Sunday, December 20, 2009

Disrupting the otherness of the medieval past

It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to read this article on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. The museum’s decision to present these collections in a single contiguous space works to destabilise the conventional narrative of historical progress from the ‘dark ages’ to a nascent ‘age of reason’ (or, literally, ‘rebirth’). According to the article:

"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?” [1] providing significant new interpretations of received master narratives. More recently, feminist historian Judith Bennett’s History Matters [2] 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.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Back when I was the only "early history" guy at NU, I taught fairly frequently:

Medieval England
Ancient Civilizations
Early Modern Europe
Islamic Civilization (up to present)
Crusade and Jihad (once only)

and 4th year seminars on:
Gregory of Tours
England in the 14th Century
Democracy and Representative Govt in the 18th century
Arab Israeli Conflict (once only)

It that doesn't break down some hallowed categories in your mind, nothing will.

RPS77 said...

I had read somewhere that the term "middle ages" was first used in the Renaissance period, because some intellectuals at the time who idealized the classical world considered just about everything from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries as a long "middle age" where the greatness of the classical world had been lost and nobody accomplished much of anything until that greatness was rediscovered. It was basically thought of as 1000 years of lost time. From a different perspective, a lot of Protestants reached a similar conclusion - for over 1000 years the pure beliefs of the early Christians had been hopelessly corrupted by superstition and false beliefs, until Luther, Calvin, and others had led people back to the basic truths of Christianity.

I think that this was the same period when the term "Gothic" (meaning "barbaric", as in the Visigoths who sacked Rome) was first used to describe the art and architecture of western Europe from the 12th-15th centuries. It was seen as an ugly perversion of the purity of classical art and architecture.

Of course the irony was that these Renaissance intellectuals lived in a world that almost certainly had much more in common with the late medieval period of their immediate ancestors than with the classical world that they viewed with rose-tinted glasses.

Anonymous said...

I am just reading something that suggests that teleological history such as 'the Middle Ages were ended by the Renaissance' argument you're dealing with here ultimately goes back to Augustine. I guess that history always leads to the now, in that view, because no further end point can be seen, but I still wonder whether blaming Augustine isn't itself teleological given that there are many non-eschatalogical schemes of time around as well as the Christian one, and non-Western Christians presumably don't recognise themselves in the now in the same way that we do.

I'm sorry, that's rather confused, but so am I, I think.

Bavardess said...

Steve - Wow, you cover a lot of ground. Some of those courses sound fascinating. It's good to see history departments giving students the opportunity to venture beyond the boundaries of UK/Europe/US (though I imagine that is often dependent on the size of the dept and the particular specialities of the professors/lecturers).

RPS77 - That's definitely the view of the Middle Ages/Dark Ages that you see in those classic 19thC works of history like Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. It sometimes surprises me to see that interpretations formed in the late 1800s remain so influential and unquestioned in the 21st century.

Tenth - I think it was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie who pointed out that professional history as it has developed in the West since the 19thC is bound to an inherently Judeo-Christian world view that says time as linear and has a definite end point (from 'On the first day God created...' through to the Last Judgement and the end of the world). Cultures that have cyclical or other perceptions of 'time' must find our linear outlook quite peculiar. I've read some interesting articles by Australian historians working with aboriginal populations (usually to do with land claims/native title) who explain that for the aboriginal people, the past, present and future all co-exist in any particular place.

stu said...

My only slight quibble with the VandA is over whether the idea is actually as new as they'd like to have us think. Haven't medievalists been saying for years that a lot of what's viewed as rennaisance/early modern tends to have roots earlier? The long C12th in particular, though that might be just another of those neat contructs of a period, and seems to be breaking down.

Bavardess said...

For the V&A, I guess maybe it's new in the museum/public history sense at least. It seems like it's often hard to get those big public museums to challenge the tried and true.

You're right about the long 12th century, though, and I think there is also a lot of innovative work going on in re-framing and re-assessing the early medieval period and viewing it as much less of a break from 'late antiquity'. The moment I hear anyone talking about 'the long X century' ('the long 18th century' is a term you see a lot, too), I start to wonder if they're trying to shoehorn historical phenomena into a framework that really doesn't fit.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Don't have much to add here, except, "yes." (And thanks for the shout-out!)