Studying Medieval History and Fighting ISIS?

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently announced that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford University in the mid-1970s would aid her as a future commander-in-chief in the war against ISIS.

She reasoned that ISIS is essentially medieval, seeking to drag the people and societies it controls back to the Middle Ages before listing a number of atrocities carried out by the group including burning prisoners to death, crucifixions, and beheadings. Because she associated these actions exclusively with the Middle Ages, she argued her education in medieval history would serve her well in dealing with these problems.

Is she right?

Medieval historians, like myself, tend to cringe when they hear modern commentators refer to something particularly brutal as uniquely medieval, as if brutality defined the Middle Ages in contrast to an enlightened and more gentle modern world. The reality is that medieval barbarism, as bad as it could be at times, often pales in comparison to the horrors of the technologically advanced 20th century, which include over sixty million people killed in World War II, the first use of Atomic Weapons, tens of millions killed under communist regimes, and the Holocaust.

Yet, as recently pointed out in a much discussed piece by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, to dismiss any connection between ISIS and medieval history would be wrong. The self-declared “Caliphate” created by ISIS claims its legitimacy, and authority, is demonstrated in its adherence to the earliest Islamic principles as reflected in the life and examples of the Prophet Muhammad and its strict adherence to the Qur’an. Muhammad’s time as a religious leader and the emergence of the Qur’an came during the seventh century, which is about as medieval as one can get.

The leaders of ISIS often point to medieval historical examples and religious texts to cite precedents that they argue justify their own extreme actions. In light of this, Fiorina is correct in the sense that a western leader well educated on early/medieval Islamic history could have a better understanding of how ISIS and their supporters interpret their actions, motivate their followers, and justify their actions.

The problem is that I have no idea how much knowledge of medieval history Fiorina picked up as an undergraduate at Stanford and has retained since then. I doubt that, as a busy CEO and businesswoman, she has had much time or interest in keeping up with medieval scholarship over the past few decades. Yet her broader point, that knowledge of the Middle Ages can be helpful for modern leaders facing some of our current challenges, is valid.

One well versed in medieval history is presumably more aware of historical understandings of the life and example of the prophet Muhammad (which still influences the actions of many Muslims today), the emergence and background of medieval religious texts like the Qur’an, the basis for the Sunni-Shia split (contributing to extensive conflict within the Muslim world even today), the historical treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled lands (a pressing issue at the moment as we have recently seen step declines in Middle Eastern Christianity), the causes and consequences of the crusades (whose interpretation remains a hot button issue among many today), etc…

Fiorina’s suggestion that her study of medieval history is valuable for understanding events in the present has been mocked, but one could certainly do worse than to have a solid understanding of the medieval past as a base from which they consider some of the issues we face in our presumably “clash of civilizations” modern world.

*Updated on 10/8. ———————————–

*A 350 word version of this essay was published as a “Lead Letter” in the Florida Times Union on 10/9/2015. See


Below are some additional thoughts of mine on a Facebook post (10/7/2015) on a thread by Paul Halsall linking to a recent essay by David Perry for The Guardian (Available at: )

My comments follow:—————

I’m not entirely sure of one of David’s points. While I respect David as a thinker and writer, he seems to be hedging his bets in this piece a bit.

In one place, at least, he seems to be mocking Fiorina’s suggestion that a degree in medieval history is useful for a political leader dealing with modern problems involving the Islamic world. He writes:

“She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree [in medieval history] will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions…”

But elsewhere he writes:

“the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time…”


“I believe that we need to study the past in order to respond to the present…”

Based on these last two comments David clearly see’s value in studying medieval history to “respond to the present.” So in that sense, at least, he agrees with Fiorina’s larger point, even if he does not like doing so.

Let me get into the weeds a little bit here. As you all know, ISIS bases its ideology on how it interprets medieval events and medieval texts. Particularly the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century (which they cite all the time to justify their actions- e.g. “Muhammad burned apostates according to the Hadith so it’s okay for ISIS to do it.”) and the Qur’an and other texts that emerged around this time. Understanding that, to some degree, is unquestionably a huge plus for any political leader. In fact, in an ideal world, I would wish all western generals and politicians who involve themselves in Middle Eastern affairs had a solid grounding in a number of medieval topics (e.g. the rise of Islam, the evolution of Islamic beliefs and texts, etc…). Even if ISIS is somehow interpreting those medieval events and texts incorrectly, then one needs an education in medieval history to know the difference and be able to argue the point.

Also, there are so many other ways an education in medieval history can help one better understand events in the present. One of the reasons I have been called on so much by local media to comments on ISIS and events in the Middle East is because such media often has very basic questions on topics like the origins of Shia-Sunni animosity, which is rooted in the Middle Ages, or questions about crusading rhetoric often used on both sides in modern clashes between Islamists and westerners, the historic treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, or many other topics. Nobody else [or at least very few] at my college really has the background in those areas (e.g. early Islam, the crusades, etc…) that I as a medieval historian have. That became a base from which I have come to analyze events in the M.E. over the past 15 months or so, doing no less than 32 interviews with local media. So I certainly know from personal experience that having a background in medieval history can help one better understand (than many people without such an education) at least some of the complexities of current events in a way that engineering or accounting majors, for example, will not understand. I admit that knowledge of medieval history alone was not enough to provide coherent commentary on current events, but it was undoubtedly a solid base from which to engage in additional studies over the past 15 months.

So on this very basic point, that a background in medieval history is useful for a leader dealing with modern relations between the west and the Islamic world, Fiorina is obviously right.

Now, whether or not Fiorina actually remembers anything about the Middle Ages from her studies at Stanford back in the 70s, or her study of the Middle Ages involved any significant focus on Islam or related topics, is entirely another topic and fair game. I doubt as a business woman and CEO she bothered to keep up with recent medieval scholarship over the past 40 years since she graduated and I have no doubt that like a good politician she is touting her degree in the most opportunist of ways. But nevertheless I don’t like seeing some commentators (not referring to David here) dismiss the value of medieval history with regard to understanding current events. Diss Fiorina all you want and question her motives, but not the value of studying the medieval past for a greater grasp of events in the present. On that point she is right, even if she is only saying it to score political points rather than maintaining any real devotion to understanding the Middle Ages.

*Update: 10/19- Historian Dan Franke has posted some thoughtful and comprehensive comments on his blog considering these issues here.