Our Medieval White House

On a whim, I thought I’d search www.whitehouse.gov for the word ‘medieval’. I expected to find dozens of pages calling Saddam Hussein a medieval this or a medieval that, and I was surprised to find ‘medieval’ in only a few pages, usually in material quoted from elsewhere. Here are the five times it’s used:

  • The first comes from what was apparently a recurring feature, ‘Tales of Saddam’s Brutality,’ a collection of quotes from mainstream news stories about how bad Saddam was. Quoting the May 25, 2003 Time magazine, we find that “Uday’s favourite punishment was the medieval falaqa, a rod with clamps that go around the ankles so that the offender, feet in the air, can be hit on the bare soles with a stick. A top official in radio and TV says he received so many beatings for trivial mistakes like being late for meetings or making grammatical errors on his broadcasts that Uday ordered him to carry a falaqa in his car. Uday also had an iron maiden that he used to torture Iraqi athletes whose performance disappointed him.”
  • Also from ‘Tales of Saddam’s Brutality,’ an April 2003 New York Times article describes Saddam’s treatment of prisoners. He cuts them up then allows them to wallow in the infection, creating “a medieval scene in which delirious and dying inmates lay on the prison’s dirt floor screaming from pain.”
  • In an interview transcript, Tim Russert quotes President Bush to Dick Cheney, asking about how we can both “pressure Israel and make no demands on our Arab allies to cease the dissemination of medieval, terror-inspiring propaganda”.
  • A speech by Dr. Condoleeza Rice to the National Press Club explains that the new post-9/11 security realities entail “a big shift to wrap one’s mind around. But we cannot cling to the old order — like medieval scholars clinging to a Ptolemaic system even after the Copernican revolution.”
  • And finally, in a Q&A session about Iraqi currency, we learn that “The front side of the 10,000 Dinar note features Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham (known as Alhazen to medieval scholars in the West).”

A pretty mixed bag. Take the prison scene. On the on hand, it’s a fact that medieval prisons were pretty nasty. In Richard II’s time, someone described the prison of Wysebech as a place where a friend was tossed “among thieves, where, by toads and other venomous vermin, he was so inhumanly gnawn that his life was despaired of.”* Though, I doubt that they meant to imply that toads had anything to do with conditions in Iraqi prisons. (Beware the terror of medieval toads!) On the other hand, prisons did not stop being nasty places once the Renaissance began. In fact, I hear they’re pretty bad even today. Surely, it would be equally correct to call conditions under Saddam to be ‘positively Renaissance’ or ‘wretchedly early Industrial Revolution’.

I have no idea what President Bush meant when he chastised the Arabs for “medieval propaganda”. The only medieval propaganda I’ve come into direct contact with is a Latin pamphlet at the Bienecke of astonishingly bad poetry written to bolster Edward II. I’m aware that there was all sorts of anti-clerical propaganda, but I doubt Bush meant that the Arabs are going on and on about how monks are fat and nuns sleep around.**

Uday’s torture rod sounds ominous, and certainly the medievals were very good at torture, but somehow I doubt that the falaqa is a uniquely medieval invention. Beating people on the soles of their feet with a stick isn’t really a very medieval way of torturing someone. It’s what you do when you want to hide the torture–it’s very painful, but doesn’t leave many marks. (Medieval torturers wanted to leave marks, to make the inner sin visible upon the flesh, etc., etc.) The Chinese are notorious for it. In the west it’s more often called ‘bastinado’, but that doesn’t sound nearly as medieval as an Arabic word.

Dr. Rice’s pat analogy, comparing detractors of the administration’s security views to “medieval scholars clinging to a Ptolemaic system even after the Copernican revolution” is a little insulting. As a would-be medieval scholar, I’d like everyone who reads this blog (i.e. no one, except occasionally my dad) to know that we medievalists are fully on board with the Copernican revolution. Now I hear you out there saying, “she means actual medieval-era scholars, people alive during the Middle Ages,” but that’s not possible. Copernicus published De revolutionibus in 1543, well after many Renaissance high-water marks like the major works of Michelangelo and Raphael, the Spanish Inquisition, Leonardo da Vinci’s entire career, Christopher Columbus’s ocean-blue-sailing expedition of 1492, etc. Real medieval scientists were either dead or very, very old by the time Copernicus wrote. That pope who denounced him was a Renaissance pope, not a medieval one. Now, I know that people make this comparison all the time. Just as they say, ‘back in the middle ages people believed that the world was flat’–which they didn’t, but that’s an issue for another time. But still, I expect better of Dr. Rice. If not our doctorates, who is going to stand up to the double-standard of the Renaissance? (On another side note, Copernicus was actually wrong about a lot of things. Most importantly, he said that the sun was the center of the universe, which it isn’t. It’s the center of the solar system.)

Perhaps Dr. Rice ought to read up on the medieval guy who’s on that 10,000 Dinar bill. You know, Alhazen, the guy who wrote a seven volume series of optics and who developed analytical geometry by establishing the linkage between algebra and geometry. (For the record, I don’t study Muslim scientists, so I have no idea if the accolades laden upon him by whitehouse.gov are deserved or not.) If the Middle Ages is to be forever stuck with Ptolemy–a Greek, no less. Wasn’t the Renaissance supposed to be a reflowering of Greek ideas?–I demand we immediately get credit for analytical geometry. Henceforth, whenever someone asks you to perform some analytical geometry, whatever that is, say, “Oh, you mean medieval analytical geometry? If I must cling to that backwards science, I suppose I must. But isn’t there some better Renaissance geometry I could do instead?”

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  • Derek Bowman

    I always thought Descartes invented analytic geometry.

    Oh well, there goes my joke about the mathematical horse. ‘You just can’t put Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham before the horse’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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