Keith Rankin Essay: Positively Medieval

Article sponsored by

Essay by Keith Rankin.

Keith Rankin.

Following the completion of the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan, I heard Helen Clark on the radio news say, among other things, that the Taliban are a “medieval theocracy”. While she’s literally correct, ‘medieval’ has unfortunately become one of those problem derogatory words of casual historical racism; words like ‘neanderthal’, ‘philistine’, cretin’, and ‘slave’. (The latter word, of course, references the Slavic people, and – while not usually used today as a term of derogation – it certainly has been used that way. ‘Cretin’ is believed to be a Swiss-French derivative of ‘Christian’, and not a reference to Crete.)

‘Medieval’ is a bit different, because it is used mainly to cover a period of time rather than a group of people; a period which most of us know too little about. Most of what most people think they know about the medieval period is wrong. People use the expression ‘positively medieval’ to evoke an imagined time in history dominated by plague, torture, and filth.

The Medieval Period in Context

It is useful in macrohistory – ie history in the very large – to divide historical time into quarter-millenniums. I will do this to place the medieval period in context. Out of some necessity, and a need here for simplicity, a Eurocentric approach (and with somewhat imperial nomenclature) cannot be avoided; however the ‘old world’, of classical and medieval times, relates to most of Eurasia, and about half of Africa.

The Ten (Eleven?) quarter-millenniums from BCE 500:

  • BCE 500-250: Greek classical period.
  • BCE 250-0: Roman republican classical period.
  • CE 0-250: Roman imperial classical period.
  • CE 250-500: Period of classical decline.
  • CE 500-750: Emergent medieval period (pejoratively known in English as ‘The Dark Ages’)
  • CE 750-1000: Early medieval period.
  • CE 1000-1250: Late medieval period.
  • CE 1250-1500: Period of medieval decline.
  • CE 1500-1750: Early modern period (period of mercantile capitalism, and the ‘Little Ice Age’).
  • CE 1750-2000: Late modern period.
  • CE 2000-2250 (?): Period of modern decline.

So the medieval period, in its fruition as one of history’s more stable periods – represents about half a millennium, from about 750 to about 1250. In its entirety, however, the medieval period can be thought of as a whole millennium, from about 500 to 1500. Our main images that evoke the words ‘positively medieval’ relate mainly to the period of medieval decline (which in Europe did not begin until around the year 1300, though in Asia began more like 1200). We, of English ancestry, also suffer from the widespread perception that English history began in the year, 1066, in which England was conquered and became, in its upper social echelons, a French-speaking realm. (An example of this problem is that we think of Edward I as a cruel king who ruled from 1272 to 1307, when in fact the first King Edward to reign over all of England ruled from 1042 to 1065; Edward the Confessor founded, in 1065, that most English of places, Westminster Abbey, as England’s ‘coronation church’.)

To understand the word ‘medieval’, in its proper historical context, we need to focus on the half-millennium from 750 to 1250. Europe as a political entity, largely as we still know it, was created by Charlemagne at the beginning of this period; he founded the quintessentially medieval Holy Roman Empire. Thus we understand that the most important binding force in Europe for this whole period was Catholic Christianity. The other important cultural force in the period was Islam, the main rival of (in particular Catholic) Christianity. In a sense, that rivalry facilitated the overall stability of the period (much as the Cold War facilitated a kind of stability from 1950 to 1975), and Islam provided (especially via Spain) the knowledge bridge from the classical epochs. That bridge eventually proved critical to the emergence in Europe of the modern period. The medieval half-millennium was characterised by its schoolmen (Christian and Islamic) – its ‘scholars’ in the historical sense of that word – and its text-based learning and teaching. It was a period of learning and scholarship, but (especially in the Christian world) not of science. It was science, the Christian reformation, and mercantilism which eventually defined the post-medieval modern epochs.

The teachings of Islam and Christianity were not that different, indeed unsurprisingly similar given that Islam was, in its initial context, a progressive derivative of Christianity. Both religions regarded all moneylending as the ‘sin of usury’ and both had prescriptive teachings about the roles of women in society; Islam’s teachings being a little more progressive (for example, in the sense of defining independent women’s property rights), but also a little more prescriptive. The problem of Islam today is that it was (compared to Christianity) over-prescriptive (ie too readily taken too literally) and over-coherent (ie making it too hard for Islam, as a cultural force, to mutate and evolve).

In addition to this medieval Christian-Islam culture-scape (with Judaism also playing a significant independent role, especially in emergent finance), there were two very important features of the physical and biological environment. This half-millennium roughly coincides with the climatic ‘medieval warm period’. And, of particular interest to us today, this was the healthiest epoch in history, in particular healthy for its relative lack of epidemic disease – for its ‘lack of plagues’.

So, the irony is that the medieval period that is characterised in our present collective mindframe as one of plague, was in fact a period that was comparatively free of ‘pestilence’. And it’s a period, regarded as climatically benign, that provides nuance to our present concerns around climate change.

Plague, Cruelty and Filth

It is true that the early medieval period began with a pandemic, and ended with a pandemic; in both cases, Plague (capitalised here to indicate a specific disease), probably more pneumonic (airborne) rather than bubonic (flee-borne). The Plague pandemic (sourced in Africa) which began around 550 substantially depopulated the Mediterranean region, and created the context for the emergence in Arabia of Islam as a popular scholarly religion, for the military conquest (Jihad) of much of that depopulated region, and the subsequent demographic spread of Moslems and Moslem culture through much of the Mediterranean landscape. This quarter-millennium (500-750) is known as the ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe, and in an important sense, especially to emergent post-Roman Christendom, the rapid spread of a militarised rival to Christianity through much of the former Roman Empire represented very much a sense of encroaching ‘darkness’.

Our main modern images of ‘medieval’ however relate to the difficult quarter-millennium of medieval decline (c.1250 to 1500). In Asia around 1200, periods of famine arising mainly from overpopulation, overfarming and environmental degradation led to the aggressive invasions from the ‘far east’; think Genghis Khan the ‘Mongol Hordes‘.

Then the decline of the medieval warm period set in around the year 1300. Overpopulation in Europe led to a number of famines – and increased political instability – from around this time. Cruel punishments became more prevalent. Then, in the 1340s, a new Plague pandemic travelled along the Silk Road, from China to the ports of the Mediterranean Sea. This became the Black Death – the Second Plague Pandemic – that not only depopulated Europe, but also retrospectively created the idea that medieval Europe was unusually filthy and rat-infested. (Most of the research about rats derives from the Third Plague Pandemic which became significant in the 1890s, which seriously impacted Sydney in 1900, and which, arriving in Auckland from Sydney, was quickly eliminated in New Zealand.)

The severity of the Black Death of the 1340s and 1350s was most likely due to pneumonic – airborne – Plague, with also the possibility of anthrax thrown into the mix. The most significant outbreaks of pneumonic Plague in the last 100 years were the Los Angeles outbreak of 1924 and the Gujarat (India) outbreak of 1994.

My main point here is that this plague period represents the decline of the medieval era, and not the (comparatively benign) medieval era itself.

Medieval today

The Taliban is both a ‘medieval theocracy’ (literally ‘teachers’) and ‘positively medieval’; but principally in the best senses of those expressions. Its teachings represent the generally theocratic scholarship that defines the medieval period as ‘scholarly’; indeed prevailing ‘academic dress’ today directly reflects that important way we should understand the medieval period, as a period of teaching if not of learning. There is much of contemporary modern culture around education, hospitals and bureaucracy that has direct links back to the medieval period.

With this understanding, it is important that we be ‘kind’ to the Taliban, and promote for them the very best support for creating political stability and relative tolerance in the fraught lands which they now rule over.

From our current western modern secular viewpoint, the Taliban represents much that is problematic in terms of human rights, and is certainly politically incorrect. The alternatives to Taliban rule in Afghanistan are worse, in these regards. One is the perpetuation of instability arising from non-Islamic cultural and military invasions; before the Americans were the Russians in 1980, and before that was the American CIA meddling during 1977-79. Before that were the Russians in the 1880s (event in Afghanistan inspired the building of large gun emplacements in strategic locations in New Zealand, such as North Head and Dunedin’s Taiaroa Head), and before that was the destruction in the 1840s of battalions of Queen Victoria’s army. There are signs that the Taliban will have little choice but to turn to China, if appropriate support from the west does not materialise (and inappropriate rhetoric – and drone attacks – do materialise in abundance).

It is important that we understand that ISIS – a modern movement that operates under the cloak of Islam – is much more of the threat to both Afghanistan and to the West than the Taliban need be. We should aim our rhetorical bullets accordingly.


Understanding the past helps us to understand the present. While the future is never a rerun of the past, we do know that developments in ongoing historical time are strongly influenced by our prevailing assumptions, and also by more-enlightened thought patterns. Humankind is presently at a particularly scary historical conjuncture. We need more enlightened thought patterns, and fewer presumptions, as we set the stage for the transition from what we call the ‘modern’ era, to the next era in historical time. Whatever that era may prove to be.


Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

contact: keith at rankin dot nz



44 − 40 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.