In Pulp Fiction, when Marcellus Wallace tells his captor and tormentor Zed that “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”, we are spared further details, which is just as well since it involves a pair of pliers and a blow torch.
To Marcellus, “medieval” clearly means acting with cruelty towards a helpless captive, and similar thinking lies behind the use of the word to describe the murder of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff carried out, and broadcast to the world, by Islamic State. Everyone from UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to US foreign secretary John Kerry has used the word to express their horror at these awful crimes.
“Medieval cruelty in modern times” proclaimed Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast. Dickey referred to Foley being beheaded “as if he were a captive taken in medieval combat”.
Bad old days?
There are a number of things going on when we describe something as “medieval”. Let’s look at the word first. “Medieval” comes from the Latin medium aevum, “the middle period”. The term was invented by Renaissance scholars to describe – and dismiss – the 1,000 years of perceived backwardness that separated their world from antiquity. So the word has always contained the potential for condemnation. In history, to a large extent this has been lost. We still talk of “the Middle Ages” because it is a convenient term for the millennium stretching from the fall of Rome to the Reformation – frankly nobody can think of a better one.
But was it brutal? Taken in the round, the period was no more violent than what came before or afterwards. The 15th, 16th and 17th centuries knew as much sickening cruelty as the 12th, 13th and 14th. Witness the genocide of native Americans, the burning of so-called witches, or the horrors of the French wars of religion and the Thirty Years War.
The flip side was the life-enhancing creativity that you find everywhere in the Middle Ages, in its art, literature and music. This has not gone unnoticed. With a few exceptions like Pulp Fiction, describing something as “medieval” in order to denigrate it came close to vanishing in recent times.
A poor choice of words
So why has it resurfaced in media coverage of the killings carried out by Islamic State?
I suspect there are two reasons behind it. One is circumstance. What makes theses videos especially horrific is the victims’ decapitation, a fate reminiscent of a pre-gunpowder, that is, medieval, society. In point of fact, most captives taken in medieval combat would have been kept alive with a view to ransom or exchange.
It’s true that on occasion they were killed. After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, when Henry V thought his French prisoners might manage to overpower their captors, he ordered them all massacred. It’s been suggested that the prisoners were still wearing all their armour except their helmets, so the quickest way to dispatch them would have been to stab them in the face, a horrendous idea.
This much is understandable. But I think there is another train of thought going on, and it’s one that western commentators would do well to be cautious about.
Both the use of torture and execution without trial slowly – and very selectively – diminished in Europe from the 18th century onwards. It was the spread of Enlightenment ideas about human rights that saw their condemnation not just as immoral but also as backward ways of behaving. In other words Europe became more civilised.
It’s unwise to apply to any group waging war on western values words that derive from a European historical evolution. It carries overtones of cultural superiority – “they haven’t caught up yet” - which sustains misguided beliefs and may even help them recruit others to their cause.
Better by far to stick to generic terms such as “cruel” or “brutal”. A word like “medieval” makes for colourful copy, but it isn’t accurate or wise: leave it to Quentin Tarantino.