Medieval Historian: Walls Did Not Work Then and They Won’t Work Now


Matthew Gabrielle, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, brings some historical context to Donald Trump’s claim that border walls worked well in the Middle Ages.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

President Trump’s demand for a wall across most of the U.S.-Mexico border has been mocked (and embraced) as a “medieval” idea. Responding to the president’s prime-time speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “We are not paying a $5 billion ransom note for your medieval 🏰 border wall.” A day later, on Wednesday, Trump responded by embracing that characterization: “[Democrats] say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then, and it works even better now.”

Since then, others have seized on the idea, and the association seems to have stuck. Walls generally, but this wall in particular, are straight from the Middle Ages. Dana Milbank ran with the idea, speaking with several scholars of the Middle Ages, experts on siege warfare, about what the country would “really” need if it were planning to use a wall to repel invaders.

But as a scholar of medieval history, I have noticed something has been missing in all this discussion. In short, calling the proposed 700 to 1,200 mile border wall “medieval” is deeply misleading because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did. If anything, their true function may speak to Trump’s intentions: Poor tools of defense, medieval walls had more to do with reassuring those who lived inside them than with dividing self from other.

Read the rest here.

5 thoughts on “Medieval Historian: Walls Did Not Work Then and They Won’t Work Now

  1. A problem is a president who can’t achieve a reasonable compromise because he is not reasonable. His election was not achieved by appealing reasonably to a relatively broad spectrum of the American people, but rather by inspiring absolutely fanatical loyalty by less than a majority of the people. Add to that some more people who were not happy about Trump but were unhappy enough with Clinton to hold their nose and vote for him.
    Of course a number of his votes were helped in getting there by Russians.

    Anyway, he doesn’t have a majority of Americans truly in his corner.

    He is an unreasonable negotiator in this fight.

    He keeps focusing on The Wall which might be the least important need at the border. I think a fence or other barriers have their place in some locations. Trump painted a picture of a gigantic cement wall across the entire border during his campaign which was an idiotic idea. He needs to be a man and back off of that and get to a reasoned plan. More dangerous immigrants and drugs enter through ports of entry than slipping across the border in the middle of nowhere.
    A majority of illegal aliens enter legally. They become illegal later when they stay past a green card time limit or other visa limit.

    A reasonable president would admit that reality and work a plan that addresses things like systems to monitor these people, force employers to comply by only hiring legal people, and other such steps. And, yes do barriers where they make sense.

    If Trump could have been a reasoning, reasonable president he could have worked that out over the two years his party held both houses.


  2. These elitist voices at the Washington Post are melting down. How trivial they have become in their quest to score points against Trump! It is obvious from the brief interchange between Representative Jeffries that neither man intended to go into the technical and historical pros and cons of medieval walls. Jeffries used the word “medieval” in a slightly perjorative manner and not in a strict historical sense. Trump responded in kind. It’s all rhetoric about the broader issue of border security. Neither man was speaking of medieval walls in the strict sense of the word.

    But leave it to The Post to dig up a medieval historian to discuss ancient walls and fortifications. Incredible! I really wonder if these folks in the establishment media are going to be able to handle it emotionally if Trump wins a second term. The editors at The Post are already showing their desparation by allowing such jejune work as this piece by the medevialist.


    • James:

      1. I am guessing that Gabriele submitted this piece to the Washington Post and they accepted it. I don’t think he was “dug up.”
      2. Frankly, I think Gabriele offers some interesting historical context. If the president and congresspeople want to throw-out the world “medieval” for political purposes, it is our job as historians to make sure they are using such references correctly and provide some context. In some ways your beef is with the historical profession, not Gabriele or the Washington Post.


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