The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.


Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.


This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

32 thoughts on “The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

  1. This reminded me of a line I read in a novel once, “I’ve lived for 77 years and never saw the ‘good ol’ times’; that was always some time ago.”
    I think the insecurities and uncertainties of every present period make us want to imagine that things were better in some imagined past, or more recently over the past century or so, in some imagined future.Imagination can be sanitised, the present cannot.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are right, Mick that there has never existed a golden age. Undoubtedly, from a material perspective at least the condition of the majority is greatly enhanced compared to even 100 years ago. The position of disabled people, ethnic minorities and gay persons is much improved today. No longer are gay people imprisoned in Reading Gaol as was Oscar Wilde, and the Equalities Act (although not perfect) does (in the United Kingdom) offer considerable protection to minorities.

    There are downsides though. I well recall sitting in the school library with no possibility of being disturbed by the ringing of a mobile telephone. The distraction of social media and the obsession with aimlessly surfing the World Wide Web was not present, for the simple reason that neither technology had been invented. I am, of course not opposed to such technologies (I’m typing this on a Windows laptop)! However there is to my mind at least no doubt that we have lost something profoundly precious (or are in grave danger of doing so) with our obsession with technology.

    While there is (as you say) much wrong with the past, we should be wary of judging it through the eyes of 21st century men and women, for to do so is to fall into the trap of being unhistorical and applying our own standards to a bygone age. Life for the medieval peasant could (as Hobbes says and as quoted by you) be “nasty, brutish and short” and discontent at their lot sometimes manifested itself, the Peasants Revolt being a case in point. However at its best the Feudal system was (arguably) founded on a complex web of mutual obligations. In return for providing service to the”lord of the manor” peasants received protection and in the absence of any welfare state the church (and the better landowners) did mitigate the suffering of the poor via charitable giving. Some of this was, no doubt motivated by a desire to stave off revolt/revolution (for starving people are prone to such things), but there was also (at its best) an element of social obligation/paternalism involved. One can see this paternalistic tradition continuing into the 19th century with the aristocratic lord Shaftesbury being instrumental in pushing for social reforms such as the Climbing Boys Act which prohibited the employment of children as chimney sweeps.

    A certain amount of inequality is inevitable in human society, by which I mean inequalities in wealth (equality of opportunity is rightly accepted by most people across the political spectrum). I can’t see inequality vanishing in coming ages (although historical predictions are notoriously difficult to make)!

    Sorry for the long comment.

    Kind regards, Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kevin. And it’s great to get a long and considered one.

      Yes, we have too much technology and in many cases an over-reliance on it. Indeed, an obsession with it. People with mobile phones glued to their faces are one particular pet hate of mine.

      Of course, there are downsides to everything, but life is generally far better for everyone today, at least in most countries.

      It’s a tricky one, the feudal system. Both the church and the landowners were enriched through the labour, produce and taxes of the labouring masses, and I suppose one might argue that had they not been forced to give away so much of that produce, their lot would have been much better in the first place. The lot of the peasant was never a great one in any society, of course. And to judge a different age through our own values is a mistake, as you point out.

      But I was trying to avoid getting into rights and wrongs, and focus more on the conditions that people lived under.

      And of course inequality will never completely disappear, because we are humans.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I read “Lord of the Rings,” I hadn’t yet read Beowulf. When I read Tolkien’s bio and learned of his immersion in the old sagas, the melancholy and constant references to The Gud Ol’ Days made more sense. Well here in the US there’s people doing their darndest to return us to the Dark Ages, can’t wait.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bravo, Mick. I think we all need to be reminded from time to time how very far civilization has advanced. When I am feeling hopeful, I think there’s reason to believe that we humans will continue to find solutions that make life more pleasant for everyone. When I am feeling less hopeful, I think about the many ways in which we might just do ourselves in. Overall, however, I suppose it’s best to think of just this very moment and how lucky it is to have been given a ticket to such a gobsmacking ride on this twirling blue planet. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. When you consider what the chances are that we should have been born as humans, the dominant race, at this particular time out of all the 500,000,000 years that life has existed on earth, the 4,000,000-odd years humans have existed, the 10,000 or so years we have had any form of civilisation and the less than 100 years we have had genuinely effective medicine, and the 70 or so since the last world war, we are incredibly lucky. The odds against all that are pretty high.

      Liked by 1 person


    A good point is made her in your essay. A point which could re-direct people’s fantas of golden times, leaving those fantasies – in books. I see a golden age, as a time of great prosperity. The Tang Dynasty in China,was when the arts flourished …and even though not entirely free of war – as it was … only 1000 years – I feel, when the arts have liberated a society, that is clearly one of the better times in history. Yet, a golden age to some, may be a time of nothing, a time of in-efficient dealings and not enough motivation for power and control.

    Are we in a ‘Golden Age’ ? I do honestly feel, we as a race, are showcasing – quite deliberately putting on show – many varied degrees of separation, control and greed, superiority and a time of war unparalleled in many historians eyes to anything seen in former years, centuries – so called glory days, are non-e istent right now. Hard to truly believe in a Golden Age, growing up in a world so hell bent on absolute power.

    To name a golden age, in western society’s history? That’s a hard one. As, the English speaking world – in particular – since the Middle Ages — we could say has caused what history names The Dark Ages – a repeat of that period, is indeed happening now.

    Many smaller societies have found there peace, amidst a world so completely engulfed in terrors – terrors once localised and attended to, counselled and returned to relative balance… but, now they are globa terrors and fought to the bitter end – again, showcasing their talents te hnologicsl warfare, while dumbing down the masses below. There are no real signs of prosperity – not of any kind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are all sorts of Golden Ages, I guess. The Tang Dynasty was certainly a Golden Age for art, but whether it was so great for the average peasant might be another matter entirely.

      Certainly, some periods of history in various countries and societies produced great art, or learning, or progress in one or another form, but I was taking the term ‘Golden Age’ and using it as a description (or not) of the conditions of the ‘common man or woman’. And in general, things are better for them now, than at any other time. Better medicine, more reliable food supplies, freedom from arbitrary acts of violence by a Squire or other master who is answerable to no one else. Longevity. Hygiene. Protection for minorities. This is not true in every society, of course, but in most western ones it is the case.

      Of course, it could yet all go horribly wrong, as you point out. But I have always thought I am a member of one of the supremely lucky generations, in a safer and healthier world than most of my forebears inhabited.

      Does that make me happier? I’ve no idea. You only know what you know, and happiness and misery are relative, in a way. But measured by the standards I enjoy today, I think I’m better off than most of those forebears.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’re right, we do tend to think that the past was somehow better. Of course, in some very small ways it might have been, but overall I do believe that humans are living better now than they ever have in the past. We just tend to view the past with rose-colored glasses, admiring the good and ignoring or forgetting the bad. Thanks for the reminder to appreciate all the progress we have made. It makes me hopeful that more progress will come, because we could sure use it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent article, Mick and in this world of complainers and moaners you do well to remind everyone about the advances made…I fear overall there is no golden age, just better than before. Likewise expectations are raised once again and so it goes on!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I sometimes think we have the politicians, or others who would wield influence over our opinions to blame for the idea that these aren’t the good old days. They seem determined to tell us things are terrible now, but if we’d only follow them things would be a lot better. Fear tactics and demagoguery have a long and unfortunately effective history, but if folks would take a clear-eyed look at whether things really are worse than they used to be and how it would be if we went back to their “good old days”, they might be more resistant to it. On the other hand, maybe that “magical thinking” is just too irresistible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your point about politicians and their ilk tempting or frightening people into following their agendas is sadly true, Dave – generally along the lines of ‘if you vote for my opponent you’re voting for the destruction of the universe’.

      I don’t suppose fear plays much part in this yearning for a mythical past, though, although it may do in some cases. I think it has much more to do with people never being satisfied with what they’ve got. Then they can either hope for the future, which is an unknown, or look back to a point in the past that appears, with the aid of rose-tinted spectacles, to be much better than the present, or even appear perfect (just as long as you ignore the diseases, oppression and poverty of the common citizen).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Well said, Mick. This is something I keep telling those who care to listen. Like a friend who travels in a luxury car and lives in a high-rise apartment being wistful about the times of bullock carts and wanting to live in a village of those times, mind you with no electricity or running water.
    A very well written piece.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.