Category Archives: Early Modern

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

England Study Abroad…Test Run

As I mentioned on a previous post, I took a trip to England this summer, both as (primarily!) a vacation and as a bit of a test run for a future study abroad course I will be leading in 2014 (that date just looks impossible and yet it is incredibly near). Here, as promised, are a few notes…

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, built 1385. I actually chose this particular site somewhat at random. Travelling with my six-year-old nephew, I wanted to make sure he saw a little of everything, and this castle has…wait for it…a moat! As it turns out, it was a good decision. In a remote area, Bodiam is rather an idyllic setting , which explains, as I learned later, why it was such a popular destination in the 18th century – a perfect opportunity to discuss medievalism and the varying interest in the period up to present times.

Bodiam Castle, chapel ruins

I was particularly intrigued by the chapel ruins at Bodiam. With no roof and the only remnants the empty window frames, it invokes a sense of the passage of time. It’s easy enough to imagine what it originally looked like, and yet there is the bittersweet melancholy of decay. Bodiam was the first site we visited, and I think it is an effective starting point – low-key, yet interesting, and definitely beautiful.


Westminster Abbey, Chapter House

Westminster Abbey, London (well, really, Westminster). Westminster needs no justification as a place to visit. The amount of connections that can be made at the Abbey are limitless. Chaucer and Poet’s Corner. Edward the Confessor. Coronations. Architecture. The place is packed full (quite literally) of history and culture. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Chapter House, however, deserves a great deal of attention. From the oldest door in England (1050!) to its paintings and stone benches, it is by far my favorite spot in Westminster.


Tower of London

Tower of London. Like Westminster, the Tower really needs no justification. Its historical striations  are complex and compact, building on each other and creating a spider web of English culture. Here is the moment to connect medieval and Early Modern history together, demonstrating how it develops rather than abruptly shifts. For myself, I am always intrigued by the Norman presence within the White Tower, particularly the chapel.

Tower of London, inside St. Thomas’s Tower


Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. For a medievalist, every trip to Canterbury Cathedral is a pilgrimage. It is easily one of the most prominent literary sites, of course. This was my first time at Canterbury, and it didn’t disappoint. Winding through streets, looking for the cathedral, then finding it at the end of an alley. The gateway obscuring it until you get close enough to peer through, and then your breath is taken away. I was fortunate in that it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and cotton clouds. When we first arrived, there was a graduation ceremony taking place inside, and, as luck would have it, the choir was singing. A perfect moment. Like any medieval visitor, I stared straight up in awe. It’s difficult not to. The sheer scope of the cathedral is unbelievable.

The crypt is the place to go first. We were found by a lady working there who told wonderful stories about Becket. I found it easier to conceptualize the inside of the cathedral after having seen the crypt.

Canterbury Cathedral, shrine of Thomas Becket

The shrine to Thomas Becket is also a powerful aspect of the cathedral (and well-represented with the above sculpture and the single candle marking where his tomb rested) – and again the opportunities for teaching are endless.


Dover Castle

Dover Castle, Kent. I have already posted about Dover, so I won’t say much here. Still, I wanted to include a photo.


Glastonbury Abbey, site of alleged tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. If I absolutely must choose my favorite site from this trip, I will have to go with Glastonbury Abbey (the birds of prey exhibit and being able to hold a falcon definitely added to the experience). Given one of my interests is Arthurian literature, being able to visit the ruins was a special treat. It helps that it lived up to expectations as a peaceful place, worthy of all the stories of its sacredness and import. There are two signs (one of which is above) marking the Arthurian significance of the site. I think it would be quite a revelation to students after reading any version of the death of Arthur. Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia .


Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne, Holy Island, Northumberland. Lindisfarne is a long drive up north, but well worth it. There’s an inescapable excitement in crossing over the causeway – after consulting the tidal charts just to make sure you don’t get stranded there! The little village, surrounding the Priory ruins, and the castle looming in the distance make for quite the atmosphere. I don’t think students can appreciate the vulnerability of Lindisfarne to the Viking attack in 793 until seeing it. There is an exhibition concerning the Gospel – the manuscript itself is travelling to the island, I believe, next year. I was concerned that the Island was too far out of the way, but I really wouldn’t want the students to miss it.

Lindisfarne Priory, view from the sea side of the island


Chesters Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall

Chesters Roman Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. Chesters was built to guard the part of Hadrian’s Wall that crossed over the bridge on the River North Tyne. The ruins are very well-preserved, particularly the rather intricate bathhouse. It’s an excellent example of life in Roman Britain, with the museum providing all kinds of artifacts from Chesters and other parts of the Wall. There are two sections of the Wall itself still intact, demonstrating how the fort and the Wall connected. I chose Chesters for the sake of ease of travel; however, Corbridge Roman Town is another site I will consider in the future as a companion to it.


Sherwood Forest, Major Oak

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. I said above that Glastonbury was my favorite site. This is only because I put Sherwood in a class of its own. There are many things I could say about the forest, but I will limit myself to its pedagogical assets. First on that list is, of course, its literary connections. Seeing Sherwood makes the stories real. However, beyond that, I think the sheer age of the forest is its value. It is difficult, even for New Englanders, to grasp the weight of time in England as compared to the United States. In Sherwood, it is inescapable.


I think the key to a study abroad trip of this nature is variety – expressing ideas, history, and culture from the perspective of different types of people, different architecture, different ways to connect what they have read to what they are seeing. With all of these sites, we have cathedrals, abbeys, castles, rural areas, cities, islands, forests, etc. We have Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle English, Early Modern. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the word “connection” is very important to me – as an individual, as a researcher, and as a teacher. I have some tweaking to do as well as some adding (I want to include some libraries into the mix), but I’m calling the test run a success.

I, naturally, have all kinds of texts in mind to assign for this course, but I would be interested in hearing ideas about what you would assign as companions to these sites.


PS For more photos, see my Flickr set.


Filed under 14th Century, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Early Modern, History, Medievalism, Teaching, Travels

A Medieval Mind?

Those who know me (or, more to the point, those who know that many of my “medieval instincts” were instilled by Sherri Olson at the University of Connecticut) will know that I can sometimes be a bit sensitive about the modern tendency to use “the Middle Ages”–or “Medieval Times,” or the ever-popular “Dark Ages”–as a convenient catch-all for “things that we think we’re better than.” I like to think that I’m not fanatical about this–I do generally manage to differentiate between the harmless anachronisms of The Pillars of the Earth or the silliness of A Knight’s Tale and the real and damaging habits of mind that equate “Middle Ages” with either “benighted” or “magical,” i.e., the “dark” and “light” myths of Medieval history.

Obviously, a preface like that means that I’m about to get on a soapbox on a high horse on another soapbox. Today, it’s about last week’s New Yorker article on Michele Bachmann–or, more specifically, about the responses to that article.

For those who missed the article itself: Ryan Lizza, a political writer who has done a number of profiles of political figures for The New Yorker, spent some time on the campaign trail with Minnesota Representative and current Republican/Tea Party Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and wrote a history of Bachmann’s religious philosophy as part of his profile of her. He focused (among other things) on her admiration for Francis Schaeffer, a conservative Evangelical Christian theologian who is most well-known for his book A Christian Manifesto and, within the Evangelical community, for a documentary series titled “How Should We Then Live?” As Lizza writes, “In the films, Schaeffer…condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism.” Bachmann has cited this series in her speeches as a “profound influence on…my life.”

Predictably, this has led to responses from Bachmann’s critics and from academics (with some sizable overlap between the two groups) railing against Bachmann’s (or Schaeffer’s) worldview as “medieval.” The response “Michele’s Medieval Mind,” authored by Laurie Fendrich and published on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website on August 11, is a typical example.

Fendrich’s essay offers the following summation of Schaeffer’s work:

“To Schaeffer, the secular humanism born in the Renaissance marked a wrong turn for humanity. The solution to the twin modern problems—meaningless lives and moral relativism—unleashed by the Renaissance lay in returning to the absolutism of the Christianity that ruled Europe before the Renaissance. (Never mind that, up until the Reformation, all of Western European Christianity = Catholicism.)”

Fendrich errs in several particulars here. It is, for instance, incorrect to cede that Schaeffer’s desire for a return to a pre-Reformation Christian absolutism is informed by anything like a full understanding of the historical periods involved. Schaeffer’s work expresses a nostalgic impulse for an imagined and somewhat idealized past; it doesn’t necessarily attach to recognizably historical fact. That this is a defining quality of reactionary thought (such as that represented by Schaeffer’s anti-humanism) is perhaps self-evident, as has been suggested by work reflecting on other lost and lamented pasts, such as Svetlana Boym’s reflection on post-Communist Russia’s romanticization of the Soviet era in The Future of Nostalgia (2002) or Dennis Walder’s dissection of the aftermath of Colonialism in Postcolonial Nostalgias (2010). Indeed, Schaeffer’s own work argues for a more historically-minded Protestantism (note that Schaeffer does not suggest a return to Catholicism), but also looks forward (as all nostalgic literature ultimately must) in How Should We Then Live? to enjoin his readers to speak out against “authoritarian Government” (256). That Schaeffer’s particular brand of Christian thought should become a standard of one of the leaders of the Tea Party suddenly makes a great deal of sense–but not if one dismisses his theology as mere backward-looking primitivism.

Further, Fendrich’s blithe reduction of pre-Reformation pan-European Christianity to a simple equation suggests, one hopes inadvertently, that medieval Catholicism is reducible to a historical singularity–one orthodoxy practiced with equal assiduity and scrupulous uniformity across a continent and a millennium. This is so far from our knowledge of medieval Christianity as to require no further refutation, though a brief survey of medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, architecture, or any other subject would provide a preponderance of evidence.

Fendrich continues: “Liberals see only irrationality, anti-intellectualism and stupidity in Schaeffer’s ideas—most obviously, in his criticism of the Renaissance.”

My own status as a politically liberal medievalist (who actually finds a great deal to admire in medieval European intellectual life) apparently doesn’t fit into Fendrich’s preference for simple binaries. More significantly, Fendrich makes the same error made by many in academia, and by extremists on both ends of current American political discourse, in assuming that views in opposition to their own can only be arrived at from a position of ignorance (willful or inadvertent) or “stupidity.” Schaeffer was far from ignorant, stupid, or anti-intellectual–he was, in fact, a intelligent, well-read religious philosopher whose worldview was arrived at from different premises and conclusions than those of a modern secular humanist. To differ from the received orthodoxies of the intellectual majority is not inherently to be “stupid” or “anti-intellectual”–a fact, incidentally, that any medieval university (and not a few monastic colleges) would have been able to teach by example.

It’s important to note that Fendrich never revisits or modifies this characterization, and,  as we will see below, later explicitly allies herself with the liberal viewpoint. This is, at best, unfortunate. To resort, or appear to resort, to insults in characterizing Schaeffer’s philosophy demeans the seriousness of the modern Evangelical movement in whose name Bachmann claims to speak. Further, it ill serves the intellectual purposes of Fendrich’s essay to lower herself to name-calling (even through the transparent trick of ventriloquizing those slurs through straw man “liberals”) and thereby to miss the opportunity to engage Schaeffer’s ideas and to demonstrate by argument the flaws in his thought.

A second example of Fendrich’s too-easy binary: “Yet the Renaissance is poorly understood if it’s confined to celebrating such geniuses as Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo, or to talking about how the age “freed” man from the shackles of medieval religion and thought. In opening the way for modern natural science, for political systems (like democracy) that are based on individual rights of man instead of the divine right of kings, and in making it the responsibility of human beings to construct their world, it was, in a word, scary.”

Note that the ironic-distancing quotation marks in Fendrich’s first sentence appear only around the word “freed”–not around the shackles of medieval religion and thought.

Fendrich concludes her essay:

“I agree with liberals who find Michele Bachmann a dangerous politician figure who would make an awful President. Anyone who would say, as she did, in the spring of 2009, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence,” thinks that correlation is the same as cause-and-effect. This is the kind of Medievalism that is really scary in a modern political figure.”

Fendrich proceeds from a number of assumptions throughout this essay, but by far the most damaging is her acceptance that Schaeffer (and Bachmann) are more or less accurately living according to a medieval religious philosophy. Her criticism of Schaeffer, then, begins from a false substitution-by-analogy–Schaeffer is to postmodern secular humanism as medieval is to Renaissance.  One can argue that Schaeffer’s wrong for a number of reasons, but if one proceeds from the assumption that he is ‘irrational,’ ‘anti-intellectual,’ and ‘stupid’ why then assume that he’s correct in allying himself to a previous historical period? To put it simply, why assume that Schaeffer is correct only insofar as he asserts a “medievalness” to his philosophy? To do so is, at best, to be guilty of the same sort of faulty correlative deductions that Bachmann herself makes.


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Filed under Early Modern, Medievalism, Pop Culture, Religion