Christopher Hitchens Hates the Middle Ages

Some time back, an alert reader sent me a link to last month’s Vanity Fair*, wherein Christopher Hitchens made this amazing remark about the siege of Leningrad during World War II:

Leningrad was soon encircled. And it remained that way for 900 days: the longest and bloodiest siege in Europe since medieval times. Medieval times, indeed, were to return during those two and a half years. Human flesh was eaten at the lowest point of privation: a million Leningraders were frozen, starved, bombed, or shelled to death.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible that this was a roundabout insult directed at the Medieval Times restaurant chain. I am definitely having problems parsing the role of the colon in that last sentence, but what he seems to be saying is, “Medieval times reigned in shell-shocked Leningrad, due to the triple horror of those most medieval of troubles–bad weather, cannibalism, and explosive artillery fire.”

A more dutiful student of the middle ages would now proceed to demonstrate conclusively that cannibalism was more a concern during the British Empire’s height than during the time of the Crusades, and that the trench sieges of World War I were much worse than anything that happened, siege-wise, during the Middle Ages, but instead of doing that I just typed the words ‘christopher hitchens’ and ‘medieval’ into Google to see what I got.

And what I got was conclusive proof that Christopher Hitchens has a major bone to pick with the middle ages in general and the medieval church in particular. Among the things to which Christopher Hitchens attaches the word as epithet:

The American Left: who have”an alliance with woman-stoning, gay-burning, Jew-hating medieval theocrats.”
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and all terrorists who want to “turn Islamic society into a medieval but still-lethal dust bowl.” [A novel distinction. Medieval dust bowls must usually be nonlethal.]
Mother Teresa’s theology: “a crude medieval vulgarity” […like shouting ‘God’s Wounds’ when you stub your toe, presumably]
Setting Fire to Oil Fields: “a ghastly, quasi-medieval siege tactic” [not sure if the quasi is better or worse for the medievals]
The Dalai Lama
: who supports “feudalism and unsmilingly inflicted medieval punishments such as blinding and flogging unto death”
The Vatican’s Position on (Not) Pulling the Plug on People like Terry Shiavo: “Monstrous, medieval rubbish.”
The Soviet Union: enveloped by “a choking medieval nightmare of plague-dread, xenophobia, and persecution.”

The only notable positive he grants the middle ages that I’ve found comes in a discussion of the Abu Ghraib torturers, where he credits them with remarkable insight:

But the vice of the torturer is that he or she produces confessions by definition. And soon, the whole business of confession has become polluted with falsity and madness. Even the medieval church was smart enough to work this out and to drop the practice.

[Ah, silly US policy makers, even the doltish, clumsy, tyrannical, bloody medieval church realized that torture was bad for confessions. If those morons could figure it out… I mean, really, it took them a thousand years to discover America…]

Don’t take this little catalogue as my disagreeing with the blame Hitchens lays at the feet of various parties. I’m not inherently pro Taliban, torture, or Teresa. I, like my alert reader, just find it interesting that when Christopher Hitchens wants a synonym for despicable or non-Western, what comes out is “medieval”. Maybe he was just really, really, really influenced by Pulp Fiction, and the press selectively quotes him, editing out his “Royale with Cheese” references in favor of his getting medieval.


*It wasn’t last month’s at the time, but bear with me, I’m a grad student with a dangerous addiction to video games featuring Italian plumbers.

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  • Elaine

    That actually sounds like the Siege of Jerusalem.

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