Thursday, December 6, 2012

Swerving Into the Fray

Mandeville writing, British Library
This will be a brief swerve as end of the semester mayhem calls, but in honor of the charivari of saint Nicholas Day (when the lowly young clerks ran the show for a day in the Boy Bishop festivities), and in honor of some of the best student presentations I have ever seen (which worked across the medieval-renaissance divide and were deeply engaged in the lives of the texts and images we've been studying), I just want to add the briefest of statements about periodization, this habit of naming ages and pitting them against each other.  Few eras in history suffer as badly from this obsession with naming as do the Middle Ages, betwixt and between, neither old nor new, never full here or fully there.  And yet, despite attempts to relegate them to the infinitely liminal, the Middle Ages remain an object of fascination and inquiry.

All the more disheartening, then, to not only see Stephen Greenblatt write a book that relies heavily on the Middle Ages being a Dark Ages (and honestly, writers haven't had to rely on the "closed" mind of the Middle Ages to make their own age "open" and "enlightened" in decades - shame on him), BUT to see him awarded for it.  There are several brilliant conversations going on about this at In the Middle, and I highly recommend reading these smart and insightful critiques of Greenblatt's book and the concept of periodization in general, and a really smart analysis (with links to reviews) at In Romaunce as We Rede. Greenblatt's book was excerpted in a late-summer New Yorker and for the first time in my life, I was prompted to write a letter to the editor.  I spent way too much time on it, but I was so unnerved to watch this scholar whose fascination with Mandeville kind of makes Marvelous Possessions for me insist over and over that the Middle Ages were closed to curiosity, questioning, pleasure, beauty and wonder that I wrote it and sent it in. (I guess that I need to reread the Mandeville chapter, look for more sinister ways to understand what he's saying). The letter to the editor never was published, of course, but, hey, I get to be the Boy Bishop out here, so I reproduce it herein forthwith.

Stephen Greenblatt's essay "The Answer Man," traces the excitement and poignancy of wonder and pleasure in the face of death with a thrill to discovery that made it possible to imagine Lucretius's project as never before. I would only question his characterization of a "Dark Ages," as a time in which "the idea of pleasure and beauty" was "forgotten" because of a gnawing fear of death and damnation. No culture is so monolithic as not to contain what to us might appear as glowing exceptions, and these often rethink our sure historical boundaries.  When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) saw herself as "a feather on the breath of God," or when Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123) described coral's ability to quell lightning, they were turning a keen eye to natural sensations, their pleasures, and thrills. When Poggio discovered the Lucretius manuscript, he did so in the tradition of a long line of medieval marvelers who had translated Pliny, Vergil, Aristotle, Dioscorides, and many other classical authors of science.  Medieval wonder is resplendent with different idioms than modern science, but to overlook its ability to marvel is to miss an important chapter in the history of human curiosity.

I stand by these words, more than ever.  I can mourn the lost opportunity to further push restrictive boundaries of thought that Greenblatt has squandered, or I can invite you to join me in charivari laughter by following Bruce Holsinger's fantastic Twitter feed in which he uses quotes from the book itself to make apparent the absurdity and small-mindedness of relegating an entire era of human endeavor to darkness.  I'll undoubtedly be doing both as we continue to think through the sense (or nonsense) we make of the past.


  1. I meant, excellent. I actually can spell. Sometimes.

  2. Great stuff. I'm linking to this in my I-really-should-be-grading-but-can't-stop-yet post on all this swervin;.

  3. I just wrote a comment on your (well spent!) grade-avoidance post. You've made me realize just many words for modern (Modernism, Modernity, the modern) we have in art history - we must treasure it. :-)

  4. A good analysis. You may find my critical review of Greenblatt's book interesting: