Oh dear, yet another muddled bit of journalism, pushing the tired ‘anything bad can be called medieval’ line. Simon Jenkins’s piece in the Guardian today makes a sensible overall point about the pointlessness, at best, of most incarceration. But he can’t help himself from going down the easy, lazy route of calling bad things ‘medieval’.
‘Except for dangerously violent individuals, imprisonment is a medieval hangover, a world of clanging gates, yelling guards and filthy cells, the sole purpose being to “teach ’em a lesson”. ‘
Why is this important? Well calling Bad Things ‘medieval’ insults and ‘others’ the long dead, and annoys academics working on medieval matters. In the case of this particular Bad Thing, It is also just inaccurate, in that mass incarceration as punishment for serious offences, in great big fortressy institutions is more properly laid at the feet of the Victorians than medieval people. Likewise, if the point is about the poor conditions, or solitary confinement, then that is not something which is specifically ‘medieval’. There is a big, important, point that is missed, in labelling such Bad Things medieval, and that is that it plays down the connection between the Bad Thing and a particular, later, mode of societal organisation – capitalism. Prison policy, in the nineteenth century and today, is deeply connected to capitalism. It helps nobody to ignore that.