January 2011

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The Return of the Medieval Mind

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Two commonly quoted lines which duel with each other amusingly are:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Opening sentence of L.P. Hartley's "The Go Between"

The past is never dead. It's not even past. William Faulkner, "The Sound and the Fury"

I hold with Faulkner. We think of the events of even fifty years ago as having happened in an unimaginably different world, but an epiphany I had as a child counters this quite effectively. I realized that, since in every generation there are at least a few people who live more than a hundred years, when my grandfather was born in 1898 there were still people alive born before 1800. Regarding every century as being someone's lifetime, you only have to go back four or five lifetimes to get to the sixteenth century. That's not very long. As late as 1977, I remember reading obituaries of a man who had purportedly been a slave before the Civil War; regardless of his bona fides, on the 101 year theory, some former slaves certainly survived past my 1954 birthdate.

When you realize that all the recorded history we learn in grade school has elapsed in just under 3000 years, but the ice man found in the Alps walked five thousand years ago, or that the Cro Magnons wiped out the Neanderthals in Europe 30,000 years ago, you realize that we inhabit just a drop, a speck really, of human time. Looking at us against the backdrop of the timeline of all life on earth, or of geological time, makes us humbler still.

This is by way of introduction to the proposition of this essay, that medieval minds are alive and well among us, and increasing in power and importance. The title I picked is an oversimplification; the medieval mind does not really need to return, because it never left. It has always been among us, in the few lifetimes which have elapsed since the close of the middle ages.

Here are some of the characteristics of the medieval mind which prevail in some powerful people today:


Truisms are truths which become over-exposed. Yeats' lines in "The Second Coming", while quoted too often, remain an excellent description of people who most easily are drawn to power and know how to hang on to it:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The cornerstone of the medieval mind is absolute and unquestioned belief in certain core principles. This kind of mind, rather than being trained to question, to look behind words or concepts, accepts them as absolutes, as monumental edifices, even when they have no actual content. Scientific skeptic Colin Groves, in a 1997 radio interview, compared the humble and doubtful application of scientific reasoning to the "terrible certainty" of the convinced:

Hypothesis testing means humility: the willingness to admit that one may be wrong. Fundamentalist religion teaches the very opposite: the terrible certainty that one point of view is right. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s234.htm

A trait visible in such icons of the American right wing as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich is their absolute certainty, as expressed via the harsh simplicity of their language accusing their adversaries of being socialists, traitors, unAmerican: there is never an expression of skepticism or self doubt, or the slightest indication that there are any counter-balancing considerations, or that an opposing viewpoint may deserve any respect or credence.

From Rush Limbaugh's web site, here is a transcript of his comments about then Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan from last May, in which he manages to combine an accusation of socialism, innuendo that she is a lesbian and (elsewhere in the article) an attack on her brother, a high school teacher, as well:

This, I think, is her one true love is socialism, her life partner, her soul mate. Socialism. That's my conclusion from having read this. She's all about social justice. Her passion isn't for the law. It's to equality of outcome as defined and determined by central government planners, and when I say "passion," I mean heavy breathing passion. I mean hot and bothered passion. Cold, cold sweat kind of passion. This woman, this is her life partner. This is where all of her love goes is to socialism. I don't care if she wants to spend her social time with male socialists or female socialists, I just know she prefers socialists over free market capitalists, which means her political orientation must be explored by the Senate. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_051410/content/01125112.guest.html


A closely related aspect of the medieval mind is exceptionalism, the belief that the speaker's own race or creed is specially blessed by God or gods and elevated above all others. The superior group therefore has an innate right to kill other people, and take their property.

While exceptionalism can be based on a wide variety of arguably obective rationales--we are stronger, richer, more beautiful, we have more guns--in its purest form it is circular: we are better because we are better. American exceptionalism, in an age where we have declining standards of education, decaying infrastructure, widening gap between rich and poor, have largely abandoned the exploration of space, the health care system is broken, the dollar may be in decline, and we no longer win wars quickly--increasingly approaches this very medieval "better because better" rationale. Florida Republican (and Tea Party) Senator elect Marco Rubio said:

America is the single greatest nation on earth, a place without equal in the history of all mankind...I know about the unique exceptionalism of our country.


The medieval mind derives both its certainty and exceptionalism from an unquestioning belief in a personal God, as an omnipotent, angry ruler who saves the devout, and plunges the unbeliever into a lake of fire. Medieval-style fundamentalist religions are deeply entwined with the Republican right for this very reason, that the terrible certainty and the exceptionalism are of a piece with the belief in a personally vindictive and triumphant God. In a November 2008 article, Religion and Politics, I examined Sarah Palin's possible religious beliefs as evinced by the web site of her church, the Assembly of God in Wasilla, Tx. (I say "possible" because her membership is an ascertainable fact; what she holds in her heart can only be inferred):

WE BELIEVE...in The Blessed Hope. When Jesus Raptures His Church Prior to His Return to Earth (the second coming). At this future moment in time all believers who have died will rise from their graves and will meet the Lord in the air, and Christians who are alive will be caught up with them, to be with the Lord forever.

WE BELIEVE...in The Millennial Reign of Christ when Jesus returns with His saints at His second coming and begins His benevolent rule over earth for 1,000 years. At that time many in the nation of Israel will recognize and accept Him as the Messiah, the Savior who died for them and all mankind.

WE BELIEVE...A Final Judgment Will Take Place for those who have rejected Christ. They will be judged for their sin and consigned to eternal punishment in a punishing lake of fire.

More recently, I quoted former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey testifying to Congress that God would never let global warming hurt the planet:

What I’m suggesting is we have a sort of an eco-evangelical hysteria going on and it leads me to almost wonder if we are becoming a nation of environmental hypochondriacs that are willing to use the power of the state to impose enormous restrictions on the rights and the comforts of, and incomes of individuals who serve essentially a paranoia, a phobia, that has very little fact evidence in fact. Now these are observations that are popular to make because right now its almost taken as an article of faith that this crisis is real. Let me say I take it as an article of faith if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy God’s creation.http://thinkprogress.org/2009/07/31/armey-pollution-gospel/
This perfectly illustrates the certainty, exceptionalism and piety, wrapped up in one package.


Another feature of medieval man was the complete ability of piety to co-exist with the most savage violence. Nobles who believed in God and Jesus and the Gospels and good and right, killed rivals, tortured peasants and raped women, put civilians to the sword during Crusades and other military actions, and acquired substantial wealth through pillage and brigandry. In many cases, piety was the justification, as illustrated by the nonstop murder of Jews, Moslems, and Christian heretics, and after the Reformation, of Protestants.

In other cases not involving religious disagreement, the driving force was the certainty and exceptionalism. Medieval man has a right to kill and steal, because personally tapped by God as His envoy or reflection on earth. This complete self confidence and insularity of the medieval mind permitted the treatment of all other humans as objects or possessions.

A prominent (and amusing) example: the sacking of Constantinople, a Christian city, by the Fourth Crusade on its way to "free" Jerusalem from the Moslems.

Today, the rhetoric of Republican bloviators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck hangs on the edge of advocating violence, shying away from the overt and yet engaging in quite provocative rhetoric. In 1995, Rush Limbaugh said:

[T]he second violent American revolution is just about -- I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart -- is just about that far away. Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can't do with their land...http://mediamatters.org/blog/201004190021

October 28, 2008 transcript entitled "Socialist Obama Cannot Uphold the Constitution He Has Dismissed":

[Obama] wants people who will look to adjudicate legal cases not on the basis of the merits, but rather on the basis of socialism and using the federal government -- see, he knows the Constitution, [takes] too much time to start changing that around. Just get judges on the bench that will invent law. And when that's all appealed to the US Supreme Court, you've got your judges there to uphold the lower courts. Frightening stuff. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_102808/content/01125107.guest.html

Limbaugh on February 19, 2009:

My point to you, ladies and gentlemen, is that there is a pulse of revolution starting today. This says so much about the media, too. They could find more of these doubters if they wanted to because they are all over the place. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, the whole country is not a bunch of lemmings walking over the cliff behind Obama, who can fly. They are not in lockstep with the supreme leader. There's a lot of doubt. There is a lot of anger. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_021909/content/01125106.guest.html

August 25, 2009:

Fascism is where the private sector still owns what it owns, but the politicians run it -- and fascism is exactly what we're getting under Barack Obama. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_082509/content/01125100.guest.html

In an August 2009 broadcast, Limbaugh told listeners that "union thugs" hired by the president would be suppressing protest at a health care town hall meeting held by Congresswoman Cathy Castor in Florida:

Obama has mobilized union thugs to go out and also attend these town meetings to intimidate the genuine citizens out there who are upset about this.

The result was that hundreds of "dittoheads" came out and disrupted the meeting, banging on windows, screaming and chanting, preventing the Congresswoman from speaking and causing its cancellation. http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/8/6/762939/-Limbaugh-promoted-town-hall-hours-before-disruption

The implication of this kind of rhetoric is clear: if the adversary is a fascist, a socialist, violent and practically non-human, why would we not respond with violence?


An underpinning of the medieval system was a rigid, stratified, class system, with the nobles at the top and the serfs at the bottom. The serfs were completely dependent on the nobles, and did not for much of the period even have the right to leave the land on which they worked. They were, in effect, the possessions of the baronial class.

There was also no firm distinction between public and private life. The barons were simultaneously absolute local rulers, and highly entrepreneurial businessmen, acquiring and managing land, manufactures, import/export businesses and also the profitable business of war, in which pillage was a recognized perk.

With the rapidly growing gap between rich and poor in America today, and the right's crusade to eliminate the social safety net or any role of government as a buffer between the billionaires and the least fortunate, we are returning to a world in which there will be limited or no social mobility for the poorest, and their dependence on the wealthiest will be absolute.

We are also seeing the renewed elimination of the distinction between public and private life, as billionaires like Michael Bloomberg use their private wealth successfully to dominate electoral politics.


The medieval mind was extremely hypocritical, forced to give precedence to highly conflicting ideas. Medieval man revered Jesus, and ignored his teachings about nonviolence, humility, charity and poverty. Rapacious self interest was the driver for most medieval barons, but cloaked at all times in a pious cover of religious justification and political expedience.

We are seeing the same phenomenon again, in an environment in which we are told that trusting and depending on the billionaires is our best way to advancement ("trickle down" theory). Its an old human motif to advance ruthless self interest, while cloaking it as public good. The reasons we do this are complex: to some extent even our worst and most pathological dictators are persuaded of the power of a global democracy meme, and therefore claim to be democrats rather than acknowledge their autocracy. A truthful king of England at any time before Magna Carta could have said, "I own you and can do anything I want", and yet constant justifications were woven that people are free-est in a monarchy. Under the Church, naked power was exercised (even by popes and bishops of course) while sold to the public as pursuit of a highest good. Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich could say, in a logical and grammatic and truthful sentence, "It is so important to me that the government not take a role in health care, I would rather see all uninsured people go under, than be helped by the government." We might be appalled by such a statement, yet be reassured to be dealing with an honest man. But the hypocrite insists that health insurance mandates are a violation of personal liberty, and otherwise persuades us not to want a good we desperately lack.

We have the spectacle of billionaires like Rush Limbaugh whining about how hard it is to be a billionaire, and wishing that for our own good we will all arise to protect the billionaires, apparently our vanguard in the battle for rights, decency, and the American way:

They want every billionaire to give away half of his or her wealth, either now or at their death, give it away to charity.

Now, I don't care what anybody does with their money. Gates and Buffett can do whatever they want with their money, but I draw the line at them telling everybody else what they should do with theirs. If they have a lot guilt over having amassed multiple billions of dollars, fine, then do with it whatever they want. But don't take that guilt and try to spread it to everybody else, because once you start saying that billionaires ought to give away half of their wealth, well, then maybe everybody ought to give away half of their wealth up to, what is the magic number, $250,000 a year. You live your life the way you want to but leave me out of it. That goes for money, it goes for what I use to brush my teeth, to what kind of car I drive, to what kind of television set I buy, to whether or not I'm going to smoke a cigar or not, whether you're around or not. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_061710/content/01125113.guest.html

In other words, if billionaires don't pay taxes, we won't have to either--but if they get the billionaires, they may come after us next. The billionaires are kind of the Jews of the equation ("first they came for the billionaires....)"

Another example of pious hypocrisy I have reported here from time to time: the widespread marital infidelity of the Republicans who voted to impeach Clinton for his own cheating. Dick Armey distinguishes himself from Newt Gingrich on the grounds that Armey had stopped cheating when he led the impeachment vote effort, while Gingrich was still slip-sliding around.

In the middle ages, the perfect hypocrites nevertheless knew in their souls what they were. As death approached, quite vicious barons got busy building churches and endowing monasteries, in the hope God would forgive them at the last moment and refrain from casting them into the lake of fire. There is something in most human makeups which make it hard for us to live too many decades with hypocrisy: I saw that in Richard Nixon's facial twitch, and wonder if it is there in Rush Limbaugh's drug habit as well.


The medieval mentality never vanished; it simply became less powerful and prominent when the Reformation and Renaissance began. In every era since then, minds of the middle ages have fought a rearguard battle of reaction and counter-reformation. They are assuming greater power, and carrying on that battle more effectively than ever, in the United States today.