Aleppo after barrel bombing one of its residential areas

This week the Guardian reporter Kevin McDonald took issue with Nick Clegg’s description of ISIS as “medieval”.  McDonald reported: ‘given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.’ Unfortunately analysis of the meaning and implications of this political use of the Middle Ages ended here, and the article instead constructed a somewhat flawed comparison between ISIS and the history of the French Revolution. However, this recent use of the category ‘medieval’ as a label for the things that we refuse to acknowledge or understand is not unique.

Many shocking crimes against humanity, such as torture, slavery, and public executions, frequently occur in our modern world, and yet are described as medieval. This conundrum was discussed by John Dagenais, who argued that ‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism’.[1] The ‘denial of coevalness’, a phenomenon first identified by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, is the practice of locating people, cultures, or events within another time. Within Fabian’s analysis, the ‘denial of coevalness’ was a way to structure colonial power. For example, a ‘remote society’ might be described as primitive, signifying that that society is not only geographically remote from Europe but also remote from ‘modernity’ as it has been defined in the Western historical tradition.

‘Modernity’ is often assumed to be the product of historical evolution, the triumphant outcome of the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Yet many dark crimes and threats of chaos occur close to home, challenging this glossy image of post-Enlightenment modernity. Rather than accepting responsibility for flaws in our society, or questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and progress, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time. Instead, shocking crimes and phenomena that generate fear are described as medieval. As Dagenais observed, ‘the typological use of “medieval” was a way of exercising and containing those aspects of modernity that are inadmissible to itself’.[2] Exploited in this way, the Middle Ages cease to be a dynamic and complex period and become a handmaiden for the mythology of modernity.

With the realisation that the governments of Europe and America have engaged in extra-ordinary rendition to conduct torture overseas and that ISIS fighters and perpetrators of public decapitations in the Middle East can have grown up in the UK, it is no longer possible for this generation to interpret shocking crimes against humanity and threats to our imagined social order as something geographically remote. People in Europe and America therefore have two options: they can accept that crimes occur in their world but describe them as ‘medieval’, part of another time, and refuse to acknowledge them; or they can critically reflect upon the ways in which the society they are part of has created the problems it has.

This recent use of the Middle Ages as a label for describing ISIS is dangerous since it justifies a refusal to reflect upon the causes and potential solutions to the problems being faced in the contemporary world. It provides an excuse for not engaging with the difficult and challenging process of introspection, the process of looking at ourselves and asking how have we, as a global society, created this problem and how can we respond to it.

The irony is that, globally, there have been many developments in technology, there are more devices to record and circulate messages to ever increasing audiences –  but we refuse to analyse the complex messages channelled by the high tech global communication system. The lenses of social media are distorted. So perhaps we are, after all, living in the ‘dark ages’; yet this dark age is not the medieval period, but a dark age of consciousness.

Julia McClure is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI.

Image: Note: The barrel bombing of Aleppo has been generally blamed on Syrian government forces, not ISIS.


[1] Dagenais, ‘The Postcolonial Laura’, Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2004), pp. 365-389. p. 374.

[2] Ibid.

Tags : IraqISISmedievalmodernitySyriaviolence
Julia McClure

The author Julia McClure


  1. Two points –

    According to McDonald, at least, the link to the French Revolution comes explicitly from the writings of Abul A’la Maududi writing in the mid-twentieth century. So it’s not so much a “flawed comparison” as a matter of historically-situated understanding within the Islamist modern tradition itself.

    My friend John Arnold has also commented on the troping of cruelty as medieval, with reference to, as I recall, Pulp Fiction and *Se7en*. Off the top my my head it’s in his co-edited *History and Heritage: Consuming the Past in Contemporary Culture* (Donhead, 1998)

    1. I have a few thoughts on the comparison with the French Revolution along the lines that it is a very flawed one.

      I accept that ISIS from what little I care to understand about them are totalitarian. It has long been a trait of historians to see the origins of a totalitarian approach to statehood in Robespierre and the Jacobins. However, this has never really stood up to scrutiny and is usually born of right-wing paranoia about the economic, egalitarian elements of the French Revolution and the need to discredit Marx’s interpretation of it. The worst excesses of violence during the Revolution were a direct consequence of external threats to the French Republic. Internal traitors were sought out and punished, often on completely invented grounds. This was a fairly standard response of early modern states under threat of invasion.

      McDonald’s argument really falls down on his understanding of ISIS seeking a new state founded on a set of principles and seeing a parallel with the French revolutionaries. This is just not historically accurate. The French Revolution, from day one until Napoleon was rooted in historic ideas of Frenchness. They may well have created a ‘year zero’ and spoken of enlightenment-inspired universal truths but this was always a sugar-coating of what was fundamentally a nationalist government acting in the interests of France as a cultural, economic and historical entity. In this sense it was like Soviet Communism which was about Russia as much as it was about universal communist revolution.

      The closest McDonald comes to hitting the nail on the head is when he mentions the generational nature of the problem. The Arab world is in demographic and economic crisis. There are millions of young people with no future in this area. Therefore the youthful nature of ISIS, overturning old institutions and regimes appeals in the same way that the Arab spring did, and hoped to do. Here more helpful parallels with the French Revolution could have been drawn as France was a society with huge population growth that was economically in dire straits, was politically oppressed and contained a core of frustrated, educated people. This is where the comparisons with revolutionary France have some substance. Both were revolutionary movements that appealed to those without power. However, the basic tenets of the ideology, the understanding of nationhood, of citizenship, all of the things McDonald talks about are unrecognisable when looking at the French Revolution so it’s hard to see the comparison as anything but ‘flawed’ and certainly doesn’t teach us much about either ISIS or revolutionary France which is surely the point of such comparisons.

  2. Brilliant article and well argued. I would like to have seen more examples for the British / US government’s “medieval-style” acts.

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