On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing – part of an on-going series

At Going Medieval, we are loath to wade in on the whole Trump thing, as it is best not to dignify sentient dumpster fires with a response.

This guy though – this fucking guy – whilst attempting to draw attention away from that one time he got caught bragging about sexually assaulting women, (it is assumed that he’s done it plenty of times whilst not being caught), declared that the current state of the world  ‘…is like medieval times, we haven’t seen anything like this – the carnage all over the world’.

Presuming that Trump is not referring to Medieval Times – that fake jousting restaurant – this sort of idiocy is squarely in the Going Medieval wheelhouse, and we are forced to respond.

Using ‘medieval’ as a pejorative in this instance is profoundly lazy and dangerous, because it allows people to distance themselves from the horrors of the world as it currently exists whilst also throwing an entire millennium under the bus.  The terrible things that this bloviating comb-over is referring to are happening squarely in and as a result of modern, and indeed neo-liberal, political instability.

In the medieval period there were not roving gangs of ultra-religious Muslims killing those that the perceived to be not devout enough. (Do keep in mind that according to the  U.S. National Counter-terrorism Center the victims of between 82 and 97 percent of religiously motivated terror attacks are Muslim.)  In the medieval period, in fact, the Islamic world was experiencing what was referred to as The Islamic Golden Age, a period of extreme stability that was characterised by prodigious development in the arts, sciences, and economic development. This was not a time of barbarous cultural self-immolation.

If, in fact, the literal-embodiment-of-rape-culture-who-is-somehow-a-legitimate-presidential-candidate was instead referring to the world being in a state of war, or in the midst of violent conflict as ‘medieval’, I would urge him to check the numbers.

Did wars happen during the medieval period?  Well it was a thousand year or so stretch of time, so, yeah.  Wars did not happen with any greater frequency during this time period, however, and they in no way carried the death toll that modern war does.  If you compare the death tolls of various wars, you will see the Mongol Conquests as a comparatively bloody conflict, but they took place over a period of about 120 years, and still are dwarfed by the death tolls of WWII, which managed to kill about five million more people despite only lasting six years. How, then, is medieval military conflict more barbaric than those wars which take place in the modern era?

In fact, take a look at that death toll list one more time.  Of the 28 most deadly wars, all but five take place in the modern era.  The whole-sale slaughter of people in wars is, therefore, not a medieval phenomenon, but a modern one.

This guy – this walking example of white male privilege – in fact gives the game away in his own moronic comment.  Something cannot simultaneously be ‘medieval’ and something which we have never seen.  If something hasn’t been seen before it is a modern construct, not medieval.

When people refer to things they find unpleasant as ‘medieval’ it allows them to keep the horror at arm’s length without responding to the ways that our society now has created them.  It gives us as inhabitants of the modern period a way of saying that we and our decisions are not responsible for or engaged in these practices.

Modern people do and are doing terrible things.  Humanity is not engaged in a linear march away from barbarism.

To call terrible things medieval is to deny that humans now are capable of unimaginable horror.

Then again, I suppose that these sort of denials are de rigueur for Trump.


If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!


For more on myths about the medieval period and ignorance, see:
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast

For more on politics and the medieval period see:
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

(This was originally posted 10 October 2016 here.)

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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