We should probably recognize first of all that individuals and societies will experience change at different rates and scales. People who, for instance, suffered loss in the destruction of a home at the hands of angry Germanic migrants, but who nonetheless survived, experienced changes to their life situation that felt immediate and lasting. But we should want to measure their return to normal in ways far different from the whole of a populace, like that in Paris, that struggled to remake itself over several centuries. Scale matters, in part, because it gives us perspective, it helps us see our place in the world in a variety of contexts or from a variety of positions. We can more easily remove ourselves from, or at least prevent ourselves from acting upon, the most selfish impulses that impose themselves in the immediate moment, the instances of “me” and “now” that tend to inflict more damage and make matters worse. Given perspective and context, we can recognize with empathy the situations of others, and we can sharpen our awareness of best courses of thought and action. Historical awareness tends to humble us, while making us simultaneously accommodating and adaptive.

No one looking back from the year 500 could appreciate fully what had been lost, or for that matter, what they may have gained compared to their predecessors. And there were gains. A second lesson is that the new normal always brings with it new winners and losers, opportunities opened and opportunities foreclosed. As Rome fell away, leaders of important and wealthy Roman families left their distressed urban residences to set themselves up in large protected and self-sufficient estates, latifundias, where they built luxurious villas. Reading the letters of Sidonius Apolinaris with my students makes clear that a tactician who possessed resources could thrive. And a recent visit to the Bardo Museum in Tunis gave me a visceral understanding of just how impressively some families could live as others around them languished. Other Roman elites took a different path, finding their way into monasteries, defensive enclaves where a little bit of prayer and a lot of local resource exploitation permitted a pretty good life by the standards of the time. Beyond Roman elites, we might also point to men like Clovis, who led his Germanic gens group around 500 to victories that permitted them to settle around Paris and establish a kingdom there. That’s the one that, far into the future, would become France. Clearly, however, for early Germanic kings like Clovis, success was most often short-lived, and required an ample supply of good fortune.

Of course, if you count yourself among Christians, then you will also want to see that religion’s success as a product of Rome’s loss.  You might want to say that the whole fall-of-Rome thing was part of God’s plan to bring the followers of his Son-on-earth into a position of social and political prominence. Still, one could respond to that premise with an easy “this too shall pass.” History, like it or not, is a great leveler.


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