"Getting Medieval": History and the Torture Memos

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, September 2008

"Getting medieval," as those who saw the movie will remember, is the phrase employed by Ving Rhames in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction as he was preparing to torture with the aid of a pair of pliers and a blowtorch the hapless man writhing before him on the floor (the actual spoken words were: "I'm gonna get medieval on your …"). According to Carolyn Dinshaw, the phrase became so popular that in the spring of 1997 the mint company, Altoids, launched an advertising campaign that urged prospective consumers to "Get Medieval on Your Breath."1 Both instances conjure up prospects of great harm about to be propagated and, in the case of bad breath, a hoped-for annihilation.

I was reminded of the phrase last spring, when I participated in a debate with Bruce Holsinger in the Center for 21st-Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Holsinger is professor of English and chair of the music department at the University of Virginia and the author of a fascinating little book entitled Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror.2 The topic in question was the use of medieval analogies in contemporary discourse, not least by a handful of neoconservatives, who have drawn upon an odd field of policy studies called "neomedievalism," first developed by British realist international relations scholars in the 1980s, and adapted by neocons after 9/11 for their own purposes. It was this latter incarnation of "neomedievalism" that proffered a cache of analogies about the "medieval" nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgments expressed by the authors of the torture memos as they set about demonizing the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and recommending the use of torture to a world that, in earlier "enlightened" days, had voluntarily abdicated its use. Although the actual number of analogies with the Middle Ages was limited, they were the sole historical comparisons to be deployed by the authors of the torture memos. In ways that were surprisingly literal, what these authors turned out to be recommending was, precisely, "getting medieval" in Tarantino's all too palpable sense.

That both the torture memos and the "medievalizing" moves that helped to frame their thinking appeared to be a suitable subject for scholarly debate by practicing medievalists suggests that we are living at a moment when the temptations for such analogizing between the medieval and contemporary world seem to be spreading in current political language. Something about the post-9/11 world, both in public discourse and among medievalists themselves, is giving rise to ill-considered uses of the term "medieval," a phenomenon that raises the larger historiographical issue of the place of analogy in the logic of historical thought and the risks that indulgence in such analogizing, whether by the torture memo-writers or by medievalists themselves, entail.

At the heart of the legal justifications for using torture against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan lay the notion that neither Afghanistan nor al Qaeda qualified as state actors, the former because it is a "failed state," the latter because it is merely, in the words of John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general and framer of one of the longest memos (dated January 9, 2002) on the legal basis for torture, "a violent political movement or organization and not a nation-state. As a result, it is ineligible to be a signatory to any treaty"—not a "High Contracting Party," in Yoo's legalese—hence not party to or included within the scope of the Geneva Conventions regulating the treatment of prisoners of war in armed conflicts between signatory states. This view was fervently shared by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, who wrote a memo (dated February 7, 2002) to Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel, in response to the question of whether members of the Taliban militia qualified for POW status and thus protection under the Geneva Convention. Bybee concluded that the Taliban were not legally entitled to such status on the grounds that Afghanistan was a failed state because "the Taliban did not exercise full control over the territory and people and was not recognized by the international community, and was [therefore] not capable of fulfilling its international obligations."

More important to Bybee, however, was the fact that the Taliban militias lacked a permanent, centralized communications infrastructure; such organization as existed took the form of individuals "declaring themselves to be ‘commanders' of organized groups of men, but these ‘commanders' were more akin to feudal lords than military officers." And if the Taliban did not qualify as state actors, even less so did members of al Qaeda, who were, according to Bybee, a "multinational terrorist organization, whose existence was not in any way accountable to or dependent upon the sovereign state of Afghanistan."

To be sure, Colin Powell intervened with a memo of his own (January 26, 2002) to point out that adopting such a position would reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions and undermine the protections afforded our troops by the laws of war both in this specific conflict and in general. George W. Bush as well, in a memo dated February 7, while agreeing with the authors of the torture memos that "none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world," nonetheless stipulated that "the provisions of Geneva should apply to the conflict with the Taliban" and called for humane treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. But we now know that subsequent to this memo recommending restraint, members of the so-called "Principals Committee" (Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Tenet, and Powell) met frequently to discuss and authorize specific techniques of torture to be used upon designated detainees, all with Bush's knowledge and support (see the New York Times editorial in the issue of April 20, 2008). It was, thus, the torture memos, with their understanding of Afghanistan as a failed, hence in some sense "medieval," state and the Taliban and al Qaeda as "feudal" warlords that helped to persuade the Bush government, eventually, to build a "legal" basis for the practice of torture. The Middle Ages were, thereby, enlisted after 9/11 in a global conflict in which they functioned, as Holsinger notes, "as a reservoir of unconsidered analogy and reductive propaganda"3

Medievalists, of course, are wholly familiar with such negative views of the Middle Ages. We are accustomed to hearing the Middle Ages derided as a period of superstition, social and economic backwardness, political chaos, and cultural inferiority. Karl Marx, as well, condemned medieval history, calling it "mankind's zoology"—that is to say, mankind's animal history. Even were we to grant such a view of the Middle Ages, it remains something of a mystery why the members of a non-nation or "failed" state—a medieval-style feudal militia as it were—should not be granted the same protections in terms of human rights and international law afforded members of nation-states. Indeed, a premise of both the Nuremberg Trials spearheaded by the Americans after World War II and the subsequent development of the idea of "crimes against humanity," as Bruce Mazlish has argued, was to extend the protections implicit in this notion to all manner of offenses against a newly globalized understanding of the concept of humanity and to each and every person thereby encompassed, including terrorists, whatever their "stateless" status.4

Ironies abound in the medieval analogizing on the part of the government's lawyers, since surely one of the great achievements of medieval Christianity was to put forth the notion that all souls are equal before God and therefore endowed with a certain intrinsic dignity, even if such a view did not translate into "democratic" social rights and practices. And what is it about the character of Taliban or al Qaeda organizations as subnational "tribal" or "feudal" formations that suggests that we are empowered to act outside the laws set forth in the Geneva Conventions? Is it sound law and policy to aver, as does Robert Cooper, former British diplomat and neoconservative intellectual, in an influential 2002 essay, that "among ourselves, we keep the law, but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle," a proposition that points to a generalized conception of "barbarism" as the default justification for torture?5 In particular, does "neomedievalism," in its pejorative sense, authorize us to sink back into the presumptively bloody, anarchic behaviors of the medieval past? Is this what historical analogizing enables?

Behind the medieval analogies employed by the torture memo writers lies an evolving understanding of the contemporary world, one that Holsinger characterizes as a "highly allegorical and counterintuitive theory of how the world looks in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union" in that it quite explicitly suggests that the developing world system of state and non-state actors resembles both the freelance violence of medieval warfare and a departure from the system of regulated sovereign states that reverts to a medieval-like absence of centralized governmental structures.6 In the words of an article Holsinger cites from the Naval War College Review:

Terrorism is merely one dimension of a wider phenomenon that is transforming the international system and domestic politics around the world—i.e., neomedievalism, a phenomenon that is leading to the emergence of a new security dilemma in world politics.… Broadly speaking, neomedievalism means that we are increasingly in the presence of a plurality of overlapping, competing and intersecting power structures—institutions, political processes, economic developments and social transformations.7

According to this Naval War College Review writer, anyway, the post-Soviet, post-9/11 world resembles nothing so much as western Europe in the Middle Ages.

As Holsinger stresses, what is remarkable about neomedievalism is its conviction that, in trying to come to terms with something perceived to be fundamentally new, it might helpfully be understood by historical analogy to the Middle Ages. As adapted by neoconservatives after 9/11, however, "neomedievalism" transformed itself from a comparative analogy—a perspective on the structural requirements for state building—into a genealogy of the postmodern world. Such analogies, Holsinger asserts, "exploded into currency in think-tank discourse and within policy-making bodies in the Departments of Defense and State and among members of the newly founded Department of Homeland Security" and were enshrined in policy books dealing with sub- and cross-national warfare, envisioned by means of feudal analogies based on (needless to say, faulty) understandings of medieval military culture and weakly developed medieval administrative formations.8

But as Holsinger also demonstrates, "the ‘medieval' in neomedievalism matters not a whit."9 And to the extent that this is true—and he surely is correct in this—then any protests we might make as medievalists (or historians more generally), any corrections of the record or historical knowledge we might bring to bear on the questions being debated, are bound to fall on deaf ears. For what motivates the analogical use of "medieval" has little to do with historical understanding, couched though it may be in terms of "medieval" epithets, including the invocation of a new "crusade" or any of the other rhetorical strategies of demonization by which the present government sought to induce adherence to its extralegal politics and operations.

Nor are figures in the public sphere the only ones to indulge in such rhetoric. Medievalists themselves are beginning to argue that, as medievalists, we possess crucial knowledge about the ineffectuality of torture currently practiced by our government, since study of the Inquisition demonstrates "conclusively" that torture produces false confessions and lies, and therefore is counter-productive and misleading in generating information. But does one need to study the Inquisition to know this? How about the Gulag, or Algeria, or any of the more proximate examples of the use of torture in the modern world? Analogies such as these may have heuristic value, but they tend to lose their analytic utility when they become reified and slip into a kind of genealogy. "Getting medieval" all too easily turns into "being medieval." There is a kind of special pleading in these efforts that I find dangerous, since it diverts us from more useful forms of critique and engagement.

So what is to be done? Where Holsinger claims that the stakes reside in exposing the illegitimate use of medieval analogies by the neocons and pols of the present, I see the stakes in abjuring the use of analogy altogether, at least for the sorts of purposes outlined above. Admittedly, analogizing has been an instrument of historical reasoning since at least the days of Thucydides. It was central to the development of modern historicism in the work of historians like Dilthey, who, however, advocated it as an implicit, virtually preconscious mode of relating the present to the past.10

Yet I have long believed that analogy, with its tendency to transfer insights from one domain to another without demonstrating the validity of the transference, is not a useful historiographical method. Precisely because analogy promises so much more than it delivers, both conceptually and theoretically, it is more often than not a weak instrument of historical thinking, generating similarities where comparisons and contrasts are more apt and, in its tendency to slip into genealogy, arguing on behalf of false continuities and/or legacies. Linguistically and rhetorically, analogy is akin to metaphor in that, like metaphor, it promotes a whole/whole substitution that decontextualizes both parts of the equation and leaves little room for the kind of interpretive operations that properly govern historical investigation. When we indulge in analogies, either by operationalizing them ourselves, as in the case of claiming the relevance of the Inquisition and invoking the Crusades, or by reifying such analogies, as in the work of the neomedievalists, we open the way for a kind of thinking that becomes self-validating and thereby resists criticism. Whatever the heuristic potential of analogy, the torture memos remind us that an uncritical and decontextualized employment of historical analogies can have disastrous consequences in the real world. When the government justifies torture using feudal analogies, the last thing it is doing is "getting medieval."

—Gabrielle Spiegel (Johns Hopkins Univ.) is president of the AHA.


1. Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre-and Postmodern (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1999), 184.

2. Bruce Holsinger, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007).

3. Holsinger, Neomedievalism, 15.

4. Bruce Mazlish, The Idea of Humanity in a Global Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2008).

5. Robert Cooper, "The New Liberal Imperialism," The Observer, April 7, 2002, online at www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/07/1).

6. Holsinger, Neomedievalism, 60.

7. Quoted in Holsinger, Neomedievalism, 62.

8. Holsinger, Neomedievalism, 60.

9. Holsinger, Neomedievalism, 78.

10. On the place of analogy in the longue durée of historical thought see Luciano Canfora, "Analogie et Histoire," History and Theory, 22 (1983), 22–42.