Medieval Barbarism?

Among the unremarked minor casualties of the Kosovo war must be numbered the adjective 'medieval'. Too often recently we have been invited by reporters and pundits to consider the 'truly medieval' (or, more cautiously, 'almost medieval') levels of brutality, sadism and bigotry on display in the Balkans. Yet such language, hackneyed though it may be, does point us towards a legitimate and overlooked question: did medieval Europe in fact know inter-ethnic warfare, persecution and expulsions on the twentieth-century model?

The Middle Ages inherited from antiquity a tradition of learning which linked geography with ethnography: a sense of place meant also an awareness of the distribution of tribes and races. It was natural for educated people to think of geographical spaces as the habitation of distinct and separate ethnic groups. The stabilisation of Europe's political map during the central Middle Ages, with the growth of increasingly secure kingdoms and lordships, only affirmed this way of thinking, since these came to be imagined as embodying ancient unities of blood and descent. By the later Middle Ages the French, the English, the Germans and numerous other communities, great and small, had become the subject of elaborate origin myths, which legitimised their existence and their geographical limits by reference to ethnic movements which had allegedly occurred in the remote past. We might note one, celebrated, case among many, the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, which representatives of the Kingdom of Scotland set before the Pope to support their realm's claim to independence from its English neighbour. There we find recounted how in ancient times the Scots had journeyed from Greater Scythia to Spain, and thence, after a lengthy sojourn, to their new home in Britain.

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