Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period

Although Stephen Greenblatt published his blockbuster The Swerve in 2011, a recent book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books ( has ignited great debate on the merits of the book. The Modern Language Association's myopic decision to validate the book by awarding it a prize has poured further fuel on that debate (see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Blog [] and the various Twitter exchanges cited). For me, the debate centres not on the book's focus on Poggio's discovery of Lucretius, nor on the many odd and misconceived statements sprinkled throughout, but on the grand narrative that emerges--a grand narrative that trumpets the Renaissance partly through its insistent derogation and misrepresentation of the Medieval.

Quite why scholars like Greenblatt feel the need to valorise their own literary and historical period of specialisation by dismissing earlier or later centuries or movements or demarcated temporal units (like 'Middle Ages' or 'Late Antiquity') is a mystery to me. It is entirely disrespectful to write off whole swathes of time, of cultural production, of literary composition, of personal volition, of daily living, as Greenblatt does. So, when Greenblatt claims that the Renaissance effectively threw off the 'constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body...' (p. 9), he provides us with a sequence of superficial imaginings that might yet prove damaging to readers who, assured by the prize-winningness of this volume, assume they are being told something other than fiction.

From a text technological perspective, Greenblatt shows a total disregard for textual production, transmission and reception in the period between the Fall of Rome and the finding of classical nuggets in the monastic libraries of the late Medieval period. He forgets that the real Middle Ages provided the world with universities and the full flourishing of scholasticism; with the twelfth-century Renaissance, which like its later iteration, re-discovered classical texts protected by the cultural bastions of organised religion. He forgets that history is never the story of homogeneity, of stasis, of universal darkness. He forgets that Renaissance writers, like Southwell, Herbert, Donne and Sidney valued a world after this one. He forgets that testifying for the individual are the hundreds of lyrical voices calling from the thousands of Medieval books that survive, despite the best destructive efforts of later cultural vandals. Perhaps Greenblatt doesn't forget; perhaps he never knew.

But if he never knew, he should not deride the cultural landscape of a thousand years--a culture which is rich and deep and worth studying. And one would hope that scholars, of all people, would know better than to try and make their own speciality seem 'better' or more worthwhile simply by rubbishing others' areas of expertise.