Offending the Unmedieval

What does “medieval” mean?

As a teacher of medieval literature, this is obviously a question I confront every semester. The name, as a name, has long since ceased to register any value-related meaning for me, and when I think about the texts I teach or the scholarly pursuits in which I engage, I don’t think about the word “medieval” any more than I think about the name “John.”

The name matters, though, if only because it serves to cordon off a span of time and space from that which came before, came after, or happened elsewhere. It shambles together a supposed unity of thought and substance that is almost wholly contingent on perception.

But of course it’s more than that—it’s a vestige of censure, a reminder of the judgment of later writers against the backwardness of the period. It dismisses a millennium in the span of mankind’s relatively short recorded history as unproductive. Stagnant. Wrong. The swamp from which a bridge protects one’s grateful feet.

Periodization matters, of course, because it creates itself by accustomed usage. It is because of “medieval” that students think Chanson de Roland and Piers Plowman are connected, but Piers Plowman and Pilgrim’s Progress are alien to one another (it is also why a university might have only one scholar of “the Middle Ages,” but two or three for each century after the sixteenth—and why, in many courses, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Beowulf or, heaven help us, Morte D’artur provides “medieval coverage” in a survey course which might dedicate eight weeks to the seventeenth century). It’s also why a writer like Stephen Greenblatt can still write a book like The Swerve, with its apparently unironic resurrection of a Burckhardtian historical narrative (visit Jim Hinch’s piece in the L.A. Review of Books for a thorough examination of the book’s problems, or  In the Middle for reaction to the continuing slew of awards the book has inexplicably garnered).

I don’t need and don’t intend to write a defense of the medieval period—certainly it would be (one hopes) superfluous on a blog dedicated to things medieval, and in any case that sort of thing is inevitably read as defensive justification rather than the cool-headed contempt I like to think I exude when confronted with uninformed anti-medieval prejudice. I’m really more interested in pursuing a discussion of the usefulness (or cost) of the idea of the medieval.

There’s already some great material out there on this subject—Alexander Murray’s 2005 essay “Should the Middle Ages be Abolished?” (Essays in Medieval  Studies 21 (2005)) is an accessible introduction to the question, and I’m thinking about making it a part of my next iteration of the medieval literature survey. My goal, however, is not to spend time defending the medieval (or, at least, not until it needs it); I’m hoping instead to help my students to reconfigure the place of the medieval in their mental landscapes. In other words, as the title of this post suggests, I want to turn the tables a bit. I don’t want to defend the medieval from the slings and arrows of Burckhardt, Greenblatt, and outrageous Fortune; I want to offend against the terms and mentalities that conveniently section off “the Middle Ages” and, in doing so, help my students to understand that the medieval remained (and remains) a shaping force in the lives of those who lived (and live) after it.

Since this blog is about the role of medieval studies in Massachusetts State Universities, and more generally in higher education, I’d like very much to hear from others about the problems—and opportunities—created for you as an instructor by the concept of “the medieval,” and how you deal with the “Middle Ages” construct in your courses. The floor is open…


Filed under Early Modern, Medievalism, Teaching

2 responses to “Offending the Unmedieval

  1. Cameron Hunt McNabb

    While I’m not working in Massachusetts, my colleague and I (who are co-teaching Medieval Philosophy and Lit) opened our course with a discussion of periodization. We looked at various institutions’ definitions of “medieval” and then analyzed what was driving those definitions. For instance, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy pushes to include the Patristics, while the Catholic Encyclopedia ends the period in the 15th-century when the “Renaissance” begins in Italy. So, instead of nailing down a period, we just discussed the narratives that create and underpin such periods.

    • jpsexton

      I do something similar, discussing the rationales behind various attempts at cordoning off a period. I haven’t yet approached the problem with anything like logic (thus this post as part of my slouching efforts toward a solution); so far, I’ve just been trying to help my classes to grapple with the information that “Dark Ages” isn’t really a helpful term, that people living in the 12th century didn’t call themselves “medieval,” and that no one shouted, “Okay, time to Renaissance!” at some point.

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