Historical (W)holes: Between and across the Disciplines in Pre-modern Studies

Written by Richard Hillman

Perhaps all the more smoothly because he pays literary and other historians – however backhandedly – what most would still take to be the compliment of possessing revolutionary tendencies, James Simpson has the knack of putting us in our place with such genteel urbanity that we might well imagine ourselves at home chez lui. A counter-reflection might begin by distinguishing within his disarmingly harmonious disclaimer – "We can only start from where and what we are" (p. 12) – the discordant midnight chime that risks turning a good many of our fantasy time-machines into pumpkins. The serviceable ambiguity of the term "colleague" cannot permanently mask the fact that by no means all of his fellow-scholars have the luxury of choosing how disciplines and periods will relate to each other within their academic settings and structures, hence of putting in practice his advice to withdraw from interdisciplinary medieval centres to rejoin language-oriented "departments". But then it is a classic measure of capitalism's capacity to normalise itself that luxury comes to seem accessible to all, and the freedom of intellectual association, like other freedoms, must finally be ranked among such luxuries, meeting as it does the classic test: if you need to ask how much it costs, as the saying goes, you can't afford it.

The perennial pumpkin in which, after the enchantment wears off, I personally find myself shuttling back and forth between past and present is the ungainly service vehicle provided to post-secondary teachers of English by the French Éducation Nationale. Apart from its tendency to run out of fuel and otherwise break down, it must stick to the roadmap officially provided, which places non-French humanities studies, grouped by language and regardless of period, on the triple track of "littérature", "linguistique", and "civilisation" (the last category running the gamut from history to sociology). At the same time, as a specialist in pre-modern English literature in Tours, I have a cross-affiliation, genuinely luxurious in its way, with the Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, an institution that, although indelibly centred on the "Renaissance" ("Early Modern" has yet to find a comfortable equivalent in French), functions according to thematically and generically organised research teams (such as Théâtre européen), comprises specialists in fields from musicology to paleography, and defines its limits as extending from Petrarch to Descartes.

It will be noted that, from the perspective of English studies, such period limits seem to move in Simpson's desired direction by associating medieval with early modern – indeed, belated early modern. The reasoning, however, is far from his: the idea is rather to assure each "national" perspective its niche within the Renaissance. And still the chronological chain-reaction peters out, in the view of many, when it arrives in England. The person in the streets of Tours, or more largely in Val de Loire, actually possesses what might seem (until one considers the surroundings and their "valorisation") a surprising consciousness of the Renaissance as an historical period. Yet when I explain that I study and teach Renaissance English authors, there is widespread scepticism that such a phenomenon existed. Mention Shakespeare (universally revered), and it is politely suggested that, no, he falls under modern literature. If that is indirectly to make something like Simpson's point, it is also to short-circuit virtually all our careers.

For me and my immediate colleagues, in any case, it is these interlocking structures – the keys to the locks having long since been lost, if they ever existed – that define "where and what we are," not necessarily with precision (often, on the contrary, with confusion), but with formidable rigidity. The handful of anglicistes in our University who profess pre-modern interests simply cannot associate otherwise. From such a perspective – which must have something in common with less well-endowed English-speaking institutions world-wide – Simpson's sense of virtually limitless structural mobility smacks of another world entirely, a world afloat, moreover, upon the illusion of its independence of a material basis. One naturally has greater imaginative freedom to rearrange the intellectual furniture in one's office if one possesses furniture and an office.

Like illusions in general, that of detachment from the material no doubt carries more-or-less hidden constraints for those sufficiently privileged to entertain it. But to speak only from my own experience – in contrast, apparently, to Simpson's – let me here put in a word for the value of enforced cohabitation across disciplines, languages and periods (at least from Petrarch to Descartes), as well as across diverse pedagogical traditions. The strangely angled formations obtruding into my own intellectual living space, precisely because they are destabilizing (sometimes to the point of consternation), have tended to serve me as whetstones, a means of putting an edge on well-worn habits and practices.

I choose this metaphor because "dullness" is the chief drawback attributed by Simpson to the interdisciplinarity he encountered in centres of medieval studies. He is, in fact, insistent on the point:

I found some of the work produced from this scholarly matrix fascinating. . . . 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. . . . I put up with the dullness, and repressed the nagging doubts about why I was there . . . because it felt virtuous to be interdisciplinary.

Such disillusion came despite (or was it perhaps because of?) an interdisciplinarity that shone far brighter than any that has yet appeared on my personal horizon, a practice "involving the mastery of many languages, codicological skills, bibliographical experience in many fields, a broad historical sweep, and an understanding of analogies between different cultural practices."

There remain, for me, troublesome doubts about the concept of, and commitment to, interdisciplinarity reflected by Simpson's disillusion. To equate "dullness" with merely "notional" or loosely analogous "relevance to my own field" is surely to preserve that field, however defined, as determining the valid boundaries of others -- and to locate it decisively beyond the transformative power of analogy, which is one of the potentially exciting effects of working across the disciplines. At the same time, even to aspire to the dazzling mental acrobatics implied in Simpson's evocation is inconceivable without extensive and intensive reading; in such circumstances, how could a basic interest in any colleague's work collapse limply under the mere wish (which we all share) for more time to read in other fields? One cannot help wondering whether the interdisciplinary bar is being deliberately set so high as to display the futility of even attempting to pass over it.

In the case of my own day-to-day intellectual collaborations, the interdisciplinary bar presents itself at nearly every turn and at chest level. Most of us can pass only under it, not over it, and then only by ducking and contorting, no doubt more or less ridiculously. But pass one must, and if one must pass under, the residual shame is counterbalanced by the sense of having healthfully stretched unfamiliar, even unknown, muscles. The "mastery of many languages" seemingly taken for granted by Simpson as the norm in his milieu does not so grace most of us as to preclude struggling to follow a conference paper in one or another of the commoner ones. But most of us accept even that struggle as having its productive aspects, just as we are engaged by other intellectual reminders of distance and difference. The only papers I personally feel qualified to pronounce "dull" are those in the field that I know best; even then I often find myself thinking twice – and am so spared from dullness after all.

Equally revealing as Simpson's rejecting of the interdisciplinary is his remodelling of disciplinarity so as to plug, smooth over, or otherwise eliminate the gaps or spaces in history for the sake of making it "whole." First of all, although he naturally speaks from within English literary studies, it remains an open question how far his recommendation extends beyond them. Despite one vaguely pan-European gesture -- "The 'medieval' in European society is inseparable from the powerful counters by which it was aggressively formed, Classicism and Protestantism" – the key to his own conversion remains the conviction that the English historical experience was unique by virtue of a "state-driven . . . cultural revolution" (centred on the 1534 Act of Supremacy) that "affected the entire discursive landscape" and "was not restricted to a given discursive area, such as, say ecclesiology or education." In other European cultures, he thereby implies, "discursive areas" were more sharply demarcated, state, church and education less mutually contingent. In this context, to speak at one moment, as if casually, of "English departments, say", but at the next of "English departments in particular" (my emphases), in effect reinstates a cultural hegemony that uncannily mirrors the French one, whereby a familiar Whole is opposed to alien parts (civilisation, literature, linguistics . . . ), the latter necessarily separated by holes.

This is, to say the least, an ironic moment, historically speaking, for the Anglo-Saxon academic powers to be repeating history by imaginatively withdrawing from Europe. For on the Continent there continues apace the busy bricolage of reproducing pallid imitations of their models on every level: degree programmes, international exchanges, and, indeed, the conduct of conferences. Increasingly one hears papers on any and all subjects delivered in English, with varying degrees of evident struggle, presumably in the hope of making them sound less "dull" to those colleagues who really count.

Obviously, in this self-consciously historical age, to acknowledge such a withdrawal as isolationism, or even such an academic re-packaging as an act of vertical integration, would hardly seem progressive. It is far more persuasive, rhetorically, to hitch one's wagon to diachronicity, the condition of history itself. Yet in the ensuing journey, to judge from Simpson's account, we risk not only originating from but also arriving again at "where and what we are". The desire behind the enquiry pre-defines its objective in reassuring and familiar terms, as a means of inviting the alien into "our" living space for "conversation:"

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.

It will, needless to say, be civilised conversation – hence a means indeed of bringing under one roof civilisation, literature, and linguistics (for Simpson's model incorporates Philology as well). History will thus be made whole--healed of the wounds of difference.

One might be forgiven for asking to what extent such wholeness can remain diachronic, given that bringing dead friends back to life would seem to involve closing over, amongst other gaps, a rather basic temporal one: are not such magic circles precisely a means of conjuring synchronicity? Almost as pressing might be the problem of deciding who one's "friends" are, a process of selection with which history itself, full of holes as it has stubbornly proved to be, seems always to have had considerable difficulty. And then, even when history is whole thanks to us – and for us – may it not retain awkward angles and strange corners, in which lurk those with whom we wish nothing to do because we wish them to have nothing to do with us? For we are presumably going to choose our friends on the premise of a "true" sympathy, an inherent resemblance transcending historical difference, as opposed to one artificially imposed by "finding distant analogies with a past civilisation for the way we do things".

Such resemblance fundamentally rules out moral repugnance – a key point, and one that needs to be negotiated with considerable finesse. Morality, after all, remains "our" stock in trade. We would never ourselves infringe the "human rights" of others because of their beliefs; under the rubric of heresy, within our accommodating books, there is only a blank space (albeit bearing the trace of multiple erasures). We would not ourselves kill, maim, or torture – even if, when pressed, we may ruefully agree that on some highly abstract level we profit, though by nothing more (or less) than peace of mind, from such activities conducted by others on our behalf. Awkwardly, many of our medieval and Renaissance candidates for friendly conversation across the gap of time practised, in their own times, the habit of conversing intimately with God, and so regularly obtained his approval of whatever rough earthly methods were necessary to carry out his will. (The spokesman for the Nobility in Pierre Matthieu's The Guisiade [1589], theatrical propaganda for France's Sainte Ligue, speaks worlds when he swears fidelity "By the tortures and irons, the stakes and the prisons / Of the Princes of the Faith".[1]) It must be supposed, from the perspective of tolerance assumed to be our common one today, that such creatures of their ages imagined God in false and narrow ways, which we are in a position to correct and enlarge.

It therefore behoves us to make a large moral allowance as a condition for initiating productive conversation. This is not a novel idea – indeed it might qualify as a sort of Harvard specialty, to judge from the blanket absolution loftily extended in 1964 by De Lamar Jensen to Renaissance politicians, beginning (why not?) with Catherine de Medici:

. . . her statesmanship lacked a grounding in sound political morality. Not only was she wanting in moral principles (which was characteristic of the times) [my emphasis], but she identified too closely the interests of the nation with her personal and dynastic interests. Undoubtedly she thought the crown of France was the nation.[2]

In pursuing his main subject, the Spanish diplomat Bernardino de Mendoza (as he does with formidable scholarly acumen), Jensen remarkably succeeds in making the priority of ends over means appear as the quaint relic of a bygone age, even the sign of a precocious, though misguided, integrity:

He was always loyal to his king, and completely subordinated himself to the service of Spain, which he genuinely believed was the service of God.

This zealous devotion and subordination to a cause made him haughty and intolerant toward anyone not supporting the same principles and ideology, and unscrupulous at times in his support of anything which he thought would contribute to its success. For Mendoza, the foes of Spain and of Catholicism were not honorable adversaries; they were the enemies of God and Mankind. Against such seditionists there are no rules of good conduct, he maintained; they must be destroyed by whatever means is available. Mendoza did not lack integrity, but it was integrity based upon the belief that the cause he represented was superior to any individual or group which composed or opposed it.

(p. 95)

Even in 1964, it appears--a year in which America's Book of Reckoning preserved a quite legible entry under the "heresy" rubric – Harvard University Press and the Ford Foundation agreed in dispensing with the moral requirement for prospective Renaissance members of the conversational club. Misguided idealism makes a more than sufficient rationale, while benighted beliefs and practices become the products of time and difference themselves; they can be smoothed over by acts of indulgence. The effect is to liberate such figures from their historical purgatory.

Freeing imprisoned souls--from those early modern English on whom the Act of Supremacy slammed the door to those restless scholarly spirits now trapped in interdisciplinary dullness--is Simpson's appealingly charitable goal. It is articulated mainly across his discussion of Thomas More's Supplication for Souls (1529). It turns out that this text, by its quasi-miraculous affective power, actually achieves what might have been supposed the impossible from a literary-historical point of view. For it effects the transcendence not only of religious belief and cultural tradition, not to mention time itself, but even of its own rhetorical status:

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 through acts of generosity. This conversational opportunity explains and justifies the rhetorical strategy of the text.

(p. 4)

It is not surprising that the admission of the plaintive Thomas More as conversationalist par excellence, backed by his chorus of the living dead, seems to require no act of indulgence on Simpson's part. Rather, an alternative means of access to club membership is implicitly being invoked. Obviously, the moral criterion need not be circumvented if it is actually met, and one way of meeting it may be through a (duly ecumenized) version of martyrdom and sainthood: the status of victim, as opposed to victimizer.

Nevertheless, More's would not unequivocally be such a case in everybody's books, and that issue brings to the surface a larger one, which might otherwise remain submerged in the abundant scholarly apparatus of Simpson's article (with forty discursive end-notes for seventeen pages of text). For while Simpson acknowledges the book Hamlet in Purgatory, by his Harvard colleague, Stephen Greenblatt, as "exemplary of the ways in which early modern and medieval texts might be read in dialogue" (n. 10), he does not indicate the extent to which he himself is in dialogue with Greenblatt, who after all, at the opening of Shakespearean Negotiations, declared his own "desire to speak with the dead".[3] Arguably, Simpson's article enters into particularly close (if one-sided) dialogue with the first chapter of Hamlet in Purgatory, which initiates its own friendly conversation with the past in precisely inverted terms. The text to which More was responding was, of course, Simon Fish's pro-Reformation tract, A Supplication for the Beggars (1529). Simpson clearly ranks Fish among the victimizers, and in terms that carry a trace, if not of the anti-hereticism of the 1960's, at least of the orthodoxy currently ruling the global economy:

Revolutionary moments are hostile to the indirections of literature and inventions of the imagination. . . . In a contrast of the kind between More and Fish, we can see . . . how Fish deploys the explicit, rational argument of the revolutionary policy paper. . . . For Fish, social relations are determined by social policy, and driven by the state. (p. 7)

From Greenblatt's perspective, by contrast, the revolutionary Fish, by his very dismissal of souls in purgatory, "was determined to risk his life to save the soul of his country" and was therefore led "not only to speak on behalf of the poor but also to speak in their own voice, crying out to the king against those who have greedily taken for themselves the wealth that should otherwise have made England prosperous for all of its people" (p. 11). As for Simpson's model of friendship across the ages, sealed by martyrdom, Greenblatt is equally unequivocal: "It is worth recalling that Tyndale, Frith, Latimer, and others who took up the assault on Purgatory were all martyred, as Fish would certainly have been, had Thomas More gotten his hands on him."

Given such affective rhetoric on Greenblatt's part, which is at least a match for Simpson's, and considering the latter's statement that the opposition between Fish and More "might also be perceived as offering a choice of historical alignment for the modern reader" (p. 8), an outsider might be forgiven for feeling him or herself a mere eavesdropper on a collegial conversation that has more to do with contemporary American differences over liberalism and free-market capitalism than with historical bodies or souls, much less with questions of interdisciplinarity. "Finding distant analogies with a past civilisation for the way we do things" turns out to be the hidden name of the game, the very object of the exercise. It is not to diminish the stimulating aspects of Simpson's essay to recognize that he is most fundamentally stepping forward to lead a conversation among life members and honorary alumni (the latter very broadly defined) of an elite institution--one that is firmly centred, symbolically and by virtue of Realpolitik, within a nation on which historical circumstances (or is it, after all, manifest destiny?) have bestowed political, economic and cultural hegemony. It would not be the first self-styled democracy to register the dead as living voters.

Modern intellectual humanity, at least in the Occident, may have passed beyond heaven and hell, but it appears to have rediscovered the vital reality – that is, the utility – of purgatory. And if purgatory exists, it must be peopled, one way or another. Thanks to Simpson, Greenblatt silently takes his place there, though in the first-class section and with indulgence in hand; his turn to lead the conversation will come again soon. As for those of us beyond the academic pale, any hopes that Simpson might conjure of meaningfully joining their conversation seem (pre-?)destined to melt away into thin air, even while leaving behind an authentic whiff of original brimstone: "Why this is purgatory, nor are we out of it".


Université François-Rabelais, Tours

Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, CNRS UMR 6576



[1] Pierre Matthieu, The Guisiade, in The Tragedy of the Late Gaspard de Coligny [by François de Chantelouve] and The Guisiade, trans. with introd. and notes by Richard Hillman, Carleton Renaissance Plays in Translation, 40 (Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 2005), ll. 1245-46.

[2] De Lamar Jensen, Diplomacy and Dogmatism: Bernardino de Mendoza and the French Catholic League (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 18.

[3] Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 1; Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

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