When Thomas Fosbroke coined the adjective “medieval” in 1817, he may not have intended it to be political—and yet it is.
Whether we are discussing media tempestas (coined in 1469), medium tempus (1534), or medium aevum (1604), the Middle Ages intrinsically mean an intervening period of time between classical antiquity and the present day. This middle period was meant to be the inverse of other periods: it was not the Renaissance and it was not modern.
The existence of the medieval as an idea requires, of course, another political idea: the rinascita—the rebirth, the Renaissance. Like so many modern concepts and phrases that work to periodize history, the word “Renaissance” was projected backwards onto a distant past. For Jules Michelet, who coined the term in 1855, the Renaissance represented a progressive, democratic condition that celebrated the same virtues of Reason and Truth that he valued. Michelet was a French nationalist. Although he traced the seeds of a unified French nation and national spirit to the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries and admired medieval heroes of the French people like Joan of Arc, on the whole Michelet projected tyranny, oppression, and disunity onto the Middle Ages and freedom, democracy, and justice onto the Renaissance. The very notion of the Renaissance was political at its core and it in turn politicized the medieval.
Even if Fosbroke intended for “medieval” to be a neutral term, as opposed to the loaded “feudal” and “Gothic,” the medieval is certainly political now. Donald Trump regularly excites and frightens audiences with pictures of atavistic violence happening in a nebulous East, deflecting lines of attack against him by telling us about what truly matters. This is no time for critiquing his “tone” because “when you have people that are cutting Christians’ heads off, when you have a world … [in which] it is medieval times … it almost has to be as bad as it ever was in terms of the violence and the horror.