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Moments in Time ‘Medieval’ -- or just human?

By Gary Macy

Lately the term medieval has been appearing pretty regularly in the popular press. The Taliban has been frequently described as “medieval,” and, more recently, the Serbian government under Slobodan Milosevic has earned that epithet. Now why exactly are these regimes described as “medieval”? Almost certainly the implication is that they were barbaric, totalitarian, repressive and cruel. The assumption here is that the real Middle Ages were all those things. The reality, as one might suspect, is not that clear. At certain times and places, the Middle Ages actually make contemporary society look, well, positively “medieval.” As this column has pointed out, in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, greed was simply socially unacceptable and avarice the least tempting of medieval vices. The horrible inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, turned over 41 people for execution out of the 633 cases he tried. This compares rather favorably with statistics on the death penalty in the United States. There are many other instances of ways in which the Middle Ages were much less “medieval” than the modern period.

Of course, there are also those who see the Middle Ages as a former Golden Age of simplicity, faith and clarity of purpose. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are enamored of a fantasy Middle Ages, which offers just such a world. How then have the Middle Ages, a period of a thousand years and hundreds of different cultures, become lumped into a single unremittingly evil or admirably noble epoch? The answer to this question is complex, but to put it into its simplest form, people read back into the Middle Ages what they want to find there. The Middle Ages have become, particularly since the Renaissance, a dumping ground for the fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares of those who are really trying to figure out the present. The real Middle Ages are of almost no interest to such people. The real Middle Ages were far less a unity; far less evil; far less good; in short, far more human than these theorists can afford to admit. The people of the Middle Ages were simply people trying to discern the will of God under difficult circumstances and constantly failing to carry it out. Sort of like us, I guess. No, Milosevic and the Taliban are not medieval. They are very much contemporaries, and eventually we will have to face that, accept it and deal with it.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at macy@pwa.acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002