The age of lockdown

As I write this, England enters a new lockdown. Traffic has stopped, there are few people in the street, and the two cafés which I can see from my window have pulled their outdoor tables inside and put up the shutters. Some are happy with the new safety measures, others resent them, but everyone is settling into their aviaries, emptying the streets, the squares and the marketplaces. The public has been privatised again.

Lockdowns are as modern a concept as the word which designates it. The earliest meaning of this verbal noun has to do with mechanics and interlocking parts. In the US, a lockdown is what prisons do to isolate inmates and prevent a riot. The ancestor of the lockdown in Europe is the curfew, which is a quaint word to use today. But at least curfews take us back to an age where individual action was required to avoid public harm. A curfew, from the Anglo-Norman coeverfu (litterally ‘cover fire’), was a public signal to put down all fires to prevent blazes in the age before electricity.

Lockdowns are required because our world is open. Lockdowns are required because our cities are no longer defended by natural obstacles or high walls. It didn’t occur to the citizens of pre-modern cities and towns to force people in their homes when the city gates could be bolted. Besides, many medieval cities and towns were regularly in lockdown during the hours of the night for public safety reasons.

So if you’re celebrating Bonfire Night tonight, you might want to give the notion of curfew further consideration.

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