Lately, both President Trump and his political opponents have wreaked collateral damage on an undeserving soft target in their discussions of a border wall: the Middle Ages.
Donald Trump’s obsession with the wall makes sense for his infomercial of a presidency. Like the Snuggie or the Hawaii Chair, the wall would be an overpriced, so-called solution to a crisis that doesn’t exist, but if it did exist, the wall wouldn’t solve it.
Some criminals, including known terrorists, do try to get into the country, but mostly through airports. The wall, therefore, wouldn’t address any problems that in fact are real. Still, here we are, endlessly debating a wall across the border.
During the past week, Trump has linked his wall to “successful” walls in both history and fiction, including using Instagram to circulate a meme of his giant head above the words, “The Wall is Coming,” an allusion to the pseudo-medieval TV show “Game of Thrones” and making a claim on Twitter on Thursday that both walls and wheels are medieval, that wheels are older than walls, and since wheels still work, so should walls. Note that wheels date to the 4th millennium BCE. Defensive walls are around 5,000 years older than that, dating to the 9th-millennium BCE walls of Jericho, which of course famously “came tumblin’ down.”
Trump’s critics also call the wall “medieval,” a usage that seems to have been sparked by Chuck Schumer in response to the meme. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) has repeatedly called it “a medieval border wall that is a fifth-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” A Los Angeles Times headline blared that Trump wanted a wall to “hold back hordes, like a medieval royal.” Steve Benen on MSNBC rejected a “taxpayer-financed medieval vanity project.”
Stephen Colbert mocked Trump’s “medieval technology” by joking about alchemy and leeches. Dana Milbank joked that “the trouble with the wall isn’t that it’s evil, but that it’s medieval” (meaning the main problem with it is that the technology is too old-fashioned). To Milbank’s credit, he did consult two brilliant medieval military historians who pointed out how often medieval fortifications failed.
When people describe modern problems as “medieval,” they are trying to impose a chronological distance between our times and the issue at hand. For Trump, the border is a perimeter to be defended, just like his imaginary kings of old. For his critics, the wall is a simple piece of technology, maybe adequate against barbarians, but not up to the present moment’s challenges.
I’ve seen this all before.
Trump and plenty of other politicians characterized ISIS as medieval, although the group depended on internet recruitment, 21st-century national instabilities and air travel. The Washington Post described the plundering of African-American urban populations by police forces as “medieval,” although they rely on systems of racial identification, automobile regulations and the modern surveillance state.
When we mistakenly try to kick modern problems back to the medieval past, using that time period as a synonym for bad or barbaric, we set ourselves up to misunderstand the causes of modern problems and how we might address them.
Walls are not medieval. Border walls, as medievalist Matthew Gabriele points out in The Washington Post, are particularly not medieval. The Western European Middle Ages were not a simple, hermetically-sealed collection of homogeneous, patriarchal, white, Christian, militaristic proto-nations. If we must define the years 500-1500 in a certain slice of Europe as a discrete period and place, it was an era marked by being permeable. Peoples, objects and ideas moved easily throughout the region. There were neither borders to protect nor hordes against which to defend, although plenty of key strategic places were well fortified.
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We desperately need more historical literacy in this country. History helps us understand both the past and the way the world works today. The Middle Ages were not simple, isolated, pure or homogeneous. Solutions to medieval challenges required leaders who were flexible, intelligent and able to understand the complexities of their world. That’s just as true today. The wall won’t work – not because it’s a throwback to imagined medieval barbarism, but because it’s a con.