Consigned to the Past: The Medieval, the Modern, and the Religious ‘Other’

As the violence of the so-called Islamic State drew widespread public attention, Barack Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February 2015 compared its atrocities with ‘terrible deeds committed in the name of Christ’ during the Crusades and the Inquisition. In so doing, he tapped into a broader discourse labelling ISIS as ‘medieval’.

Such language drew a range of responses: Obama’s critics baulked at the notion that ISIS and events in Christian history could be mentioned in the same sentence whilst historians quibbled the precise details of the comparison. The Atlantic claimed attempts to deny ISIS’s medieval religious nature were ‘well-intentioned but dishonest’ whilst The Guardian and The Telegraph argued jihadist ideology owed a significant debt to modern politics, culture, and technology.

The shared assumption was that it was bad to be ‘medieval’. Even those who denied ISIS’s medieval nature did so on the basis that its effectiveness could only be explained by its ‘modernity’. Although the word ‘medieval’ simply demarcates a loosely-defined period of history, everybody knew what was implied when it was invoked in the context of ISIS: that it was dogmatic, intolerant, and inhumane. While ISIS is, of course, all these things, we might ask why it has been described using a term denoting a bygone era.

One argument is that there is an act of self-definition involved – jihadists take pride in returning to Islam’s seventh-century origins. When Western politicians employ the term, however, they are partaking in a rhetorical exercise with deep roots: defining a religious ‘other’ as belonging to the past.

I see numerous examples of this sort of temporal othering in my current research into American Protestant missionaries entering the Philippines in the late-nineteenth century. Previously barred from the islands during over three centuries of Spanish Catholic rule, these evangelists were quick to capitalize upon the seizure of the archipelago by the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Upon their entry, they remarked upon the stagnant, ‘medieval’ nature of the world they encountered. Alice Byram Condict, a medical missionary who arrived in the islands in 1899, believed ‘we have here unearthed a sample of the ancient Roman Church. We have suddenly come face to face with a very well preserved example of the power which reached its zenith in the Dark Ages.’[1]

Other missionaries argued Spanish rule had done little more than lay a ‘thin veneer of Romanism of the mediaeval-Spanish type’ over ‘primitive’ pre-colonial religious practice.[2] According to Baptist missionary Charles Briggs, ‘the first friars were medieval. All their successors…have likewise been medieval. They define progress in terms of retrogression.’[3] The Spanish Inquisition was a particular historical point of reference: Arthur Judson Brown, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions noted that ‘the people who were examples [to the Filipinos] were the people who founded and maintained the Inquisition with all its bloody and fiendish cruelties’.[4] Accordingly, a Reformation ‘comparable only to that of the German and English revolt against Rome in the sixteenth century’ was necessary.[5]

By locating Philippine Catholicism in the past, missionaries ‘othered’ it and legitimized the dual projects of American empire and evangelism seeking to break through its medieval torpor. To the American observer, then as now, it was self-evident there should no longer be peoples and places who seemingly belonged to the past.

The notion that peoples living contemporaneously could belong to the past, however, is based on a particular idea about the way time and history move, which was a hallmark of imperial efforts to taxonomize the globe. It suggests history moves in a linear fashion and in one direction, with peoples able to be placed on a timeline which has modernity as its goal.[6]

We need to think more carefully about the derogatory deployment of the word ‘medieval’. As a by-word for brutality and intolerance, it implies the only desirable route down which societies might travel is the straight road towards modernity as defined by the West. It therefore forecloses a range of alternatives as to how time might be experienced within different religious worldviews which do not share this goal.

Furthermore, there is an easy slippage from defining extremist interpretations of religion, as manifest in the Spanish Inquisition or in ISIS, as having no place in the contemporary world, to writing off entire religions as belonging to the past. This was the clear implication of American Protestant rhetoric regarding Catholicism in the Philippines, and such slippage today can be found in historian David Starkey’s repeated assertions that Islam is ‘medieval’ or even ‘primitive’.

Ideas of ‘primitivism’ or ‘medievalism’ rely on stereotypes, and when applied to religious others uphold a false dichotomy pitting the West against the rest. We need more useful and less pernicious ways to challenge and deconstruct unsavoury religious and ideological systems.


IMG_20170928_140836790_HDRTom Smith is a CIRIS Graduate Research Associate and a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Trinity Hall, Tom’s doctoral thesis considers American Protestant missionaries in Hawai’i and the Philippines in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He previously completed a BA in History and an MPhil in Historical Studies at Selwyn College, Cambridge.