You Say It’s Not an Evolution…

One of the points I try to underscore when I teach in my field is that my students need to rethink their understanding of the medieval. Typically, insofar as my kids think of the Middle Ages at all, it tends either toward a Knight’s Tale/Monty Python and the Holy Grail vision (which in turn owes more than a bit to Mark Twain) or to the line in Pulp Fiction: “They’re gonna get medieval on your ass.” The image they bring in is typically ultraviolent, filthy, and benighted (even if beknighted, as well).

This is of course due to the current tendency to think of everything that has gone before as being prelude to the glory of Us. I would argue that this idea runs back to the early Romantics, who saw themselves as building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, or to the French Revolutionaries who believed they could eliminate culture and tradition by reasoned fiat, or even to the folks in the 15th C. who hung the term medium aevum on the period. Darwin, meanwhile, allowed folks to hang a veneer of science on their own prejudices, so that a Castle of Perseverance could be seen by Hardin Craig in the 1950s as a Neanderthal on the way to modern theater, or a Beowulf (pre-Tolkien) could serve primarily as a means of studying the development of English rather than as a worthwhile literary work. One can also find examples in such important works as Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages — which has recently been retranslated as Autumn of the Middle Ages — which, although not sneering at its subjects, does condescend toward them from time to time. We see it in politics as well, as latter-day progressives (a term that carries a vector within itself; progress implies direction and destination)  love to charge folks who disagree with them as trying to “turn back the clock” — a manifestation of Frye’s myth of progress. And again, if someone is accused of being medieval in their thinking, they aren’t being compared to Anselm or Aquinas, or even Chaucer’s Boece.

All this came to mind this afternoon as I read an article that ran at HuffPo a few days ago. The author’s name is unlisted, but he or she is apparently affiliated with Notting Hill Editions. In any case, the article is a very nice examination of the bias I’m describing. The author borrows a page from Edward Said’s playbook:

I’ll call this prejudice “medievalism”; I realise medievalism usually describes the practice of those who study the Middle Ages, not denigrate them. Still, the same could be said of Said’s re-coining a word, Orientalism, which previously had been used to describe those who neutrally studied the East, to mean those who belittled it – so perhaps for the purposes of this essay, we might be allowed to take out the word on loan. Medievalism: the unsubtantiated belief that people in the Middle Ages were by definition stupider, more naive and more violent than people who came after them.

Although I think Said is responsible for considerable mischief in the continuing march toward relativism, the people of the Middle Ages are safely dead, so the old fraud’s theories may be less troublesome here. In any case, this Notting Hill Editions article is well worth your time, and may become required reading for my students in the future.

H/T: My friend, colleague, and occasional commenter kpk.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to You Say It’s Not an Evolution…

  1. ND says:

    I think the Orientalism/Medievalism comparison is a good one. The supposed backwardness of the Middle Ages serves the unfounded Modern self-image as an absolute, pristine new beginning. Just as the West likes to see the “Orient” as its obverse, forever mired in superstition, despotism, cultural ostentation, lacking in good level-headed, rational substance, and progressive civilization. Striking, that the view of the Medieval and the Oriental as backward develops around the same time, at least in the historical imagination: i.e., with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century advent of positive science, always with that nagging sense of our own inadequacy and loss that we call Romanticism. Our values always impinge on our understanding of the past, or any other remote culture. This need not be the cause for a slip into relativism with which you charge Said. Prejudging the past by the standards of the present, like prejudging another culture from our proximity to our own, is only dangerous if we mistake our prejudices for absolute truths. Or, when we fail to see that our truths are merely our irrefutable errors. Investigating our “truths” and presumptions is not the same as saying that there is no truth, provided one admits that truth can be plural. Understanding in teaching, reading, and any form of communication depends on making the strange familiar; though critical thought also requires the cultivation of a sense of strangeness in the familiar. I am often charged with relativism, or “political correctness” when I challenge the familiar. However, my goal is to cause a questioning of the assumptions of one’s own culture, not the uncritical or “political” acceptance of other cultures. Those who would make the humanities’ task the continual evocation of “the wonderfulness of us” like to see the necessity of alienation in understanding as cause for dropping the critical cause as such. They say “either you are for us or against us.” And, as an added palliative: “if you are against us, it must be for superficial, ‘politically correct’ reasons.”

  2. Jeff says:

    There’s some thoughtful stuff in that article that would make it well worth assigning to students, but the author’s new, alternate definition of “medievalism” doesn’t quite cut it. He needs a new word to describe people who view the Middle Ages negatively, because “medievalism” already encompasses not just academic study, but also countless nostalgic pro-medieval phenomena in the past couple centuries, including the Oxford Movement, the Gothic revival, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Victorian obsession with Arthur, the frenzy over the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott…and that’s just in England. Overestimating negativity toward the Middle Ages based on a few very recent cultural examples is perhaps, amusingly, a prejudice of our time.

    • profmondo says:

      I agree with you about the need for a neologism — or maybe we could just call it shortsightedness. 🙂 And as you and I have noted in the past, there’s certainly a popular fascination with the period — see so much medievalistic pop culture as the SCAs and D&D. Still, I think some of the stereotypes I mentioned are out there, and I find the article a handy counterpoint.

  3. Huck says:

    “We see it in politics as well, as latter-day progressives (a term that carries a vector within itself; progress implies direction and destination) love to charge folks who disagree with them as trying to “turn back the clock” — a manifestation of Frye’s myth of progress.”

    Profmondo – I don’t know why you always have to interject some snide comment about “latter-day progressives” in this piece. I think it’s pretty clear that when you mention modern day “progressives,” you mean ideological modern day liberals. But, it just doesn’t work with this kind of comparison of such stark historical periods in human history. We are all of us today, conservatives and liberals, “progressives” in the sense of not wanting to “turn back the clock” to the relative barbarism of previous (at least pre-Enlightenment) time periods. Values that undergird ideological modern day “conservatives” are decidedly — and often times unabashedly unapologetic — about rejecting the lingering “medievalism” of the uncultured and unenlightened. From the Weberian Protestant work ethic, to the notion of American exceptionalism, to the abhorrence of the “barbarism” of the burka and other Islamic traditions, modern day conservatives are about as “progressive” in their love of charging folks with wanting to turn back the clock (i.e. cultural relativists, nation-building interventionists, welfare state Keynesianists, etc.) and in their obsession with the forward advance of the U.S. as perhaps the only repository and locus of all that is and will be great in our world. So, yeah, the point that we should rethink what we understand “medieval” to mean is a worthy endeavor; but the reasons for that reconsideration apply to all of us who emerge out of the enlightenment as the inheritors of a “progressive” Western culture — and that applies to modern day liberal progressives as well as to modern day conservative and libertarian progressives.

  4. profmondo says:

    You’re right that I tend to use progressive as a term for the hard left. For what it’s worth, it’s that group that, in my experience, most commonly uses the “turn back the clock” rhetoric when describing their opponents — google politics and “turn back the clock” and you’ll see what I mean. And as I said, certainly since the Romantics, there has been a trend toward neophilia on the left. But new isn’t necessarily better. And just for the record, I’m using Frye’s term “myth of progress” in a pretty narrow way — as a term describing an ideological narrative. Other such examples include the myth of freedom, the myth of concern, and the pastoral myth (which Frye associated with “good old days” conservatism.) As always, thanks for stopping by.

  5. Huck says:

    The “turn back the clock” meme of modern day liberals, as you well know, refers to a perceived inclination among some conservatives to glorify some idea of the halcyon days of past epochs without any kind of acknowledgement that those glory days of the past are also shaped by some “old” ways that weren’t so nice (and to a large degree, what is considered by many conservatives to be the noble things of the past were built precisely upon the not-so-nice oppressions that sustained them). Sure, “new” isn’t necessarily “better,” but a lot of times it is, in spite of perhaps the costs that come with the new. I like to ask those prone to “neophobia” whether they would rather live in the Leave-It-To-Beaver 1950s, or the Little-House-on-the-Prairie 1870s, or the “Give-Me-Liberty-or-Give-Me-Death” 1780s — whether they are actually less free now than they were 10, 30, 50, 100, 200 years ago. And when I do, these “neophobists” get all quiet. Even conservatives who lament the loss of certain values that inevitably will come with “progress,” don’t really want the Good Old Days. That is because we are all progressives.

    Even still, if you were just limiting your commentary towards differences within the post-Enlightenment world, that would be more consistent; but you are taking a bit of a dig at modern liberals for being “progressives” as if being “progressive” is some bad word somehow connected with a disdain for the “medieval” that modern day conservatives/libertarians don’t share. But we do.

    • Alaska Jack says:

      An interesting point, and one summed up neatly by Rick Perlstein in his (fairly) recent book “Nixonland” thusly: “Nostalgia systematically cheats the past.”

      It’s fun and easy to pine for the “Good ol’ Days” and I’m just as guilty as the next guy of wondering why they don’t make cars/comedy/politics/society in general “the way they used to,” but the truth is that if you really look at those good old days, well, they weren’t so hot (at least not in their own way).

      As a political example, an always interesting read is Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln; take a gander at just how nasty the politics of the mid-19th century were. The only difference is that the words traveled by train and telegraph, not the internet and satellite television.

      For those my age and older it’s easy to want to recapture one’s youth (or even middle age) but we yearn to do so all too often without considering the baggage of the fallout shelter, invading hordes, or continental plagues that came along with the sunny memories.

      It makes me wonder how the next generation will see the world we made for ourselves–my guess is that nothing will really change, and that our memory will be written to whatever medium is used for books as the same curious blend of an outdated mentality combined with a much yearned for simplicity that will exist only in the hindsight that we ourselves assign to our own history…

      Or something like that.

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