Making History Whole: Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies

Written by James Simpson, Harvard University

This essay offers reflections on the state of the disciplines in which I participate. It derives principally from my experience of writing, over the past six or so years, a literary history across the years 1350-1550, now published in 2002.[1] I hesitate to pronounce on any theory of historiography, but a project of the kind I have just finished necessarily provokes stock-taking of sorts; in any case, perhaps we should all do so every now and again, and especially ‘nel mezzo del cammin’.

Writing literary history that traverses the 1530s was an especially exhilarating historical lesson for me, because writing across the barrier of the Act of Supremacy (1534) was an especially acute challenge. The challenge, I discovered, derived from the fact that the concepts, and the very tools of historical investigation themselves by which I wrote the book, inevitably became an implicit part of the book’s subject. Writing the book therefore inevitably became, on a surprising number of fronts, a way of unwriting and rewriting what I had taken for granted as part of the way the world was.

The concepts and the tools, that is, of historiography, not to speak of a particular notion of the past itself, are, I discovered, the product of revolutionary moments. And for English cultural history the cultural revolution of the 1530s has, among other revolutionary moments, been decisive in forming specific kinds of memory, and specific ways of processing memory. The 1530s in England, that is, initiated not only the theme of ‘the Middle Ages’, but also, more profoundly perhaps, the methods whereby we study these centuries. This is truer, perhaps, of England than of any other European country, since the break in England was not restricted to a given discursive area, such as, say, ecclesiology or education. State-driven as the cultural revolution was in England, it affected the entire discursive landscape.[2]

For someone like myself, who was trained in an intellectual culture of synchronicity, and especially in a culture of ‘Medieval Studies’, the experience of writing across the boundary of 1534 was an awakening. Having been trained as a graduate, that is, from the late 1970s, I entered a field that stressed synchronicity above all, for both institutional and intellectual reasons. Medievalists, who may have felt institutionally beleaguered and vulnerable in individual departments, gathered together for reasons of self-protection. That partial explanation for the founding of centres of medieval studies is, perhaps, more pertinent to the centres founded in the decades of retraction that British and Australian universities have suffered without pause since the 1970s.[3] And intellectually, medievalists recognised that relations with historians of medieval theology, economics, ecclesiology and so on were likely to be more productive than relations with scholars of what was then called the Renaissance in their own departments. An intellectual vision inspired by Foucault was all the more attractive to medievalist literary scholars, in a literary critical environment still trying to shake off the legacy of New Criticism in the USA, and Leavisism in the UK, neither of which offered sufficient purchase on most medieval texts.[4]

The institutional results of these pressures were centres of Medieval Studies, such as that in York (founded in 1968).[5] Of course there had been Medieval Centres prior to the late 1960s,[6] but I entered a profession in the early 1980s where I was expected to administer and attend medieval societies (which I dutifully did), and to publish in journals like Medium Aevum (which I dutifully, and gratefully, did). Interdisciplinarity was the byword, and synchronicity was the underlying concept that justified the practice. The pedagogy of such a discipline was exacting and vast, involving the mastery of many languages, codicological skills, bibliographical expertise in many fields, a broad historical sweep, and an understanding of analogies between different cultural practices. And that’s all before one started reading literary texts. Medievalists practised a new historicism of sorts avant la lettre (as they often pointed out, with chagrin, aprés la lettre).

I found some of the work produced from this scholarly matrix fascinating. Where the scholarship dealt with the cultural politics of texts produced, transmitted and received, it was illuminating and refreshing. A good deal of it was, however, in my experience at least, frankly dull. I spent a good deal of time in conferences listening to papers whose relevance to my own field was notional, and based on only loose analogy. These papers were clearly professional pieces, and no doubt would have been interesting had one had the time to have read deeply in that field. Many questions in such conferences were not questions at all, but comments based on the formula ‘I don’t know the materials you are treating, but in my texts there is something similar…’. The answer to these comments was invariably, and politely: ‘that’s very interesting; thank you - I’ll follow that up’ (that last clause trailing without conviction). I put up with the dullness, and repressed the nagging doubt about why I was there (at what point had I taken the wrong intellectual road?, I often found myself silently asking), because it felt virtuous to be interdisciplinary. The Middle Ages were of a piece; the dull bits would fall into place once the whole picture was established. Until that great day, however, many of these conferences would have found it difficult to reply to the ‘so what?’ question.

Writing the history I have just published persuaded me that the ‘Medieval Studies’ moment and movement, while enormously productive in its time, might have become a liability and a lost opportunity. It has become a liability because it has cut itself off from the main currents of the institutions (English Departments, say) in which researchers generally continue to have professional homes; from which base they draw salaries; and in which they must fight for replacement (not to speak of new) academic posts. The more medievalists turn to fellow medievalists in other departments, the less credible they become in their own. And, institutional liabilities aside, to my mind Medieval Studies are becoming a myopic, lost intellectual opportunity, since the subject has lost sight of what made it in the first place. What did make it in the first place was, in England, the sixteenth century, which invested the Middle Ages with a theme and gave us a method for studying that theme.

This essay, then, is a proposal of sorts, that we redirect our energies away from what in my view has become a myopic, synchronic medievalism, and that we turn them instead towards a more diachronic historicism. I suggest that Medievalists based in English departments in particular reconnect with their Early Modernist colleagues, not to speak of reconnecting with scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular. The study of the seventh to the fifteenth centuries is every bit as much a study of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.[7] The ‘medieval’ in European society is inseparable from the powerful counters by which it was aggressively formed, Classicism and Protestantism. The stakes by which the inexhaustible negotiation between these terms are, then, at any given moment, potentially very high. I am proposing here that ‘Medieval Studies’ play for higher stakes.[8]




What do I mean when I say that the sixteenth century formed not only the theme, but also the methods for studying the later medieval centuries? Let me give an example, from which I will develop that thesis.

The text from which I begin is Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls, written in 1529 in response to Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars (1528). Fish’s short polemical work was addressed to Henry VIII, and was designed to persuade the king to redirect to the living the economy devoted to the dead. The basis of the policy argument is the contention that Purgatory is a fiction, invented by a rapacious Church in order to raise money. More responded with a much longer, more academic though also vernacular work, pleading the case for Purgatory’s existence. His rhetorical strategy is to place the argument for Purgatory’s existence in the mouths of the dead themselves, crying out to More’s readers as if from the very flames of Purgatory. They beg not to be forgotten and abandoned, ‘owte of syght owte of mynde’ (218.24),[9] as they suffer in purgatorial flame.[10] For much of the treatise the fiction of this communal voice is invisibly thin, but at moments it rises to great intensity. I cite from the peroration, where the dead remind us of their affection for us, and beg us not to forget them:

Our prayer ys for you so feruent that ye can no where fynde eny such affeccyon vppon erth. And therfore syth we ly so sore in paynys & haue in our great necessyte so gret nede of your help & that ye may so well do yt wherby shall also rebownd vppon your self an inestymable profyte: let neuer eny slouthfull oblyuyon race vs out of your remembraunce…Now dere frendys remember how nature & crystendom byndeth you to remember vs. If eny poynt of your old fauour eny pece of your old loue eny kindnes of kinred eny care of acqauntance eny fauour of old frendshyp eny spark of charyte eny tender poynt of pyte…be left in your brestys: let neyer the malyce of a few fond felows…race out of your hartys the care of your kynred all force of your old frendys and all remembraunce of all crysten soulys.


A passage of this kind might move many readers, including those who are not from a Christian tradition. It presents an account of a literally living past, in which the dead are capable of giving help to, and receiving help from, the living. The relation between the past and the present is established through co-operative conversation between living and dead that can be activated only through acts of generosity. This conversational opportunity explains and justifies the rhetorical strategy of the text. The past is not, certainly, a dead fragment requiring decipherment.

This is, clearly enough, the way More intends the passage to move its readers. The text is not only, however, moving in the way it intends to be. It intends, clearly enough, to move emotionally, as More underlines the possibility of communication, between friends and family, across the boundary of death. It is also historically moving, in ways that More could hardly have predicted. Considered in its larger diachronic history, that is, the passage turns out to bid farewell to a world. We not only witness the suffering of possibly abandoned friends and kin here; we also observe a system of communal practice and consciousness bidding farewell to, or being repelled by, Protestant modernity. Chantries, the institutions by which prayers were offered for the dead, were abolished, along with a range of other popular religious and social institutions, in 1545. That Act was restated and embellished in Edwardian form in 1547: ‘Chantries, Hospitalles, Fraternityes and Brotherheddes’ are to be suppressed, since they have come to represent ‘superstition and Errors’, ‘by devising and phantasinge vayne opynions of Purgatorye and Masses satisfactorye to be done for them which be departed’.[11] That the conversation between the living and the dead has come to an abrupt end is vividly exemplified and enacted by the changes to the Edwardian Prayer Book. In the first edition (1549), the dead person is addressed by the priest: “I commend thy soul to God the father almighty, and thy body to the ground.” In the second, revised edition of 1552, the priest addresses not the dead person, but the bystanders around the grave: “We therefore commit his body to the ground.”[12]

This recasting of the dead as an anonymous body in the 1540s is of a piece with the revolutionary recasting of the past more generally in these decades. Every revolutionary moment needs to repel the past, or, as in this case, in some profound sense to create the past. The past is created, that is, by being made very dark, wholly repellent, and sharply different from the brilliant new present. The strategies of what may be called ‘past-creation’ are everywhere apparent in the 1530 and 40s. In a variety of practices, what had been a mode of imaginative conversation with the past is now redescribed as plain error (usually, as in the case of chantries, dismissed as phantasy, the work of the purely inventive, groundless imagination).[13] Or else the past is contained by being set out of conversational reach and into the realm of ‘remembrance’.

The Second Royal Injunctions of Henry VIII of 1538, for example, order bishops to destroy such images in their dioceses as are used for idolatrous purposes, and to teach their parishioners that such images serve only the purposes of remembrance: by them, the illiterate ‘might be otherwise admonished of the lives and conversation of them that the said images do represent; which images, if they abuse for any other intent than for such remembrances, they commit idolatry in the same, for the greater danger of their souls’. [14] In the following year a proclamation declares that ‘neither holy bread nor holy water, candles, bows, nor ashes hallowed, or creeping and kissing the cross be the workers or works of our salvation, but only be as outward signs and tokens whereby we remember Christ and his doctrine’.[15] This summarises a series of regulations, in each of which the word ‘remembrance’, or ‘memory’ signals a recategorisation: no longer do rituals serve as channels through which the past flows into the present, but instead provoke of memory. Holy water is sprinkled ‘to put us in remembrance of our baptism’; giving of holy bread puts ‘us in remembrance of unity’; the bread is made of many grains, ‘to put us in remembrance of the housel’; the bearing of candles on Candlemas day is done ‘in memory of Christ’; ashes on Ash Wednesday are given to put Christians ‘in remembrance of penance’; bearing of palms on Palm Sunday ‘reneweth the memory of the receiving of Christ’.[16] Key moments from the past are neutralised, or at least contained, by being described as one-off events, worthy of remembrance but without continuing operations in the present.

The treatment of saints provides a good example of both possibilities: some are dismissed from the calendar as not saints at all (e.g. Becket), while others are demoted from the liturgy; authentic saints eventually become sites of memory, but not channels of grace, unable as they are to intercede on behalf of a living suppliant. The Six Articles of 1536 acknowledge that saints can intercede, but not for specific needs;[17] those same articles, however, abolish many saints’ feasts; the Second Royal Injunctions of 1538 outlawed ‘virtually the entire external manifestation of the cult of the saints’.[18] The King’s Primer of 1545 ‘jettisons most of the saints normally commemorated’,[19] while the 1549 Prayer Book left only the great feasts of Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and a handful of biblical saints’ days’.[20] By 1547 this diminution of the role of the saints finds explicit theological defence. Whereas the pre-Reformation saints ‘could do favours for their friends’,[21] the 1547 Edwardian injunction directs that images and relics shall not be set forth for ‘superstition or lucre’, and that the people shall not be enticed ‘to the pilgrimage of any saint or image’. Reproving such practices, the people are to be taught that ‘all goodness, health, and grace ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as of the very author and giver of the same, and of none other’.[22]

Just as some saints are dismissed, and others recategorised as sites of memory, so too with literary texts. Many (i.e. religious texts) are dismissed as the product of mere imaginative error; those deemed worthy of remembrance are refigured as memorials, fragments to be saved against the ravages of time by the ministrations of philology.[23]The reception of Chaucer in these decades is exemplary of these possibilities.[24] Writers through the fifteenth century (Hoccleve, Lydgate, Skelton) had entered into kinds of conversation with Chaucer. In the sixteenth century, by contrast, Chaucer became the object of philological grief as the definitively dead and absent author. Textual fragments alone now testify to the existence of the dead author; these fragments now require philological restitution so as to reproduce exactly what the absent author said, nothing more, nothing less. The fifteenth century produced the model whereby Chaucer’s poetry ‘never shal appallen in my mynde / But alwey fressh ben in my memoyré’ (Lydgate, 1422),[25] as distinct from the sixteenth century, whereby, in the prints of Chaucer’s works, the editor ‘deprehended … many errorurs, falsyties and deprauacions, which euidently appered by the contrarietees and alterations found by collacion of the one with the other’ (Thynne, 1532).[26] The beginnings of English literary history itself as we practise it derive, not co-incidentally, from the moment of cultural revolution.

The impulse towards a philological approach to a now lost past is sharp, then, precisely because revolutions create ruptures, and philology needs a rupture in order to legitimate and justify its own project of restoration. The impulse to a philological response to the newly created past in the 1530s was all the sharper given the fact that the historical rupture was not only conceptual, but also physical. The years from the late 1530s to 1553 provided ample material for the philologist and antiquarian, in the form of freshly created ruins of both libraries and buildings, demolished by the asset-stripper’s and/or iconoclast’s hammer.[27]

Returning to More’s Supplication, then, we might be tempted to refigure the plea of the dead as a historical plea of sorts: these are the medieval dead, ‘our friends and acquaintance’, calling to us for a relation of trust and solidarity. In an apparently ineradicable way, Protestant culture, since the late eighteenth century at any rate, has off and on represented the medieval dead very differently, as ghastly Gothic revenants; by contrast, these dead call us to an enlarged sense of communal responsibility. Whereas Protestant propaganda and statute demonised and repressed this world as erroneous, we might be tempted by More to return to the medieval with a renewed understanding of its coherence and integrity.

The invitation offered by More comes into sharper focus by contrasting it with the text against which More writes, Fish’s Supplication of the Beggars. Despite being locked into each other, these texts are radically different. The voice of More’s text is communal; its rhetoric deploys imaginative fiction; the dead address themselves to all Christians; the solution it proposes is one of bottom-up, communal self-help. Fish’s text is the opposite of More’s on each count: Fish’s voice is singular, posing as he does as an intelligent policy maker; he deploys statistics rather than fiction; he addresses himself to the king; and the solution he proposes is one of state-driven economic redistribution of wealth. Take, for example, his statistical arguments about the drain on wealth and war capacity posed by the religious orders. Having affirmed that the religious orders own a third of the realm’s property, he goes on to calculate their annual income. He concludes and prosecutes further argument thus:

The auncient Romains had neuer ben abil to haue put all the hole worlde vnder theyre obeisaunce if theyre people had byn thus yerely oppressed...Ley then these sommes to the forseid therd part of the possessions of the realme that ye may se whether it drawe nighe vnto the half of the whole substaunce of the realme or not, so shall ye finde that it draweth ferre aboue. Nowe let vs then compare the nombre of this vnkind idell sort vnto the nombre of the laye people and we shall se whether it be indifferently shifted or not that they shuld haue half. (414.21-31)[28]

For literary scholars, perhaps the most striking thing about the contrast between More and Fish is the collapse of the realm of the imaginative itself. Revolutionary moments are hostile to the indirections of literature and the inventions of the imagination; they produce instead a culture of the literal sense, rule by the exiguous and punishing disciplines of the explicit and contractual. In a contrast of the kind between More and Fish, we can see not only how Fish deploys the explicit, rational argument of the revolutionary policy paper, but, more profoundly, how the realm of the imaginative is itself being permanently redefined. For More the community of the living and dead is achieved through exercise of the imagination, by the living imagining their way into the experience of the dead. Fish dissolves that imaginative construction of the world with the solvent of a suspicious hermeneutic. For Fish social relations are determined by social policy, and driven by the state. He is not concerned with the social function of imagination, precisely because, in his view, imagination merely mystifies the true workings of society. As with all evangelical thinkers in this period, Fish rejects the exercise of the imagination as ungrounded, and banishes it to the domain of the illusory and idolatrous.

If More and Fish offer a stark opposition, between a late Medieval and an Early Modern Weltanschauung, that opposition might also be perceived as offering a choice of historical alignment for the modern reader. Neither option would be an absurd or irresponsible choice. More’s bottom-up concept of the society may be more attractive, while Fish’s top-down politics and his hermeneutics of suspicion may offer a more efficient version of social practice. He gives priority both to the living over the dead, and to the action of the state over that of an imagined community. The choice is between two sets of practices, one medieval and the other that continues, in some ways, to define our modernity.

Both are coherent positions. Faced with such a choice (and the medieval/early modern divide poses that choice in a myriad of forms), many might decide to become medievalists. One could decide to enter the world of the ‘Medieval’ as a coherent whole, and, by entering it, to discover the obverse other of modernity, an obverse capable of exposing and rebuking modernity’s limitations. In this case one could rebuke, for example, Fish’s own mystification of state power as the solution to all social ills. Conversely, one could equally decide to reject the mystifications promoted by the medieval, and (in this case) embrace a world of social policy, which we still inhabit.

A third possibility is to enter the Medieval, and yet to subject it to the immensely fertile critique of universalising humanism. That critique will always re-describe accounts of the world such as More offers as ideological. Accounts of the world that pretend to describe a universal nature are revealed, by such a critique, to represent instead the interests of the group who controls representation. In Medieval Studies such a critique has, with exceptionally illuminating results, broken up any sense of medieval wholeness and insisted instead on cultural plurality and competition.[29] What of vernacular culture?, What of women?, What of Lollards? What of urban culture?, What of the illiterate?: such a critique will pose questions such as these in order to undo any universalising claims.

As I say, this approach has been and continues to be immensely productive. It often suffers, however, from the weakness of periodic thinking itself. It tends, that is, to find the line between Medieval and Modern already inscribed within ‘the Medieval’. Thus studies of Lollardy, for example, tend in my view to replicate Catholic/Protestant, or, in more coded form, authoritarian/liberal boundary lines characteristic of the medieval/early modern divide. The Lollards are taken to be either premature Protestants or (a seriously mistaken view) liberals avant la lettre. They are used as the bunker from which scholars practising as medievalists can finally attack the Catholic Middle Ages.[30]




Such are the choices, I suggest, made by, and generating the scholarship of many scholars, both medievalists and early modernists. One does not have to dig very deep to reach prejudicial layers of this kind in many, dare I say all, scholars. I do not myself object to the presence of such prejudicial layers - historical choices are, or inevitably become, ethical préjugés.[31] Such a choice is not, however, so simple, precisely because we are ourselves products of the very rupture beyond which we are tempted to step, or within whose boundary we decide to remain. As we witness More’s souls, that is, we cannot help but be aware that they are bidding us farewell. We cannot help but be aware that these souls are about to evanesce into the phantoms of error, vaporised by Fish’s demystificatory polemic. More himself, after all, is replying precisely to such ‘rationalising’ arguments. More, indeed, had practised precisely such demystification in Utopia (1516), written thirteen years before The Supplication of Souls. The voice of the modern other, that is, is already present in the very text that we might treat as exemplary of the medieval ‘other’. More offers no escape into a coherent, self-contained ‘medieval’ world.

Now, someone might reply, that already-inscribed awareness of the ‘modern’ other might be true of More, but not true of any pre-sixteenth century English text. We need simply to draw the distinction between the medieval and the modern where it is indisputably clear. I would reply to this by saying that when we draw lines sharply between periods whole unto themselves, wherever we draw the line, we are already falling victim to the logic of the revolutionary moment. It is the revolutionary moment that needs the sharp breaks in history to define itself.[32] Wherever we draw the line to create a world whole unto itself, the wholeness of the world demarcated by that line is already informed by inevitable consciousness of what is on the other side. It is that very consciousness that provokes us to draw the line in the first place. Drawing the line might seem to repair the damage of past rupture, by recreating a world whole unto itself. Instead, drawing the line serves to aggravate the damage. This is so because drawing the line is itself a product of revolutionary rupture and of revolutionary ideology. The very ideas of worlds whole unto themselves, or of past civilizations ‘in their own terms’ are themselves products of revolutionary thought.

Such reflections, if correct, have powerful implications for the practice of philology. If revolutionary moments create the past as civilisations whole unto themselves, we should pause to observe that this is also, precisely and not co-incidentally, what philology does. Historical rupture is the premise of the philological project; the philologist, in attempting to recover the pristine wholeness of the past, posits an intervening period of accretive degradation, which must be cleaned away before the past textual object can be seen ‘in its own terms’, with, in the remarkably durable terms of an incipient philology, ‘nothyng added ne mynusshyd [diminished].’[33] Philology characteristically treats its objects as definitively entombed and dead. The philologist’s characteristic posture is melancholy at the tomb, grieving for loss and absence, even if secretly rejoicing that loss and absence will be supplying payable work for the restorative philologist.[34]

The more one pursues that world ‘in its own terms’, however, the more, of course, does it lose interest for the present, since the very premise of such historical enquiry is that one should be suspicious of interpretation that serves present interests. If one’s premise is that worlds can only be understood in their own terms, then present interest is by definition unlike the terms of the world we reconstruct. Thoroughgoing philology, that is, activates the painful paradox of historicism: the more precisely the scholar historicizes the lost object, the less relevant does the object become. By the very act of pursuing its object, philology activates its flight into irrelevance. The more we empathise with More’s souls, for example, the more cannot help but think of them bidding us historical farewell. They might claim to be friends and acquaintance, but if we think of them only historically, they necessarily recede from us, even as we reach out to them, into an abandoned, medieval world. There is no going back, no moving into a demarcated world to be understood wholly ‘in its own terms’, precisely because such a conception is itself already the product of a deeply fractured history.

Philology, I am suggesting, is a product of revolutionary consciousness. If this is true, then it has particular bearing for ‘Medieval Studies’. The very notion of ‘Medieval Studies’ implies, that is, a civilisation entire unto itself; and such a notion is itself the product of the moment that created the Middle Ages by rejecting them in the first place. The very concept by which we frame our subject as ‘Medieval Studies’ concedes its absolute difference;[35] it also, thereby, secretly concedes the historiographical certainties of the revolutionary moment. And the tool by which we study that civilisation, philology, also concedes the same certainty. It concedes the same certainty in the literal sense, the same desire to see worlds ‘in their own terms’, the same notion of periodisation. The attempt to see historical periods in their own terms, that is, simply replicates the revolutionary philological logic that creates periods whole unto themselves in the first place. The theme and the tools of Medieval Studies, then, to state the matter baldly, guarantee our alienation from the ‘medieval’.

This critique of philology might, of course, be applicable to the study of any other ‘period’ in European history. For any period, it could be argued, the notion of a period studied wholly ‘in its own terms’ promises, at its logical extreme, nothing but a necessarily ersatz replica, the repetition of a world knowable only to itself. The philologist is ultimately committed to repetition, reproducing exactly what the author wrote, neither more nor less. Such a mode of thinking about any past period must, it could be argued, finally guarantee nothing but the alienation of historicism; it guarantees, that is, that the object of our study eludes us even as we pursue it. In the case of the Middle Ages, however, the paradox it creates is especially acute, since these centuries produced the set of textual practices against which philology initially sharpened its incisive weapons. It is no accident that exposure of the Donation of Constantine should be one of the founding moments of philology, since that exposure is also a founding moment of the modern world.[36]

What, in brief, am I suggesting? At its broadest, I suggest that we somehow try to break out of the binary, revolutionary logic that underlies the very notion of periodisation in the first place. I am suggesting that we break out of the relentless synchronism that tends to be characteristic of scholarly work written within the logic of periodisation. To appeal to a Gadamerian version of historiography is to reaffirm the fact the profoundly historical, and probably very messy nature of identity, against the economy of revolutionary historiography. A thoroughly periodised historiography is complicit, that is, with the revolutionary politics of entirely fresh, idea-driven, clean starts, within whose terms one can approach anterior historical periods on a take it or leave it basis.

Secondly, reworking the logic of periodisation has particular implications for Medieval Studies. Strict periodisation, especially between medieval and early modern, always implies a choice to be made. The passion with which we reject one alternative necessarily determines the passion by which we choose another. They are forms of each other, determining, often unconsciously, the forms of the work we do, and committing us to repetitive rehearsal of a 500 year historical agon.[37] I suggest that we break the habit of five hundred years of historiography that posit the shift from medieval to early modern as an inevitable, natural historical break. We should instead historicise both the break, and, more profoundly, the forms of understanding that flow from it.

Thirdly, in the particular case of literary history, I am proposing that we re-engage medieval and early modern writing, in ways that command the attention of Early Modernists.[38] Such a re-engagement necessarily entails looking across post-Reformation history for the reception of a given topic. It also entails a discursive, rather than a purely literary history, because the very notion of what literature is, and its range of operations, undergoes radical change across the Act of Supremacy. The historical rupture creates asymmetries and disguised continuities of many kinds between pre- and post-Henrician writing. Only a broad history of discursive practice can delineate the continuities between those two systems.

What implications do such proposals have for interdisciplinarity? That a discursive scholarly practice is necessarily interdisciplinary needs no underlining. But interdisciplinarity is by now so much a part of the fibre of most scholarship in the humanities that it needs no special pleading or underlining. In fact, I am suggesting a scholarly practice that is rather less interdisciplinary, insofar as it might reconnect with the currents of specific departments. The ‘Middle Ages’ is, obviously, a fabrication common to many European and neo-European traditions. But it is equally specific to each tradition. Rather than assuming the identity and natural homology of these traditions by studying them in centres of medieval studies, I am proposing instead that specific departments may be best equipped to understand the vital forces that constructed ‘the Middle Ages’ in specific traditions. This is no revolutionary call to disband such centres, which would in any case be plainly arrogant and absurd (especially given the undoubted success of many such institutions). I am, perhaps arrogantly, nonetheless proposing a reformist transformation of sorts.[39] This transformation may be already underway, given that some of the newer foundations are centres not of Medieval Studies, but of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

A final conclusion. The proposal that we look beyond revolutionary thinking and philological practice is, of course, too radical a project of self-undoing. There is no easy escape from the paradox of historicism that alienates history from us even as we approach it. We can only start from where and what we are. We are, inevitably and profoundly, revolutionary and therefore philological creatures. Consciousness of what we are, however, is the moment from which to exercise those very skills in the exhilarating act of liberating ourselves from them. Such a process involves the transformation of a rigidly philological historicism into scholarship unashamed of its own historicity. The resultant Early Modern period will be a little less familiar, seen in the light of the medieval centuries. The resultant ‘Middle Ages’ will, by contrast, be less alien, much more familiar. The way we engage with the Middle Ages will be much less a matter of finding distant analogies with a past civilisation for the way we do things, and much more a matter of finding friends with whom we want to converse. Of course friends will not agree with us completely (annoyingly, they never do); historical understanding will remain, as it always is for most of us, a complex web of sympathies for practices we find more or less attractive.[40] Repeated traversing of the Medieval/Early Modern divide, will, however, create a new set of sympathies, partially liberated as we could be from the unseen imprisonment imposed by revolutionary historiography.



Earlier versions of this article were delivered as papers at two venues: the Harvard Medieval Colloquium, and the ‘Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England’ Conference at King’s College London in November 2002. I warmly thank both sets of organizers for their invitations, and both audiences for their penetrating comment.

[1] James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, 1350-1547, Oxford English Literary History, 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Of course many strokes followed from the cultural revolution of 1534. See, for example, Patrick Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Macmillan, 1988), and Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966).

[3] I speak of Britain and Australia simply because I have experienced this retraction at first hand in these countries.

[4] Though New Criticism, it should be said, had very much more purchase than Leavisism, whose few medievalist exponents accented Leavisite nostalgia for an English tradition of high art in living touch with its popular roots. Compare, say, the evergreen study of Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), with John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London: Faber and Faber, 1957). For the development of Chaucer Studies and of Medieval Studies more generally, see the indispensable essays of Lee Patterson, ‘Historical Criticism and the Development of Chaucer Studies’, and ‘Historical Criticism and the Claims of Humanism’, both in his Negotiating the Past, The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 3-39 and 41-74 respectively.

[5] I have been helped by many British colleagues in my investigations into the foundation dates of centres of medieval studies. Wendy Scase reports on two periods of foundation:

The first era was the mid sixties, when the earliest centres were founded on the North American model. Examples are the centres at Leeds, Reading, and York. But the foundation of many centres is much more recent, clustering in a period from the mid 1990s. Nottingham’s Centre for the Viking Age dates to 1995, Kent’s Canterbury Centre for Medieval and Tudor Studies was founded in 1996, Glasgow’s Medieval and Renaissance Centre in 1997, and Hull’s Centre for Medieval Studies in the same year. I imagine the most recent foundation must be the Hilton Shepherd Postgraduate Centre for Medieval Studies at Birmingham (2002).

Extract from Wendy Scase, ‘Decentring Medieval Studies’, a paper presented to ‘“Undisciplined”?! Where are Medieval Studies Going?’, Symposium, 29 Nov - 1 Dec 2002, University of Kent Canterbury Centre for Medieval and Tudor Studies. To this one should add that the Centre for Medieval Studies at Bristol was founded in 1993-4, for which information I am grateful to Ad Putter.

[6] The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, for example, was founded in 1929.

[7] Thanks to superb recent work, we are in a much better position to understand aspects of this claim as it applies to historiography. See David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, 1765-1910 (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1999), now accompanied by an anthology of texts, The Invention of Middle English: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Turnholt: Brepols, 2000). See also the excellent earlier study, Arthur Johnston, Enchanted Ground: The Study of Medieval Romance in the Eighteenth Century (London: Athlone Press, 1964).

[8] The argument of this essay is parallel with the entire argument, but develops one point in particular, of Lee Patterson’s penetrating article, ‘On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies’, Speculum 65 (1990), 87-108. On p. 105, Patterson says this: ‘Perhaps then it is time to reconsider the wisdom of relying upon centers and programs of medieval studies as the institutions centrally responsible for graduate education. The traditional justification for these kinds of institutions is that they are necessary to provide an opportunity for interdisciplinary work….Above all, interdisciplinary work is thought to be peculiarly appropriate for the medievalist: just as medieval culture is a unified whole, so runs the argument, the training of the medievalist should be equally coherent. Yet just here is the problem, for of course the very claim of a unified Middle Ages is itself part of the post-renaissance mythology of difference’.

[9] All citations from the Supplication of Souls are drawn from the following edition: Thomas More, Letter to Bugenhagen; Supplication of Souls, Letter against Frith, ed. Frank Manley et al., The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 7 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). All references will be made in the body of the text, by page and line number.

[10] For a penetrating discussion of these texts, and the implications of the repression of Purgatory for the representation of ghosts, see Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). This book is also, it should be said in the context of the present argument, exemplary of the ways in which early modern and medieval texts might be read in dialogue.

[11] Statutes of the Realm, ed. T. E. Tomlins, et al. 11 vols. (Dawsons, 1810-1828; repr. 1963), 1 Edward VI, ch. 14, art. 1 (4.1: 24). (The Edwardian statute restated and embellished a Henrician statute of 1545: 37 Henry VIII, ch. 4).

[12] I am indebted to Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory, pp. 244-5 for this point. For the wider impersonality of the vernacular Book of Common Prayer, see Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001). See also Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 475.

[13] For the attack on the inventive and thereby erroneous capacities of the imagination by Protestant polemicists in these decades and beyond, see James Simpson, ‘The Rule of Medieval Imagination’, in Images, Idolatry and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England, edited by Jeremy Dimmick, James Simpson and Nicolette Zeeman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 4-24.

[14] For a conspectus of Henrician and Edwardian legislation against images, see Margaret Aston, England’s Iconoclasts, vol. 1: Laws Against Images (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 223-300.

[15] In Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. P. L. Hughes and J. F. Larkin, 3 vols. Vol. 1: The Early Tudors (1485-1553) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), no. 188, p. 279.

[16] Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Hughes and Larkin, 1: no. 188, pp. 278-9.

[17] For the treatment of the saints in Henrician and Edwardian legislation, see Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, pp. 379-477.

[18] Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 452.

[19] Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 446.

[20] Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 465.

[21] Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 34.

[22] See Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Hughes and Larkin, 1: no. 287, p. 394.

[23] For the beginnings of English literary history in the 1530s, see Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, Chapter 1.

[24] See Seth Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval England (New Haven, Conn., 1993), Chapter 5, and James Simpson, ‘Chaucer’s Presence and Absence, 1400-1550’, in A Chaucer Companion, second edition, edited by Jill Mann and Piero Boitani, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 251-69. This paragraph summarises some of the argument in the essay just cited.

[25] John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, ed. Robert R. Edwards (Kalamazoo, Mich.: TEAMS, 2001), lines 44-45.

[26] Thynne’s preface is available in Chaucer, The Critical Heritage, ed. Derek Brewer, 2 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978; rpt. 1995), 1: 87-90. I have punctuated the text. The text is ostensibly written by Sir Brian Tuke, but the voice of the actual text shifts between that of Tuke and of Thynne. I attribute the whole text to Thynne as a matter of convenience.

[27] For which see Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, Chapter 1.

[28] Fish’s Supplicacyon for the Beggers is edited in More, Letter to Bugenhagen; Supplication of Souls, Letter against Frith, ed. Manley, pp. 412-22. Citations are from this edition, and made in the body of the text by page and line number.

[29] David Aers deserves great credit as the first to bring such perspectives most forcefully to bear in Middle English Studies. See, for example, his attack on the ‘quiet hierarchies’ version of the Middle Ages espoused by D. W. Robertson, in, for example, ‘Introduction’, Community Gender and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360-1430 (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 1-19.

[30] If David Aers deserves the credit of introducing such thinking, he also sometimes exemplifies this tendency. Thus, for example, Aers asserts that ‘Lollards strongly opposed religious forms that necessarily set people apart from their fellow Christians involved in the daily practices on which the preservation of their communities depended’; he refers to the Lollard’s ‘will to integrate Christianity in the daily life and daily groupings of the working community’. See David Aers and Lynn Staley, The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture (University Park, Penn: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 57. The Lollard Lantern of Light asserts the existence of three churches (the true Church, the material Church, and the Devil’s Church), and is evidently certain about who belongs to which. Texts of this kind will give pause to ready acceptance of Aers’ communitarian account of Lollard theory.

The long history of determination to extract Chaucer from ‘The Middle Ages’, and to make him an honorary representative of modernity, would suggest that the attempt to create lines of division between medieval and modern within the medieval period is of long standing. See, for example, Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, Chapter 2, and Linda Georgianna, ‘The Protestant Chaucer’, in Chaucer’s Religious Tales, ed. C. David and Elizabeth Robertson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1990), 55-69.

[31] The positive reference to préjugés is evidently indebted to Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose defence of the inevitability and desirability of ‘prejudice’ in historical exegesis is made in his Truth and Method, second edition, translated by Garrett Barden and John Cumming (London: Sheed and Ward, 1975; first published in German 1968; first edition first published in German 1960), Part 2.2, pp. 235-341. Gadamer is clearly the guiding spirit of this essay.

[32] For a penetrating and diachronic account of historiographies that “make history whole” versus those that attempt to create absolutely clean historiographical breaks, see Anthony Kemp, The Estrangement of the Past: A Study in the Origins of Modern Historical Consciousness (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[33] Cited from Caxton’s Prologue to his 1484 reprinting of The Canterbury Tales, printed in Caxton’s Own Prose, ed. Norman Blake (London: Deutsch, 1973), pp. 61-63, at p. 62.

[34] For examples drawn from the history of the reception of Chaucer, see Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers, Chapter 5. The renaissance cult of authorial tombs is chronicled by J. B. Trapp, ‘Ovid’s Tomb: The Growth of a Legend from Eusebius to Lawrence Sterne, Chateaubriand and George Richmond’, JWCI, 34 (1973), 35-76.

[35] At one of the discussion sessions after I had read an earlier version of this essay as a paper, one auditor reported that a long-retired (and now deceased) Cambridge professor held this view: if an idea about the Middle Ages had obvious contemporary relevance, it was ipso facto wrong.

[36] The tension between the past as wholly relevant and wholly foreign is embedded within philological humanism from its fifteenth-century beginnings; as Anthony Grafton says, some humanists wished to ‘make the ancient world live again, assuming its undimmed relevance and unproblematic accessibility’, while others sought to ‘put the ancient texts back into their own time, admitting...that success may reveal the irrelevance of ancient experience and precept to modern problems.’ See his Defenders of the Text: the Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450-1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 26-7. For the consequences of pre-fifteenth century philological practice for our own reception of such texts, see Tim William Machan, Textual Criticism and Middle English Texts (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994). For the replicative tendency of synchronic history, see Louise O. Fradenburg, ‘“Voice memorial”: Loss and Reparation in Chaucer’s Poetry’, Exemplaria, 2 (1990), 169-202.

[37] For the best survey of that agon, see Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1948).

[38] A bracing first salvo in this re-engagement of medieval and early modern studies was given by David Aers, ‘A Whisper in the Ear of the Early Modernists, or Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the “History of the Subject”’, in Culture and History 1350-1600. Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Aers (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 177-202.

[39] J. A. Burrow has recently made a similar critique of Medieval Studies; see his essay ‘Should we Leave Medieval Literature to the Medievalists?’, Essays in Criticism, 53 (2003), 278-83.

[40] My position, if impelled by the same motive, arrives at slightly different conclusions from that of Nicholas Watson in his championing of ‘affective historiography’. Like him, I propose a hermeneutics of empathy, and like him, I think we should be able to acknowledge that we can learn, directly, from the past. I nevertheless allow that many texts will fascinate us without at the same time being assimilable within an ‘affective historiography’. I propose a model of texts as friends rather than lovers. See Nicholas Watson, ‘Desire for the Past’, SAC, 21 (1999), 59-97.

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