||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.
Tolkiens 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
Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of
San Diego. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org