At the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, President Trump promoted his typically dark vision of Middle Eastern politics:
We have seen peace loving Muslims brutalize, victimize, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that. We haven’t seen that, the cutting off of heads. Now they cut off the heads, they drown people in steel cages. Haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen this. Nobody’s seen this for many, many years.
At the risk of seeming glib, Trump is clearly no historian. If he thinks that beheadings and torture have not been in use since the Middle Ages, I would kindly ask his advisers to point him towards literally every piece of history after the Middle Ages. Moreover, if he thinks torture by drowning is barbaric, I might remind him of his own campaign promises to bring back torture techniques like waterboarding.
But that’s not the point, is it. The Middle Ages have become history’s dumping ground—at least for that sector of the public who know the least about it. Everything awful, barbaric, and inhumane that humanity of capable of is shoved back into the Middle Ages, like the closet you shoved all your toys into when “cleaning your room” as a kid. The problem with that is that it absolves us from seeing the barbarity and inhumanity of those closer to us. Nobody wants to think of our great-great-grandparents as slave owners, or our grandparents as war criminals. So, barbarity like that is pushed back into our historical id. Doing so allows us to plug our ears, close our eyes, and not accept a simple fact: without institutions like the Geneva conventions that force us toward our better selves, that we are just as bad, if not worse, than those backward medievals that we turn our noses up at.
Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.