In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s pursuit of a border wall between the United States and Mexico has worked its way back in time — to the Middle Ages. Trump has happily agreed that his proposal is a distinctly “medieval solution.” “It worked then,” he declared in January, “and it works even better now.” That admission proved an invitation to critics, who inveighed against the wall as, in the words of the presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, Trump’s “medieval vanity project.”
The response from medievalists was swift and withering — not just for the president, but also for his opponents. Calling the wall “medieval” was misleading, wrote Matthew Gabriele, of Virginia Tech, in The Washington Post, “because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did.” On CNN.com, David M. Perry, of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, insisted that “walls are not medieval.” And in Vox, Eric Weiskott, of Boston College, urged readers to “take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful.”
Along with every other medievalist, I take umbrage at the negative connotation of “medieval” in popular discourse. But on this particular issue, I think that our politics have gotten the better of us. No, boundaries between states were generally not walled in the Middle Ages (unlike in the Roman Empire or in Imperial China) – in fact, they often weren’t even defined. But any city worth the name was surrounded by a wall, for the obvious reason that it might be attacked, and given the military technology of the time, a wall formed an effective defense against such attack.
All that Trump would like to do is to treat the country like a medieval city. One can take issue with his idea that the great hordes of illegal aliens swarming across our southern border really constitute an invasion force or otherwise threaten our way of life, or that a wall will be the best way of keeping them out (proper visa tracking and compulsory e-verify might be more useful on this front). I note, however, that a lot of the people who are in favor of not enforcing our immigration laws live in places where they don’t have to experience the externalities of the policies they champion, often surrounded by actual barriers, or otherwise protected by private security forces or just astronomical prices to keep the riffraff out. I read somewhere that the choice for America going forward is this: either a wall on the southern border, or lots of little walls throughout the country.
So yeah, walls are medieval… and they just may be something worth reviving.