Medievalism in Latin America 


University of Edinburgh

Julie Gibbings is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh. She is a historian of Modern Latin America and Indigenous histories of the Americas more broadly. Her research examines histories of social struggles over political modernities and racial inequalities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is the author of Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and co-edited with Heather Vrana, Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution in Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press, 2020).

The concept of medievalism has shaped, with varying iterations, political debates across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Latin America. According to the central narratives that marked these debates, the Iberians who colonized Latin America in the late fifteenth century had not yet fully modernized. As such, they allegedly transported medieval political, social, and economic culture to the Americas in the forms of feudalism, despotism, and theocracy. This narrative has its origins in the Black Legend, a global sixteenth century discourse that posited a medieval Spanish mentality that manifested in the particularly brutality of Spanish conquest and colonization. With formal independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, many Latin American liberal reformers took up aspects of this Black Legend as they imagined that while they had liberated themselves from Spain, the real struggle of the nineteenth century was to liberate the new polities from colonial Spanish heritage. By the early twentieth century, these critiques focused on the legacies of feudalism, which defined debates within the Left about the relationship between Latin America’s unique agrarian issues and the social possibilities of revolution. Popular social classes also took up these broader narratives to demand political and economic reforms, including the abolition of forms of coerced labour and agrarian reform.  

In the aftermaths of Independence, nineteenth-century Latin American liberal reformers frequently evoked the ‘medieval’ character of their societies as a trope for discussing both the ongoing colonial legacies of Spanish rule and for demanding reforms. Liberals deployed this discourse to challenge the conservatives and caudillos who, in the aftermath of the first wave of early nineteenth century liberal reforms, sought to re-establish the primacy of the Catholic faith, communal land tenure, and the system of two republics. Against these efforts, late nineteenth-century liberals frequently lambasted conservatives for returning longing to return to a past governed by religion and despotic traditions. Liberals, and conservatives, both, however, used these temporal categorizations of past and present, medieval and modern, to define the limits of citizenship. By locating racialized others in a past governed by superstition and a preference for dictators, liberals and conservatives both argued that peasants, Indigenous peoples, and former slaves, were incapable of self-representation and needed forms of tutelage, including coerced labour. The medieval, the feudal, the non-modern all defined the gulf between the promise and the practice of democratic politics. The Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1868-1874), for example, drew upon the concept of medievalism to justify the repression of political opposition, and to launch the ‘conquest of the desert’ which aimed to eradicate the Mapuche peoples who lived there. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, Indigenous peasants, and others, redeployed the languages used to against them to demand the end of feudalism and the rights of citizenship.  

By the early twentieth century, the ‘feudal’ diagnosis of colonial inheritances referred less to political, social, and judicial patterns than to economic matters. By the 1940s, a new age of economic reforms, including import substitution industrialization, helped to shift scholarly debate about the prevalence of feudalism or capitalism in colonial Latin America. The prevailing trend was to use feudalism or feudal-like legacy to explain distinctive features, particularly the agrarian question, that set Latin American societies apart from much of the ‘modern west’, especially the United States. José Carlos Mariátegui, in the 1920s, for example defined Peru as essentially feudal in his seminal, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality. Subsequently, scholars debated the relative feudal or capitalist nature of colonial Latin America in battles to define possible strategies for social revolution. In 1970, for example, Severo Martínez published his monumental La Patria Criollo in which he asserted that “the colonial period could not be located in ‘a time past,’ but rather found ‘everywhere’ since “[t]he colonial experience saw the formation and consolidation of a social structure that has yet to undergo revolutionary transformation.”1 Martínez referred directly to the feudal nature of Guatemala’s agrarian structure. Martínez participated in lively debates about the relative feudal nature of Guatemala’s situation precisely at the moment when the Guerrilla Army of the Poor were redefining their armed insurgency to incorporate Guatemala’s Mayas population as the principal base of support. Martínez deployed the concept of feudalism, in this instance, to define class as the primary axis of struggle, while others, including Jean Loup Herbert and Carlos Guzmán Böckler, emphasized the internal colonial and racial dimensions of Guatemala’s social structure.  

The concept of medievalism in Latin America has thus constituted a central and ongoing locus for political debate within the region. The context of who and what gets defined as ‘medieval’ –or more broadly as the ‘past’ — formed a crucial access for defining the limits of citizenship, and thus for also advocating reforms, whether that entailed limiting citizenship, or advocating for revolution. The medieval, defined by a its opposite the modern, thus has provided a crucial and potent means for contesting political realities and social inequalities.  


[1]: Severo Martínez Peláez, La patria del criollo: ensayo de interpretación de la realidad colonial Guatemalteca (Mexico: Ediciones en Marcha, 1990), 275.

Further Reading 

Adelman, Jeremy. “Introduction: The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History” Colonial Legacies: The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History, ed. Jeremy Adelman. New York: Routledge, 1999. 

Altschul, Nadia R. Politics of Temporalization: Medievalism and Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century South America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.   

Chiaramonte, See José Carlos. Sociedad y economia en hispanoamerica. Mexico, 1984. 

Earle, Rebecca. The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930. Duke University Press, 2007. 

Gibbings, Julie. Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala. Cambridge University Press, 2020. 

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality. University of Texas press, 1971, first published in 1928. 

Martínez Peláez, Severo. La patria del criollo: ensayo de interpretación de la realidad colonial Guatemalteca. Mexico: Ediciones en Marcha, 1990. 

Stern, Steve J.  “Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World System in the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean” The American Historical Review, vol 93., no.4 (1988): 829-72. 

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