Time for a new ‘-watch’, I think. Not exactly a new peeve, but, like many of those who spend a lot of time trying to get to grips with the world of c.500-1500, I do tend to recoil at the frequent, lazy, and inaccurate descriptions of things regarded as brutal or primitive as ‘medieval’ (possibly also throwing in the ‘Dark Ages’, to compound the sloppiness). Today’s description in the Mirror, of Chinese ‘wet markets’ as ‘medieval’ ( https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turtles-butchered-alive-medieval-wet-22037914 ) has prompted a bit of an investigation of how the modern press is (mis)using ‘medieval’. When I say investigation, I mean search on the website of the Daily Mirror, having persuaded the search engine that I do indeed want to look up ‘medieval’ and not ‘Meghan’ or ‘Megxit’. Still, it’s a start.
It seems to me that there are two main categories of misuse:
First, we have the straightforward type 1 ‘detached slur’ instances – in which ‘medieval’ is thrown in, as a synonym for all that can be thought of as backward. The ‘wet markets’ example is a classic type 1 case. While it is true that butchering practices in medieval England were not concerned with animal welfare, and were seen as a matter in need of regulation to avoid nuisance to cities, it is the scale of modern animal-exploitation which is the most dangerous thing in terms of disease-promotion. Were people to go back to medieval levels of meat-consumption, we would be likely to see a fall in many problems, including disease. I am a vegetarian, and would be glad to see an end to all sorts of animal slaughter, but focusing on ‘foreign’ practices, and labelling them ‘medieval’ feels very wrong. There is more than a touch of racism in it, as well as its inaccuracy from a historical point of view.
Then there are the type 2 cases in which there is a bit more of a chain of connection – the comparison is with a particular (supposed) aspect of medieval life, though either the connection is questionable, or the aspect of medieval life is represented inaccurately. A case of this type from the Mirror was their description of a deadly ‘duel’, allegedly set up to decide which of two potential love-interests would acquire a woman, as ‘medieval’: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/divorced-mum-arranged-medieval-fight-21034911 ; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mum-who-arranged-fatal-medieval-21249149 Yes, there was such a thing as the judicial duel in medieval England, but, in the age of recorded legal history, it was not frequent, not necessarily deadly, and certainly not employed to decide between suitors. Had the paper wished to risk going a little closer to actual history, it might have thought about later duelling culture, from the early modern period. (You don’t often see contemporary behaviour described as ‘early modern’, do you?) Also worth noting that the facts here were about ‘foreigners’ as well: those involved were originally from Lithuania. In slight mitigation of the the paper’s offence, we might note that the ‘medieval duel’ idea seems to have originated with one of the trial lawyers. Presumably not one with good training in legal history.
Perhaps there is a third type, the ‘innuendo by juxtaposition’: a report of contemporary violence, in a situation which is portrayed as having a medieval connection, thus reflecting back on the medieval period an idea of violence. Such a ‘type 3: juxtaposition’ case can be seen in https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/pancake-day-medieval-football-match-14093383 – an event dating from ‘medieval times’ (unexplored) resulted, in the present day, in violence. Readers are, arguably, being encouraged to conclude that there is something ‘medieval’ about the violence.
So, there is a lot of rubbish being spouted about the ‘medieval’. It is worth, finally, thinking about why I dislike it so much. Partly it is discomfort at unashamed ignorance: when there is such wonderful scholarship on the medieval world going on throughout the world. A larger part, however, is high dudgeon (not dungeon) at the contemptuous dismissal of people as human as ourselves as blundering, brutal idiots, and the concomitant self-congratulatory implication that we are doing so much better. Not so sure about that.
To be continued …
Ctd: Unsystematic ‘feudalism’ – use of ‘feudal’ by Parliamentarians
I was a little surprised to see that ‘feudal’ scored a mere 27 mentions in the 2015-20 debates.
The biggest cluster of references came in debates around leasehold reform in England and Wales.[i] Using ‘feudal’ here is intended to suggest that landlords are abusive, in the manner of medieval lords. There are two problems, though. First, leases are not feudal arrangements – check your Baker, Introduction to Legal History. Secondly, we have the ‘historical distancing’ thing again: the abuses perpetrated by modern landlords are a feature of capitalism, not feudalism. Calling them feudal lets capitalism off the hook. Using ‘feudal’ in discussing an unequal employment relationship falls into the same difficulty: abuses and power differentials are deeply embedded in relationships in the market economy, and throwing the f-word around distracts from that.[ii]
It comes up a bit in some of the same contexts as ‘medieval’, especially in lazy attempts to jazz up an argument that the government is behaving in an absolutist way.[iii] Look it up, people – autocracy and divine right kingship are not the same as ‘feudal’ monarchy.Sometimes, greater accuracy breaks out, e.g. unless you are a hardline medievalist who will not countenance any reference to the ‘feudal’, you are probably OK with Keir Starmer’s distinction between historical royal roles as sovereign and feudal lord.[iv]
On the whole, a poor haul. (Mind you, I have seen a few ‘feudal’ references recently in the press coverage of the Dominic Cummings ‘essential 250 mile trip during Lockdown’ episode – those terrible envious socialists suggesting that dear Dom was behaving somewhat unaccountably in crossing the country during a time of pandemic isolation – so we may see a bit of a resurgence …)
Ctd.: Magna Carta
Since 2015 was a big anniversary, I would expect some MC-drivel in this section of Hansard. Mostly rather ‘samey’ though. There are predictably lazy suggestions that Magna Carta involved barons insisting on the ‘rule of law’ as if what they were after was remotely like the modern concept that goes by that name, as opposed to ‘their privileges’.[i] Some have had the intelligence to distinguish the charter and its myths.[ii] MC is ‘signed’ quite frequently (rather than sealed), but that is a relatively minor inaccuracy.[iii] It is a worse error to get its date wrong,[iv] or to identify the MC barons with the House of Lords.[v]
There are some generous/far-fetched interpretations of the narrow and self-interested chapters of MC as founding general ‘democratic’ rights. Thus, it seems a bit questionable that c.12 on scutage and aid can be scaled up to ‘no taxation without representation’,[vi] or that c.41 really supported a modern idea of free trade.[vii] Beyond exaggeration and straightforwardly wrong, however, is David Lidington’s statement that Magna Carta ‘mentions the importance of maintaining fish weirs in the river Thames’ – oh dear, cl. 33 is all about getting rid of these from rivers![viii] Obviously well qualified to be Lord Chancellor (later), with that impressive attention to legal detail.
[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15052828000532 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-30/debates/15063035000001/HumanRightsAct?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15063035000045
[viii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-23/debates/21613DF3-90F7-4CE7-B62E-D23583C8366E/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-7BCCF3C7-041E-486C-9B6B-7CE17D4211B5 http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/magna_carta_1215/Clause_33