So the word ‘medieval’ has been bandied around in the press a lot lately. It’s a word (understandably) that I care a lot about. I want it to be used correctly. I’m not just talking people who respond to me saying I’m doing medieval literature by saying “Oh, you mean Shakespeare?”
People have been calling the horrific executions of Islamic State “medieval”. Can we just back up a bit here?
Violence wasn’t invented in the medieval period. Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of Classical history will know that. Even a cursory glance through a biography of the Emperor Nero would have to agree that senseless atrocities are at least a pre 500CE thing.
It’s not really that the word is wrongly used. That’s not really my problem. My problem is that this all feeds into this smug narrative of progress. “Medieval” means the past. It means we’re better now. It means we’re different. But the atrocities perpetuated by Islamic State are not a throwback. They’re a symptom of the disease in our modern society. In human nature. We tell ourselves this neat little story that in the past people were violent, life was cheap and brutality was rife. We tell ourselves we’re better now. We tell ourselves that women and the poor were oppressed, and we’ve learned better now. But it’s 600 years later and the same record’s still playing. We still kill each other, oppress each other, hurt each other for our personal gain, or out of a misplaced sense of ideology.
We need to stop calling atrocities of violence “medieval”. We need to own up to the fact that these are our own modern problems. The monsters we created. Only then can we deal with the causes, and take responsibility, rather than writing these horrors off as something from a distant time.