Stop calling Trump “medieval.” It’s an insult to the Middle Ages.Roundup
tags: middle ages, medieval history, Trump
Eric Weiskott is a professor of medieval English poetry at Boston College. Find him on Twitter @ericweiskott.
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.”
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