My Back Pages: Puritans and Medievals

(This op-ed originally appeared in The Daily on May 20, 2012, under the name ‘Flunking History.’ It is no longer extant, so I am posting it here)

In a 2009 foreign policy speech, Mitt Romney used the word “medieval” to deride the aims of jihad. The jihadists, he claimed, intend to drag “the entire world back into a medieval dictatorship” ruled by theocrats. Richard Dawkins goes farther, saying that Islam as a whole has “a medieval mindset.” They’re not the only ones. Cato’s Julian Sanchez finds Romney’s erstwhile fellow candidate Rick Santorum to be “medieval” in his approach to the Bible and public policy.

We may admire Renaissance men, ancient wisdom or classical beauty, but the centuries between the fall of Rome and the rise of what we call modernity were home to nothing good in the eyes of most writers, liberal or conservative. It’s a rare point of rhetorical consensus across the political spectrum. “Puritan” has become a similar epithet. We may envy settler virtues, Yankee reserve or the genius of the Founding Fathers, but “puritanical” is only used, by both left and right, to scorn the moral views of an opponent.

The use of these bywords is an example of bipartisanship gone badly wrong. This curious historical smack talk is partly about religion. Since we think of both medieval people and Puritans as being defined by religion, it seems logical to see the religious anxieties of our own time reflected in them. But these words also illustrate how very foreign our own past has become to us, with consequences that go beyond scoring points in contemporary debates over contraception or foreign policy.

Take the benighted Middle Ages. Whenever we want to accuse a public figure, an idea, or even a whole religious movement of intellectual torpor, moral backwardness and religious fanaticism, “medieval” is the choice invocation. The word has become a shorthand way to segregate the actions or beliefs of our contemporaries from the civilized public square. It is so vivid and flexible because in the popular imagination, the Middle Ages are a time outside of history, populated only by Crusades, Inquisitions and primitive science.

What we have forgotten is that the Middle Ages, both in the Islamic and the Christian worlds, saw the birth of the university along with truly monumental attempts to unify ancient Greek philosophy with religious revelation. The scientific study that took place in Baghdad and Paris and Oxford was highly sophisticated, especially considering the limited technology and scarce resources available for its pursuit. The high Middle Ages even saw the first attempts at interfaith dialogue, as the Jewish rabbi Maimonides, the Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas and the Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd engaged deeply in the writings of the other monotheistic faiths. Theocracy was not the norm in the Middle Ages, either in Europe or in the Islamic world.

The Puritans have suffered a similar fate. We remember them primarily for witch burning, scarlet letters and general killjoyism, but they bequeathed to us much of what we admire about the American experiment. Local democracy, public education, liberal arts colleges, the movement to abolish slavery and even feminism all have their taproot in New England Puritanism. The Puritans were America’s first and most passionate social reformers. It’s true that they were not fond of church holidays or adultery, but they were similarly intolerant of slave-owning and bear-baiting. Their opposition to prostitution, once widely legal and tolerated, had a happy upside. “We should thank the Puritans,” one of my non-Puritan professors told his class. “They invented the happy, sexy marriage.”

Our habit of reaching for these terms when we want a quick way to condemn something or someone is destructive in two ways. First, it cruelly mischaracterizes whole ages and groups of people who can no longer speak in their own defense. We have rightly stigmatized older ways of smearing populations, as phrases like “Asiatic despotism” and “Jewish legalism” have gone out of use (even if the prejudices behind them live on). It is no less prejudicial to scorn the people of the past. History is full of cultures as complex, rich and brilliant as any that live today. They deserve the same willingness to learn from them as do the astonishing array of modern cultures we have learned to respect.

Second, our willingness to turn these words into placards for human folly can serve as a way to give ourselves unearned congratulation. The past shows us not only our progress but our failings. It’s true that there was dreadful superstition and cruelty in the Middle Ages (though when something like one third of Americans believe in UFOs and poll majorities support the use of an Inquisition-era interrogation technique like waterboarding, we should hesitate to judge). But if monuments like the Cordoba Mezquita-Catedral and the worldview of Thomas Aquinas are obsolete, they still compare favorably in beauty and coherence to the dreary public architecture and the cramped ideologies of our own age. While the Puritans may have been fanatical about religion, their passion for social equality and the common welfare puts our tepid debates over the design of Medicare to shame.

Imagine what questions might be prompted if a pundit were to skip the lazy slanders and instead extol a writer’s “medieval intellectual ambition” or a politician’s “puritanical zeal for social justice.” If we treated the past as a tutor and not as a weapon, we might be surprised at what we could learn about the possibilities inherent in the tiny slice of time in which we live.

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