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‘The Mistakes of the Middle Ages’

The Economist’s Erasmus makes an unintentionally hilarious and telling error in this piece on Macron:

Like many of his historically-minded compatriots, Mr Macron reveres the memory of King Henri IV, who was tactically flexible about his own religious identity and affirmed confessional tolerance. And he regards with horror the darker moments of French religious history, such as the mass expulsion of Protestants in 1685.

For all his cerebral intensity, Mr Macron was not giving a history lesson for its own sake. His aim was to warn his compatriots not to repeat the mistakes of the Middle Ages [bold mine-DL]. Just as it was wrong and inexpedient for medieval France to demonise the Protestants [bold mine-DL, so too it would be wrong for today’s politicians to demonise Islam or its followers.

The error of conflating events in the sixteenth and seventeenth century with “the Middle Ages” is funny because it is so obviously wrong, since this period is always considered part of early modernity, and it is telling because it mistakenly identifies the worst confessional warfare and mass religious persecution in European history as something medieval rather than modern. The worst, most destructive confessional wars in European history did not take place in “the Middle Ages,” but were a product of the emerging modern world. Louis XIV was the one responsible for revoking the Edict of Nantes, and no one would seriously mistake him for a medieval king.

The problem isn’t just that “Erasmus” uses the wrong label to describe the period he is referring to, but misunderstands the history in question so much that he talks about how Protestants were treated in medieval France and doesn’t realize what a huge anachronism that is. Macron may be “historically-minded,” the author responsible for the write-up of his speech is not.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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