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The Digital Reformation

11 Apr The Digital Reformation

Historical parallels are always intriguing and fascinating. Edward Higgs, Professor of history at the University of Essex, has published an article in History Today entitled the Digital Reformation in which he highlights some interesting similarities between the 21st century and the early modern period. He focuses on the “widespread and intensive personal surveillance….” and the fear of religious fundamentalism and compares this to the Elizabethan state of the 16th century.

Popular expressions of allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, were brutally repressed. Elizabeth I was excommunicated and ˜deposed by the pope in 1570 and, subsequently, Catholic priests and, to a lesser extent, Catholic worshippers came to be seen as agents of a foreign power and ideology. The threat to Elizabeth is evident in the plots that swirled around the exiled Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, with the intention of placing her on the English throne.

The context is different but the perceived fear and threat of the Catholics and the need to defend the state against outside influences is highlighted as a clear similarity with the way in which state institutions are involved in intensive surveillance of Islamic institutions.

Higgs also considers the attitude to immigration in the 16th century.

The population was increasing and the rise of commercial farming was pushing people off the land. The Dissolution of the Monasteries may also have contributed to such movements. Increasingly draconian Vagrancy Laws were developed in order to prevent the movement of vagrants whowere seen as potential burdens on welfare systems and the harbingers of crime and immorality. Like East European migrants today, certain groups, such as the gypsies were seen as an alien intrusion. Local justices of the peace, overseers of the poor and constables were charged with patrolling the highways in search of those travelling without visible means of support. Local people were prohibited to take them into their homes. Under the Vagrancy Laws such migrants could be whipped back to their parish of birth, branded and ultimately hanged.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the public’s current concern with mass immigration. Migrants are often blamed for reducing wages and increasing unemployment. As a result of the 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, employers are required to check that all those they employ have the right to work in Britain.

Higgs is keen to stress that it is difficult to draw exact comparisons but he makes a very valid assertion:

However both periods confronted the same issues  the rise of groups ready to die and kill for religion and vast social and economic change  and seem to have reacted in remarkably similar ways. Thinking of contemporary Britain as passing through the Digital Reformation is perhaps a useful way of looking at our present discontents.

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