Why We Shouldn’t Refer to ISIS as ‘Medieval’


History Today logoThis post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

The word medieval is often treated as synonymous with filth, lawlessness and brutality. In particular the recent actions of ISIS and their treatment of prisoners have been called ‘medieval’ by journalists, commentators and bloggers alike. But why do we do this, and is it fair?

The use of medieval in this way has been widely discussed, and is not dissimilar to Orientalism. That is, the creating of an ‘other’ to contrast with one’s own identity (the modern versus the medieval, or ‘West’ versus ‘East’), and, through that contrast, to celebrate our perceived progress or difference in a way that is often also exoticising. As Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens have said, “When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as ‘medieval’ they are placing the organization opportunely outside of modernity, in a sphere of…

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