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.


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  2. Dear Elaine

    Thank you for a very poignant summary of this contentious issue. Personally I believe that the reason Greenblatt and his fellow Renaissance enthusiasts with such contumacy compress the Middle Ages into a night of religious darkness shattered by the light of their favoured period, is simply that being scholars of the period they adopt unquestioningly the parameters laid down by those who gave the Renaissance its name. In this way they perpetuate the legacy of the self-promoting artists of the Italian renaissance and the prejudices of the English renaissance so heavily Protestant in its nature. This legacy has been nurtured by a staunch anti-papism from Spenser and onwards, the self-blinding arrogance of high-brow classicists and the naiveté of postmodern relativism.

    To my mind the heart of the problem is precisely that as long as the Renaissance is considered an historical fact rather than a gimmick of self-promotion and self-identification - quite similar to the Romantic movement of the late 1700s - this false divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will be perpetuated and spawn further scholarship which warps the appreciation of historical complexity in the minds of the inexperienced reader.

  3. Just a quick correction to my own comment: It was not the artists of the Renaissance who gave the period its name, but scholars of the 19th century.

  4. Thank you too -- I agree with both the post and with Steffen's comment. It *is* a matter of reenacting the rhetoric of the Renaissance as a field. But I also think it has to do with the priviledging of the new in academe, even above the truth. When I write a fellowship application, I always have to explain what's so innovative about my work, not what might be true or revealing or useful or whatever other measure of worth one might have. This is a structural issue, and one that leads to all kinds of experts in periods more modern than our own declaring something to have "begun" in their period. Whatever it is -- modernity, the individual, credit systems, world travel and exploration -- it always suspiciously begins in their period, because they are usually ignorant of what came before. (Gross generalization -- obviously there are scholars who are more nuanced in their grand claims.)

    In the meantime, someone should send Greenblatt an anthology of fabliaux...

  5. Great post. You may also find my critical review of Greenblatt's thesis interesting:

  6. Greenblatt's book reveals far more about him than it does either about the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. In his preface he acknowledges the subjective and projective animus of his approach when he tells us that Lucretius was for him an escape from his guilt-ridden and death-obsessed mother's influence. Not so much a swerve from a benighted medieval past as a personal flight from an overprotective Jewish mother. The book is a fascinating case study in Greenblatt's subjective approach to the past rather than an objective work of scholarship.

  7. ...and then 5 years later, I read The Swerve. I didn't want to believe that it was quite as bad as the negative reviews indicated. But, alas...