"The V&A is managing to display some brutishly large cojones. This is not just an excellent museum addition. It is also a particularly brave one.
What is being challenged? Everything. The complete caboodle. Before we even set foot inside this theatre of delights, its title warns us of a revolution ahead. Medieval and Renaissance are, after all, two slabs of civilisation that we generally keep well apart. These two epochs are usually understood as near opposites, driven by dramatically different world-views. The medieval age is felt to have been gloomy, backward and propelled by fiery belief, while the Renaissance was enlightened, progressive and propelled by reason."
This traditional framing of discrete periods in Western history persuades us to see the present moment in time as the apogee of a linear progression in which the Middle Ages (a problematic term in itself. The middle of what?) is the brutal and intellectually stunted precursor to the increasingly enlightened Early Modern/Renaissance and Modern. In this vision, the medieval past is indeed another country, populated by the utterly strange and the irrationally violent. It’s presented as a time and place hopelessly tainted by Catholic groupthink that was then surpassed by the ‘discovery of the individual’ who, at his/her (usually ‘his’) finest, is driven by reason rather than superstition. Much more like ‘us’ in the modern West, in fact.
I have a Google alert set up for ‘medieval history’ and it’s quite depressing to see the number of links it produces with a first sentence along the lines of ‘the medieval period was a very serious, dark period of time’ or talking about ‘the savage unrestrained medieval times’. (Those are both real examples from the past week or so.) Contrived divisions between the medieval, the early modern and the modern are to some degree necessary to the discipline of history, as without any boundaries and the specialisation that goes with them, it would be virtually impossible to produce rich, accurate and detailed historical interpretations. But at the same time, when they are accepted without question as natural or logical, these standard periodisations become problematic because they help perpetuate the view of the medieval as utterly Other from the modern. This in turn underpins a teleology that says all history is a linear march of progress from a dark, barbaric and backwards past to enlightened, democratic (and implicitly westernised) modernity. The political uses of such a vision of history can be clearly discerned in those depictions of Islam and the Muslim world as ‘medieval’ that are all-too-common in the Western mainstream media at the moment.
This notion of the ‘othering’ of the medieval is something Magistra recently touched on in another excellent post in our on-going discussion about history writing, fiction and emotional engagement. Because I’m lazy, I’m going to paraphrase here something I wrote in the comments at Magistra’s blog -
We need to avoid romanticising the distant past while also resisting that still-compelling whiggish narrative of progress from the Dark Ages (or ‘medieval’ in its most pejorative sense) through Renaissance and Enlightenment to modernity, but that's a tricky path to navigate at times. That's partly why I try to avoid the standard periodisation labels when it comes to talking to people about what I'm doing (although I admit I don’t always succeed at this, because adopting the existing classifications makes things a whole lot simpler from a pragmatic perspective).
I want to disrupt and interrogate the divides that say you're either a medievalist or an early modernist/renaissance specialist or a modernist, based on a rather arbitrary imposition of dates that in itself implies a teleology of progress. The classic periodisation really only holds if you stick to a fairly narrow range of political/economic/socio-cultural indicators within quite discrete temporal and geographical limits. It starts to break down once you cross the traditional boundaries of 'England' or 'Western Europe', and when you start to look at themes like gender and sexuality, the history of non-elites and marginal groups, popular beliefs versus institutional religion and so on. That approach can reveal as many broad continuities and congruences between the medieval and the early modern or modern as it reveals big changes and ruptures. Feminist historians have been engaging with questions of periodisation since (at least) the 1970s, with work like Joan Kelly’s classic article “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”  providing significant new interpretations of received master narratives. More recently, feminist historian Judith Bennett’s History Matters  explored the question of change and continuity with her notion of patriarchal equilibrium, the merits and drawbacks of which were debated across a number of feminist history blogs earlier this year.
I find it an intellectual and emotional challenge to apply this thinking to my own historical research, because it’s tough to do without breaking all the rules about anachronism and sentimentalising, over-simplifying or distorting the past. I’m definitely one of those people who was originally drawn to medieval history precisely because I did perceive it as tantalisingly and exotically ‘other’. This process of exploring how the othering of the medieval shapes my own subjectivity at a specific moment in the historical present is an on-going one (and one that is much enriched by reading blogs like In the Middle and Modern Medieval, as well as those linked above).
1. Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, Chicago University Press, 1984.
2. Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.