Reply to James Simpson's Making History Whole

Written by Helen Cooper, University of Cambridge

If the point of these exchanges is lively debate, then this reply will not provide it: in my case, James Simpson is preaching to the converted. My own career has attached itself to the continuity of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance since the late 1960s, from the start of my research on pastoral to my most recent book on romance,[1] and all the posts I have held have involved teaching from the Norman Conquest to the Civil War. So I don’t need persuading that the fracture between the two periods is in many ways a creation of the structures of academe, or that there are huge benefits in reading forward in a single unbroken line from before 1485 (chosen here not as the advent of the early-modern Tudors as distinct from the romantic Plantagenets, but because it was the year of publication of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to beyond 1590 (with its publication of the next Arthurian epic, Spenser’s Faerie Queene), without stopping on one side of the Reformation and starting again in the Protestant world on the other. After all, the entire population of England lived across that gap; and I doubt if there were any of them who hit the 1530s with their mindset deep in scholasticism or ignorance, their consciousness defined by their role within the pan-European universal Catholic Church, and emerged into the clear light of undogmatic Anglicanism with a passion for humanism and a keen sense of their unique individuality. Of course things changed, and people changed with them, or at least adapted; Simpson has cited Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, and I would add his deeply moving Voices of Morebath,[2] about the priest and parishioners of a small Devon village who lived through the whole series of doctrinal revolutions, papal Catholic and monarchical Catholic and Protestant and Catholic again and then Anglican. The life experience of such people generously encompassed the late medieval as well as the early modern, and for many it was no doubt the early part that governed their habits and ways of thinking. There is plenty of research that shows how far the experiences of childhood or youth are accepted as the norm (hands up those who think of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Elvis as primary examples of pop music). Habits of symbolic thinking did not disappear when Calvin started preaching; medieval metrical romances continued to form the bulk of pulp fiction for much of the sixteenth century and beyond; and a good proportion of the English population even in the 1590s had been brought up with the cycle plays as their dominant early experience of drama. There is plenty of evidence from the sixteenth century that suggests the key role played by those continuities – if you take the trouble to look.

The problem is that by and large we haven’t. Some medievalists, as Simpson notes, are indeed getting round to it, but not yet enough of them.[3] The very success of ‘medieval studies’ may be one reason for this: not only because it tends to re-affirm the barrier, but because, as Simpson also points out, interdisciplinarity itself makes such demands on time and energy. If scholarly aspiration enabled you to master the full medieval toolkit (the legendary R.E. Kaske at Cornell required all his doctoral students to learn five languages, for starters) you could legitimately feel you were doing well, and heave a sigh of relief that you could at least stop when Luther nailed up his ninety-five theses. Even the fact that many Middle English works continued to be read after the Reformation did not attract literary historians to cross the border, since in editorial terms, or in terms of the humanist critical tradition, they are bad texts, corrupted by their distance from their authorial sources.

Early modernists take still more persuading that they ought to look backwards. The mantra ‘Only historicize!’, with its focus on the particular moment, seems indeed to relieve them of any such responsibility. They may well be discouraged too by the very thought of that medieval toolkit; but there are also centuries of propaganda to overcome, beginning in the sixteenth century itself, as humanists proclaimed their superiority to their predecessors, and English literature set about re-inventing itself in an age of print, the secular theatre, and the insurgence of fresh Classical and Italian reading. My own conviction is that the continuing academic emphasis on all those, important as they are, skews our sense of what drove the early modern period, since it overlooks the basic embedded, inherited culture: it is equivalent to admiring the new buildings in a city without thinking about its street plan or the reason for its location. London itself when Shakespeare arrived there was still a walled city with its medieval parish churches and associated social structures, its mayor and aldermen, the Tower that affirmed monarchical power, and the bridge that served as the first crossing-point of the Thames: all things so obvious that no doubt they were taken for granted, just as we still take them for granted – so they are peculiarly hard to see. Those of us who would argue for more awareness of the street plan on which the new buildings are arranged rather than on the architecture alone therefore have a double problem, both of seeing what’s already there, and then of persuading the early modernists that they should be seeing it too.

This selective seeing is combined with selective hearing, and there the medievalists have more work to do. Advocacy for the kind of step Simpson is urging has all too often been addressed to, or only heard by, an audience of other medievalists. Events such as the conference he mentions at KCL in 2002, which was instigated from the later side, are all too rare. We need to find a way to get the message across to the early modernists as well, and that is the hardest task of all. It is not evident, from their side, why the medieval matters: there is more than enough in the Renaissance to keep them fully occupied for a lifetime, and a challenge to them to investigate the dark and barbaric Middle Ages, or even to listen to its advocates, is not one they are jumping to take up. That is indeed much of Simpson’s point: since medievalists have not persuaded early modernists to look to the Middle Ages, we must join up with them, and make our common concerns more evident. He points to the growth of Centres of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, a development that should be encouraging; but many of those promise more than they deliver in terms of cross-border communication, with specialization on one side or the other not just encouraged but assumed. There has recently been a sharp increase in the number of posts advertised in the joint medieval-early modern field; but look closely, and an alarming number turn out to be replacements for a retiring medievalist. Far from energizing a dialogue across the periods, they are all too often a covert way of eliminating the Middle Ages even further from modern consciousness.

The human brain is hard-wired to make sense of the world in terms of categories. The first sign that the art historian John Hale was having a stroke came when his wife found the cutlery from the dishwasher scattered all over the kitchen, because he had lost the capacity to associate a particular knife with the mental (or indeed the physical) compartment for knives.[4] It is almost impossible to treat history as completely whole – to make sense of the historical sweep of the world without some idea of the compartments into which things might be fitted. We rely on categories as points of rest and focus; we may laugh at the comical-tragical-historical-pastoral, but critics still write about the subtleties of generic boundaries. Give something a label that identifies it with a larger category, and it immediately looks as if it makes sense, as if the label pulls the world immediately around it into some sort of shape. There may be no definitive border between blue and green, but we still need those terms to get a hold on colour. For all my agreement with Simpson, I don’t pretend that I can do without historical categories. I would, however, want to put the big break later, in the mid-seventeenth century. This was the age when the monarchy was proved inessential; the Royal Society was founded, with its programme not only to increase scientific knowledge but to literalize the language in which those discoveries were described; and the medieval city of London was destroyed in the Great Fire – all three events carrying mighty symbolic as well as practical consequences. Yet even that is only a partial break. Paradise Lost is a summa on the medieval model, an attempt to make sense of the whole of human experience in terms of meaning, and therefore very different from the encyclopedia movement of the eighteenth century, which aimed to offer a summa of all factual knowledge. Bunyan, with his dream-vision allegorical road to heaven and hell, mis-spent his youth reading Bevis of Hamptoun, almost four centuries old. Alongside those examples of accepting the medieval as something simply there, however, came the beginnings of the medievalist revival, the sense of something no longer there that had to be recovered. Hence Dryden’s translations of Chaucer, and the eighteenth-century interest in chivalric romance and the Gothic: a factitious Middle Ages, in many ways, but one that recognized that the medieval could itself make things whole by offering something to the imagination that Reason alone could not.

That does not, of course, mean that the Middle Ages were anti-rational, however easily such a caricature is adopted, or however easily we slip into such a meaning for the word ‘medieval’ itself. And that is perhaps the worst problem of all: the medieval has a colossal image problem. As any glance at a newspaper will show, the word is now primarily used as a term of abuse, with a range of meanings from the technologically inept and impoverished (shanty towns) to the unenlightened (an educational system) to the barbaric (torture). We seldom stop to think of the technological achievement of the great cathedrals, or that the universities were a medieval invention, or that the twentieth century far outstripped the Middle Ages in barbarity. Worse, we tend to rewrite history to fit: most people believe that witch-hunting was indeed a medieval practice, rather than an early modern or Enlightenment one. It’s not just that the medieval pigeonhole too often has impenetrable sides; its label is pure liability, and no amount of explanation is likely to be able to alter that. The Renaissance succeeded in rescuing itself from potential isolation by renaming itself the early modern, a term that insists on its forward momentum. The invitation to its scholars to look ‘backwards’ is concomitantly value-loaded: the humanist etymological equivalent would be ‘retrograde’. The medieval is in urgent need of rebranding.

So we have our work cut out if we are to forge the links between the pre- and post-Reformation worlds. Simpson has pointed us in important directions, but the move must not be all one way. We must show why the Middle Ages matter, but not only in demonstrating common concerns, the relevance of gender or postcolonial theory or whatever to the earlier period as well as the later. Medieval scholars have been doing that for a while now, and it has not had any noticeable impact on modernist perceptions. We must try, somehow, to get across to later scholars how basic, how strong, the foundations are to the Renaissance edifices. If there is one point where I would disagree with Simpson, it is where he says that Chaucer in the sixteenth century became the ‘definitively dead and absent author’. Even if one disregards the enthusiasm of the early printers and the vigorous attempts to co-opt him to both the Catholic and the Protestant causes, this seems to be taking modernist propaganda at its word: look at the sixteenth century itself, and look at recent criticism, and we appear to be suffering from either a blind spot or a conspiracy of silence. Shakespeare based three plays – as many as he based on Plutarch – on Chaucer, the last of them, The Two Noble Kinsmen, declaring him to be at the summit of both the Italian and English traditions of poetry; yet it is perhaps his most under-commented play, in ways that can’t be accounted for solely by its nature as a collaboration. Most critics don’t even make the connection of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Knight’s Tale and the Elizabethan vogue for dramatizing it, or notice its basic materials of a newly-married Duke Theseus and of two lovers pursuing the same woman in a wood outside Athens, all under the eyes of a set of unperceived supernatural beings. How much more critical ink has been devoted to Shakespeare and Plutarch than to Shakespeare and Chaucer, I wonder, and how much has that imbalance deformed our understanding of Shakespeare’s work? Sidney and Harvey too were unashamed admirers, Spenser described Chaucer’s spirit as living anew in himself, Webbe called him the god of English poets, Greene dreamed him alive again, and the four years either side of 1600 saw two massive folio editions of his works such as assume equally huge consumer interest. Definitively dead and absent? Resurrected and very much present, I would say, and we owe it to the early moderns as well as to Chaucer to notice.



[1] Helen Cooper, Pastoral: Mediaeval into Renaissance (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1978); The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[3] A predecessor to those cited by James Simpson was C.S. Lewis, whose inaugural lecture on his assumption of the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge was devoted to just this: De descriptione temporum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954); yet even Lewis, with his great reputation among early modernists of the time, did not succeed in making them take notice. My own inaugural as his successor, fifty years later, was devoted to the same theme: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] Sheila Hale, The Man who Lost his Language (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003).

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
Joomla template by TG