Our elected representatives (and unelected hangovers in the House of Lords) swan around on a site with huge medieval resonance. From time to time, MPs like to refer to the medieval buildings and heritage of their constituencies, or try and use medieval precedent to do something positive to improve parliamentary procedure. Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like, of petty treason, and even weights and measures regulation. More often, they simplify and sanitise medieval events and institutions in a banal and feeble way – I am looking at you Rishi Sunak, with your blether about how great medieval apprenticeships were, and many others fan-boying Magna Carta. More than one, of course, trots out the old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ debate, both to show off a dangerously little amount of knowledge, and also to belittle the amazing medieval scholars who would actually WIPE THE FLOOR with many of our governing classes. There are worse things though, and this post will muse upon a few of the many references to the ‘medieval’ which are highly negative and also highly questionable, based on Hansard between 2015 and 2020 (all available online, and as this is a blog post, not a formal article, I am just going to copy the links rather than going for full dress footnotes). This is only partly the grumbling of a medievalist who feels that people should make more of an effort to get things right: I also think that there is a real danger in the tendency to reach for the adjective ‘medieval’ to describe all that is bad and brutal, clumsy and just … other.
At the irritating end of the spectrum, we see these types of dimwittery:
Made that word up. What I mean here is the mistaken labelling as ‘medieval’ of things which occurred at a definite later date. Obviously, there is room for disagreement about the years which should be called ‘medieval’, but conventionally, in England and Wales, they end with the fifteenth century. Henry VII probably sneaks in as the last medieval-ish monarch, but with Henry VIII very few people would deny that we have crossed the boundary into ‘early modern’. So calling the Council of Trent (1545-63) ‘medieval’ would seem to be wrong, as would calling the events of ‘a couple hundred years ago’ ‘medieval’. See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern. We don’t hear about ‘early modern brutality’ though, do we – even if we should. Torturing Guy Fawkes, anyone? Beheading queens? Capital punishment for hundreds of different offences? Not medieval.
A real word, honestly. This one is the sin of taking something which was arguably a feature of the medieval period, though it could equally be attributed to other periods, and labelling it ‘medieval’, as if that was the only time it happened. A testimony to the snowballing effect of regular precipitation of negative ideas on the idea of the medieval. (Pretentious and wrenching metaphors in the same sentence – good effort). See, for example, ‘medieval’ references with regard to poor treatment of women and sexual minorities. There is a good case for saying that some things at least got worse for these groups after the medieval period. Rape law was not favourable to women in the medieval period, but nor was it greatly altered for centuries thereafter. Likewise, there is a tendency to pick out medieval medicine and science as proverbially backward, though it is not clear that there was a huge improvement in many areas in the early modern period, or thereafter. The description of cholera as ‘medieval’ rather ignores the huge outbreaks in the UK in the nineteenth centuries, and many avoidable outbreaks thereafter. Were squalor, hunger, inequality or cruelty to animals over by 1500? That would seem to be the implication of the references to ‘medieval conditions’, ‘medieval famine’ and the medieval nature of badger-culling, cruelty to dogs and cock-fighting. The idea that the medieval period was less democratic than the sixteenth century is also not obviously correct – both had such a small ‘community of the realm’ that they were outstandingly undemocratic, if democracy is understood in any modern sense, and, as far as women are concerned, no change until 1918. Women’s different experience, of course, is never central to these sloppy grabs at history.
General confusion and random ‘medieval’ references
There is some odd talk about the Declaration of Arbroath – it is the ‘oldest medieval text’ (it’s certainly very important, but, unless there has been a secret re-designation of ‘the medieval period’ as beginning the day before its sealing in 1320, not remotely the oldest medieval text). The idea of the immigration detention system as medieval seems odd: it is far more modern, and much was founded in living memory – we can’t ‘historically distance’ ourselves from that one. The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.
There are also some episodes of random period-dropping – such as that of Robert Jenrick, who can remember three periods, medieval, Georgian and Victorian (are these, perchance, the periods of the various residences he just had to visit during the lockdown period?)*, and by God he is going to throw them in, despite the fact that they are, erm, sufficiently separated in time to make no sense as a group. Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads. See also the pseudo-historical meets literary mash-up of a portrayal of Parliamentary procedure as somewhat Dickensian and reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, as well as possibly medieval.
Then there are the more serious misuses
There is a tendency to describe government action which seems to be unaccountable, or over-reaching powers, as being like that of a medieval monarch. Essentially, what is going on here is a misattribution to the medieval period of later theories of divine right kingship. There were certainly checks and balances on medieval monarchy – just ask Edward II or Richard II.
There is a general sense – made respectable to many by progress narratives such as that of Pinker – that the medieval period was one of a different order of violence and brutality to other, later ages. Medievalists themselves do not tend to support this view. There are obvious contenders for greater bloodshed – the Thirty Years War, WWI, … and more recent contenders for genocidal and religiously motivated violence. Locating brutality in the medieval period, however, pushes it away to a comforting distance. They were not really like us, after all; they were not really us.
To add a twist, the context in which we tend to see this ‘medieval brutality’ idea is in connection with Islam and the present other. It is almost obligatory to describe violence by ISIS, the Saudis or Iran as ‘medieval’. Clearly, there is much to disapprove and oppose, but what is added by calling it ‘medieval’? There are lots of questions about this – whose ‘medieval’ is meant? Is the comparison with medieval Europe or with the medieval period in the Islamic world? If the latter, how does that work, when a strong tendency of historical study of the medieval Islamic world emphasises its advanced learning, culture, and capacity for tolerance? In one particularly muddle-headed statement, ISIS are likened to ‘medieval religious crusaders’. Crusaders? Really? So much going on there.
It is Interesting to note that the only other regimes I saw labelled ‘medieval’ in their brutal behaviour were China and Myanmar – not Islamic – in fact acting against Muslim minorities – but certainly foreign (not even European!). Very bad but very not-medieval, on either their own terms, or in terms of medieval western Europe.
Make ‘History’ History
It is interesting what can be turned up in an hour, with access to a search engine. Without even getting into some obvious additional terms – ‘feudal’, ‘vassal’ or the dreaded ‘Dark Ages’, it is pretty clear that there is some serious abuse of the term ‘medieval’ going on in Parliament. I wish they would stop, and give up the attempts at rhetorical flourish using stupid stereotypes and misinformation about people of the past. Not only do they make our representatives look foolish, and insult scholarship, but they also serve more pernicious purposes, allowing us all to perform ‘historical distancing’, and slough off the guilt of our own times, and the many horrendous things we might have done more to stop.
Wouldn’t it be good if this nonsense could be jettisoned along with the ludicrous ‘This Place’ and ‘The honourable member..’ claptrap. Oh, and the House of Lords. Unlikely, I know – in fact there is probably a whole heap of ill-informed Black Death meets Covid-19 connections ‘oven-ready’ for the next session of Parliament.
 See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-01/debates/7D778066-4A6F-4128-BDA8-69014CEA42C2/BabyLeaveForMembersOfParliament?highlight=medieval#contribution-59D8EA68-A8A0-4AAC-84CA-A7CD6F7391E7
 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-07-01/debates/41580300-A9FE-4FAB-9CCE-16FC196E38AD/Inflation?highlight=medieval#contribution-8304E9F2-116E-436E-A0C8-8245785DEF68 16th C as medieval https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-20/debates/2E21C4BD-BC87-4E2B-9E3D-2844214108F6/AdvisoryCommitteeOnBusinessAppointmentsMinisterialCode?highlight=medieval#contribution-796386D8-9CF2-4D21-83B1-6D4DEAB33529
 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-15/debates/4A88339E-0EE2-445A-BA4C-EF51ACAC7F17/PointOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-B18D88F0-74B1-485C-9EF8-5229DDC96442 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-14/debates/3CBE0975-23DD-486C-8244-ADBFF23CBF02/EqualityAutumnStatement?highlight=medieval#contribution-4054FCB8-806E-4BCF-9F6C-21956DC932C9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-25/debates/0D1725C7-23E3-4968-986B-CE07B013D361/PointsOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-41E4D168-4802-4229-841D-8C589145DC72
 See, e.g., (on disease) https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-05-23/debates/FAA76D92-33F3-45AA-A835-6D38C8F60A32/YemenPeaceProcess?highlight=medieval#contribution-88CC8497-D97D-45E8-B28A-D9EBCC315518 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-D1974D34-89FA-4887-8663-CE70B12281B9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-A52672BB-60D3-4DD5-8B80-9BEE69EEB588 ;
On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-11-05/debates/9627E94E-0754-4959-85F0- 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-06-06/debates/82EC353D-FB47-456F-BFC2-528618277852/PeopleWithLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBEB34FF-6EDB-4248-B0DB-03411D221E84
On science https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-19/debates/292C9A19-9A13-482A-961B-F893AEE899E9/ExitingTheEUScienceAndResearch?highlight=medieval#contribution-A1DB9719-D106-4FE3-940E-57A403EE08E0
 Squalour: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-12/debates/A20CF46E-116A-47B2-BA33-11CAA47B3FC0/UNConventionOnTheRightsOfPersonsWithDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-504D426E-A94E-41B9-82C4-2CB7680BA06C
Cruelty to animals: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-23/debates/0d31dfe7-20d9-41b9-8c8f-704ba942fb06/AnimalWelfare(Sentencing)Bill(SecondSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-36F9E2EE-D6EB-4100-9FC8-539494913CA7 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-09-07/debates/98FFCE19-439C-4F5D-A274-ADFCB7795217/BadgerCullingBovineTB?highlight=medieval#contribution-0138A27F-7BFC-4F4E-B034-0B9A23228C69
 See https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-10-25/debates/B6DDA10A-5B99-494F-81D6-395DB298CB73/InternationalFreedomOfReligionOrBeliefDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-7FFAEDB2-3C7C-471B-9E24-822F800E2E79 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-20/debates/993F895E-D215-4773-A464-1A6320523B0E/AntisemitismInModernSociety?highlight=medieval#contribution-9B5EBA88-ED54-4E93-922F-6C5DAFB72CDC
 See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-06-27/debates/8CB4EC8E-411F-4045-92E4-446F13516817/OutcomeOfTheEUReferendum?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBF4D322-B20C-4C10-ADE0-AD891A28F8AC https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-28FEA400-200F-4182-984A-4DBD7430AF3B https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-03-10/debates/FD21A151-46BF-4A03-911E-37994CF73EAF/BBCCharter?highlight=medieval#contribution-DB00D49A-0C51-4EF6-BA9E-3AB296E3048C https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-19/debates/CA0685E2-6A97-43EE-8524-94C27A53AB25/HouseOfLordsReformAndSizeOfTheHouseOfCommons?highlight=medieval#contribution-34A75F18-1C6F-49DD-80AF-11254F40E1B8
 See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-06-10/debates/15061061000109/Charities(ProtectionAndSocialInvestment)Bill(HL)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15061073000009 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-18/debates/69E286BB-03A2-4467-AB65-B3059436CD53/UKNationalsReturningFromSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-7B804965-408E-4982-B521-A7A931CA1DD4 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-20/debates/FF51202E-34FA-48C7-B002-28DB6AF473AA/ChristmasAdjournment?highlight=medieval#contribution-842395D3-D9ED-49EB-ADC2-60A8CEB8B31A ‘medieval monsters’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-12-02/debates/15120254000002/ISILInSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-15120254000141
Saudi Arabian punishment: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-07-21/debates/15072129000001/HumanRights(SaudiArabia)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15072129000011 Saudi Islam https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-10-13/debates/E8C50118-7D12-483C-9DA3-CA0D48BA2AC2/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-3DD47A5E-AF9B-47B7-A06C-29DFDE0FB6D7
Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/E2AD1EFE-3C20-4387-967C-D7F976530F05/Britain-IranRelations?highlight=medieval#contribution-F12256FA-2B29-4BC2-898F-86D6AA293174
 Isis as medieval religious crusaders https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-11-30/debates/1511303000001/MiddleEast?highlight=medieval#contribution-1511303000338
 brutality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-17/debates/85ADE193-5E40-4798-B15F-F916C81CD87D/TheRohingyaAndTheMyanmarGovernment?highlight=medieval#contribution-679DB413-861C-4F22-A461-48A13DD7B05B