What happened this summer?
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past couple of months as crisis after crisis has broken out around the world, so many coming and in such quick succession that it’s almost impossible to remember everything one is supposed to be keeping up with. We’ve seen the continued atrocities of the Assad regime. The annexation of Crimea. The expansion of ISIS from Syria into Iraq. The Ebola crisis. Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The persecuted Christians in Mosul. The Yazidis. Famine and war in South Sudan. Miriam Ibrahim. Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric. Venezuela’s downward spiral. James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Libya. Egypt. The Gaza strip.
All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan.
Through it all, I’ve noticed that the word “medieval” keeps coming up time and again when journalists report on these atrocities. Most often the word is used to describe ISIS, but not exclusively. “Medieval Cruelty in Modern Times” reads a popular article at The Daily Beast. “Liberal interventionists silent on ISIS’s medieval brutality,” reports Hot Air. “Ukraine unrest: No end in sight to ‘medieval’ protests,” says the BBC (this in reference to the protesters’ use of makeshift shields and catapults). Whatever the context, it’s always pretty clear what the word means: brutal, backward, cruel.
This isn’t the place to jump into a history lesson, so I’ll merely point out that catapults date back to at least a thousand years before the Medieval period. Also, as any medievalist will tell you, the terms Dark Age and Medieval period are not synonymous with each other. When we refer to something as “medieval,” we are rarely referring to the real Middle Ages, but rather to a vague popular sense of what we regard as the opposite of modern, slick, and enlightened.
“Medieval” is a very convenient term. What it really means is not us. This little word allows us to explain away the horrors modern man sees when he looks in the mirror. Beheadings, torture, murder, the deliberate targeting of innocents—in the popular imagination, these things are medieval, not modern.
What a perfect encapsulation of modern arrogance. What will it take for us to realize that this is our world? That the hooded thugs that murdered Foley and Sotloff speak with a modern British accent? That Putin’s empire-building is supported by the modern oil trade and funded largely by contemporary Europe? Let’s not blame the medievals for what we’re seeing in the news. These atrocities are the kind of thing we do. It’s not by chance you’re watching them on YouTube.
You’d have thought the 20th century would have been enough for us to know better.
What was the Holocaust and its industrial model of extermination? Modern.
The Gulag and Stalin’s purges? Modern.
Mao and the millions of deaths caused by his “Great Leap Forward”? Even the name sounds modern.
Or how about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their extermination of around 20% of the Cambodian population? Modern modern modern.
But, of course, those are the bad guys. And they have foreign names. And they’re nazis or commies or something. And that’s not what modern means! Modern means freedom, damn it! And democracy. And the pursuit of happiness.
Better then to forget that we, the good guys, have been the only ones in history who have used atomic weapons—twice. Say what you want about the necessity of deliberately targeting a civilian population in order to avoid the hypothetically larger casualties of a prolonged war. Personally, I find that reasoning disturbingly utilitarian, but I can see its appeal. That makes no difference here. Even if it acquits Truman and America, it is all the more damning to the modern world—it makes modernity the kind of world where the good guys find it necessary to turn civilian populations into radioactive ash.
Sure, Medieval civilization was very far from perfect. But given our own baggage, do we really want to go there? Instead, next time you hear the word “medieval,” I challenge you to think of universities, toll roads, clocks, punctuation (that’s right!), or the printing press—all Medieval inventions. When you visit Europe and are dazzled by the beauty of so many of its cities, think “medieval,” for even when the buildings you are looking at may not have been built in that time (though then again, they may have), it was the medieval period that formed Europe as such. Or how about this: next time you ponder the benefits of democracy, think medieval. Influenced by the Enlightenment writers’ narrative of history, our minds immediately jump back to Athens or republican Rome, but the truth is that we have no historical connection to those systems. Present-day democracies arose out of the Middle Ages, as burghers began gaining the right to autonomous administration from feudal lords who wanted to profit from the tax revenue the trade of such towns could provide. To a significant extent, we have those horrible, backward medievals to thank for the right to vote.
And maybe next time news of an atrocity flashes across your screen—as no doubt sadly it will—we may just consider describing it as modern.