Responding to criticisms that his wall was ‘medieval’, Donald Trump recently claimed that his proposed southern border wall was indeed “a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then and it works even better now.”
There’s been some recent academic commentaries on Trump’s claims, relating to the rhetorical claim that a US/Mexican border wall could operate as an unstoppable boundary for Mexican migrants, smugglers and others. Similarly, the same academic critics have attacked Trump’s adversaries who have also used ‘medieval’ as a derogatory term to describe the wall as ‘cruel’ and ‘out-dated’. Clearly medieval mural practices are still evocative and divisive!
Historian and journalist David M. Perry clearly sums this up as yet another example of a broader set of stereotypes regarding the portrayal of the Middle Ages in the present, both images of formidable martial warfare and chivalric ideals exhibited through the robusticity of castle and city walls, and conversely ‘medieval’ used to define brutality and otherness. These are unquestionably false visions, and there is nothing primarily ‘medieval’ about wall-building. Yet this doesn’t stop Trump being right about medieval walls and greater archaeological literacy by medievalists and the public would help us to understand this.
In his recent and helpful evaluation of academic responses to Trump’s Wall, Dr Adrian Maldonado hits the nail on the head regarding our attempts to evaluate wall-building past and present:
The problem lies with walls’ own brutal physicality. We can academically deconstruct these ancient walls all we want, but we are at the same time always told that they are wonders to be marvelled at. The way they remain standing after millennia gives them an obviousness that is blinding. Their recurring role in history makes them seem inevitable, as several of the pieces listed here concluded. And even those with the best intentions, even a fair few of the experts listed above, are hoodwinked by the mythical quality of the stories that grow up around these walls
Like others, Maldonado here sees how powerful walls are in the popular imagination, and fictional walls – such as those mural monuments depicted in The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, as well as the enduring legacy of ancient and medieval walls, populate our imagination with powerful and enduring borders and barriers.
Walls did work in the Middle Ages!
Like it or not, Trump was right. Walls are not exclusively or primarily a feature of the European Middle Ages, and walls had many different functions and scales in the Middle Ages. Sure, mural practices from the 5th to 16th centuries AD are incredibly varied. Walls (of different scales, and here I include palisades and bank-and ditch monuments, not just stone structures) encircled settlements, religious communities, towns, and strongholds, at different times and places. Equally, many more settlements were not ‘defended’ in any substantial way, so it is hard to see them as a defining feature of the Middle Ages at all.
Yet there’s no denying that Trump is right: medieval walls were effective solutions. They were built as projects to mobilise labour and resources, to observe, demarcate and control, (and sometimes tax) the movement of people, animals and things, and they might afford security and defence. Of course walls were often scaled and breached, adapted and destroyed, and thus failed, but walls were much more than static barriers. In addition, they could display status and power in various ways, defining and constituting social, economic, political and religious identities. On a frontier scale, as part of complex zones incorporating ditches and banks, roads and watch towers, beacons and bridges, that were more than military stop-lines, and mechanisms of control and surveillance, but monuments to their makers that asserted a presence on the landscape. They might also be seen as mechanisms of colonalisation too in some instances, and acquire new meanings and significances as they are adapted and augmented over time.
These arguments certainly apply to the monuments I am currently investigating: the greatest ‘walls’ of early medieval Britain. I refer to the late 8th/early 9th-century linear earthworks known as Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke that run along what was to become the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. While much remains debated about their date, use and significance, they were clearly about surveillance and controlling the movement and settlement of people on a landscape scale. They weren’t ‘borders’ in the sense of a single line of defence and demarcation, but operated to control and impede movement along and across their line in the landscape, incorporating the natural topography into their careful placement, including rivers and ridges, hills and plains. Furthermore, these monuments could protect staging posts for military campaigns and forewarning of raids and enemy attacks far to the rear of their line. Like Trump’s proposed wall, which wouldn’t work in isolation, Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke were about defining and managing the landscape on a grand scale. We don’t know the detail regarding their date, precise original appearance, or indeed how long they lasted, but to suggest that these monuments were just ‘for show’ and ‘didn’t work’, or to deny that they at least worked for a while and in some regards, is perverse.
Medieval walls work better today!
Yet Trump was right in a further and more important sense: ancient and medieval walls do indeed work better today! Here I take forward a point I made in my 2016 blog post on Trump’s Wall. Ancient and medieval walls were ‘arguments in stone’ (to paraphrase Prof. Martin Carver), or sometimes arguments in earth and timber. They were monumental rhetorics of power in their building and use during their own time, but also they afforded material and symbolic legacies down the generations. In particular in addition to ancient walls, notably Hadrian’s Wall and the Theodosian Walls, notably Offa’s Dyke bears the name of its purported creator: melding man to monument down the generations. Walls perpetuate fame for their makers, whether they work or not.
Let’s take an urban example: Chester’s Roman, medieval and early modern city walls by way of analogy. Currently they survive as a multi-phase and much-adapted yet lasting testimony to the long and complex history of the city from its origins as a Roman legionary fortress, Aethelflaedan burh, and medieval, early modern, industrial and contemporary city. The walls bind these histories together physically and symbolically.
Chester’s mural identity is material and complex, and thus not tied to a single person. However, in each case, the monuments are melded to national events and key historical figures. Let me use the Victorian vision of the city exhibited in four sculptures within the entrance of Chester’s town hall by way of example. Roman soldiers are shown building the walls of their fortress. King Egbert is shown ‘uniting the kingdoms’ at Chester. Hugh Lupus creates one of the most powerful earldoms of England here. King Charles I visits the city – the focus of the longest siege in the English Civil War. It is through the walls, but also the stories that accrue within and upon them, that fame is projected down the centuries through the medium of ancient and medieval mural practices.
And here is what Trump is most right when he regards his proposed southern border wall as a ‘medieval solution’. Medieval walls demonstrably were built to do things, and they were often constructed to ‘endure’ as monuments. More than his homeland and foreign policies, his golf courses and this hotels, Trump needs a wall to afford him with the immortality that all delusional despots desire. A Mount Rushmore but without competition from other past presidents. A Hoover Dam but holding back people, not water. More than as an enduring mechanism of border security, I speculate that it is in the regard of fame and legacy that drives the appeal of the wall for Trump himself and his followers: to create an enduring melding of man and monument in the American landscape, and thus perpetuating a vision of modern America as inheritor of a European medieval mural legacy. From Derry to Jerusalem, medieval walls work better now than they ever did in the past! As medievalists, we cannot ‘fact-check’ Trump’s wall into oblivion, we must instead recognise and critique the physical and metaphorical enduring strength of walls to divide people past and present.