Last month, Dana Milbank wrote for the Washington Post that President Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico–US border was “medieval.” “It’s true,” Trump responded later the same day, “because [a wall] worked then and it works even better now.” CNN’s Jake Tapper mocked Trump’s response on his newscast with a cartoon depicting the president as a medieval European king.
Take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s inaccurate, because we don’t live in the Middle Ages. The things that most anger, disgust, or offend us are relatively new in the grand scheme of history. And it’s unhelpful, because the ‘medieval’ label reinforces our overconfidence in ourselves and our modernity. That attitude goes all the way back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Not coincidentally, the Enlightenment is the movement that cemented the idea of the Middle Ages as a distinctive—and distinctly regrettable—period of European history, spanning roughly the 5th to the 15th centuries.
It’s not just Trump’s wall. ‘Medieval’ is often used to describe something cruel and archaic, a nod to a dark age that precedes the modern era. In December, the satirical website The Daily Mash ran a story with the headline, “‘No deal’ Brexit plan suspiciously similar to Middle Ages.” During the second 2016 presidential debate, while deflecting a question about the Access Hollywood tape, in which he can be heard boasting of sexually assaulting women, Trump described “a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads” as “like medieval times.” In Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace famously threatens his rapist, Zed, “I’ma get medieval on your ass,” evoking the Middle Ages’ unearned reputation for creative torture. The threat is supposed to promise Zed a fate worse than death. Wallace mentions “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”
‘Medieval’ may be at home in a film by Quentin Tarantino, who has never been known for sensitivity to historical difference or, well, restraint of any kind. The word is seriously out of place as an insult in public discourse. That’s because these bad things we are characterizing as medieval are distinctly new. The notion of building a wall around a nation-state, for example, is a characteristically modern idea. It’s only thinkable in an era of intense nationalism, like ours. Nationalism has a long history, but it really ramped up in the 19th century. In the actual Middle Ages, the idea of walling off a country would have struck Europeans as odd and unnecessary. Europeans were more likely to identify themselves as residents of a city, or members of Christendom or Islam or Jewry.
The Trump administration’s travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries makes a somewhat better match for medieval ideas of belonging, but even this comparison breaks down. Pilgrims, merchants, and messengers passed freely across frontiers between religious communities in medieval Europe, Asia, and Africa. Besides, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived side-by-side in various places within medieval Europe.
The UK’s impending withdrawal from the European Union, following the so-called Brexit referendum vote? Modern. Terrorism? Modern. Imaginative torture devices? Modern. (There is no medieval evidence for the existence or use of such devices as the Iron Maiden or the Pear of Anguish. They are modern dreams of medieval violence.) Just as a matter of historical fact, what makes these things bad is exactly what makes them so identifiably of our own time. Nations and international unions, globalized political violence, elaborate technologies for punishing the body: these are the material realities of modernity. Medieval Europeans faced plenty of problems, but I can assure you that Trumpism, Brexit, ISIS, and sadistically inventive torture weren’t among them.
Our Enlightenment hangover
If it’s not accurate, then why do we call things we don’t like ‘medieval’? Blame it on the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an 18th-century European intellectual movement that championed reason, science, and progress. The European colonization of the rest of the world during the Enlightenment—note, after the Middle Ages—had the effect of globalizing European categories and cultures. We still haven’t recovered from our Enlightenment hangover.
One side-effect of the colonial encounter and the Enlightenment agenda was a new scheme of historical periods, which eventually replaced the older division between ancient and modern. While the Italian poet Petrarch wrote about an intermediate period between antiquity and modernity in the 14th century, the idea of the Middle Ages only became settled knowledge centuries later, under the spell of the Enlightenment and its aftermath.
A shockingly high proportion of arguments about society and public policy these days replays the same Enlightenment moves. Steven Pinker made the subtext plain with his 2018 book Enlightenment Now, an exaggerated defense of the project of enlightenment. What Pinker misses is the dark side of enlightenment, the bad things that have been bound up with progress and liberalization in the particular historical timeline we all occupy. You don’t get Hume without the transatlantic slave trade. You don’t get Kant without the Holocaust. These thinkers made important contributions, but the culture whose ideals they spoke for was engaged in a world-wide program of terror and violence. That creates a contradiction, one we’re still working through today.
When we call something bad ‘medieval,’ it’s an attempt to purify the present by reassigning that objectionable thing to the distant past. But the move is inherently self-defeating, since the very idea of a backwards Middle Ages came out of Enlightenment thinkers’ high opinion of themselves relative to their predecessors.
The violence of the present
If things seem especially precarious lately in Europe and the Anglosphere, it’s because our high opinion of ourselves, which we inherit from the Enlightenment, has been bumping up against reality, in ever more painfully obvious ways. No wonder. Perfect confidence in the legacy of Enlightenment achievements is impossible to reconcile with their worst consequences: colonialism, racism, economic domination, climate catastrophe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a return to the Middle Ages. But an ideology of inevitable progress is always going to make enemies for itself wherever ‘progress’ is experienced, instead, as violence.
Trump’s response to Milbank illustrates a related reason why it is unhelpful to call things you don’t like ‘medieval.’ The charge of medievalism can always be reappropriated. In building grand historical narratives, a lot depends on where you choose to locate the beginning of the story. So it’s always possible to think of the Middle Ages as the foundation of modernity instead of a barbaric gap in history that modernity had to reject in order to become itself. Donald Trump doesn’t know much about much, but he is an intuitive master of reappropriation.
In the end, it is both more accurate and more rhetorically effective to admit that the bad things around us belong to the same history as the good things. Mass incarceration, the scientific method, terrorism, the automobile, fascism: these are irreducibly modern responses to modern conditions. No person, event, or movement can take us back to the Middle Ages, because history only points in one direction. We can learn much from the violence of the past, but not by wishing away the violence of the present.
Eric Weiskott is a professor of medieval English poetry at Boston College. Find him on Twitter @ericweiskott.