Monday, May 14, 2012

Against the 19th Century: A Mini-Manifesto

As the most recent Kalamazoo, I participated in a wonderful BABEL panel soliciting mini-manifestos on how to change Medieval Studies. Here's my contribution:


Waging Guerrilla Warfare against the 19th Century 

The idea of writing a “manifesto” for this panel was particularly appealing to me for 2 reasons. First, I like being around people who work heavily in theory. Their perspectives and ideas continually challenge my own, even if, since I’m but a simple historian by training, I don’t always understand what they’re talking about. . .

Second, and more seriously, this panel became especially too good to pass up, in light of a recent (rejected) grant application to the NEH. Although generally positive in his/her comments, one reviewer said of my proposed project that Medieval Studies had no need of new methodologies. Now, there were caveats to these claim, but (to get to my point) this person’s comment serves a useful purpose, since the whole point of a straw man is for there to be something to set alight. So, let me attempt (in my own modest way) to do just that. I don’t intend to fire the straw man directly; let me instead try to torch the whole field. Part of the task of the scholar, as I see it, is to be daring. High risk, high reward, but also high rate of failure. If the straw man burns, so be it. If it singes me as well, so be it. Perhaps, looking around, the field’s already on fire.

So, in the rest of this very brief mini-manifesto, let me try to set out the problem, and diagnose its causes. I hope there are suggestions in here somewhere. More likely, some in the audience will have already have thought much about this and offer me help.


The problem I want to talk about is the tyranny of 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship. The questions they asked of the period still define our work. We’re still trapped, still stuck within their “textual community,” trying to answer questions that are inherently teleological, always seeking answers to their end. We still seek to separate “religious” things and “secular” things. Nevermind that religio and saeculum had very different meanings than they do now. We still look at biblical citations through Protestant glasses, finding a verse from Jeremiah in an 11th-century chronicle, and thinking “Jeremiah,” when we should be thinking of the accreted weight of centuries of exegetical tradition. We still think in terms of nationalistic lineages in our literatures, as if the Anglo-Norman scribe of the Oxford Roland had Louis XIV in mind when he was writing; as if Domesday necessarily led to Henry VIII.

Part of the reason for this disconnect has to do with the shape of the university. We still live in faculties created around the questions that animated our ancestors, subdivided into disciplines that made sense ca. 1900. We’re created within this paradigm, live within it, progress, then produce others in our image. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In itself, it’s a noble, artisanal pursuit. But we should, at least, acknowledge the paradigm exists. Its power comes from our tacit complicity.

So, instead of asking what more we can say about this or that source, instead of asking if we can know this or that event more accurately, perhaps we should first be asking other questions. After all, we know that Hugh Capet began a dynasty that would last for centuries, but he certainly didn’t know there was a Philip the Fair in his future. For Hugh, the movement of time was contingent, uncertain, changeable. It isn’t radical to say that looking backwards gives the illusion of narrative. This was as true for the 9th-century Franks as it is for us today. You see a path back to where you started and try to clear the accumulated brush. Yet, our subjects saw something different. They saw a field and a far distant goal. In that field, they walked, doubled-back, tried another way, and sometimes ended up far removed from where they intended. Our job is not only to find that path, but more importantly to find those footprints – all those footprints. And sometimes, for us to see those footprints, we shouldn’t just clear the brush. Sometimes, we might need to set the whole field alight.

7 comments:

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

This is certainly a crucial observation to any good scholarship; but I'm not all convinced that reminding ourselves to view the world through our subject's eyes rather than our own is nearly as radical as you propose. Or to put it another way: this medievalist would consider himself frequently to be methodologically "conservative", yet is at constant awares that his own perception of history needs to be jettisoned at times to let the world-view of those whom he studies inform his scholarship.

But then, it may be easier for me because I specialize in medieval apocalypticism, prophecy, and theologies of history--that is, my work is inherently defined by the theories of history crafted by medieval thinkers themselves rather than those crafted by nineteenth- and twentieth-century medievalists.

Nevertheless, I agree that we all need to be reminded of this fact from time to time, lest we blindly remake the Middle Ages in our own image. (Aside: I think there is also a time and place for precisely that remaking; but it must be done consciously, rather than in ignorance.)

Matthew Gabriele said...

Nathaniel, thanks for the comment. I don't think that's my main point though. I'm not saying we should "become" our subjects or see things from their perspective (the very idea we can do that is a 19th-century colonial project - think the origins of Anthropology). Instead, I'm saying is that there's another, often imperceptible, layer between us and the past.

For instance, you say that you work on something called "theologies of history." I'd challenge you to name a medieval source that didn't qualify under that rubric. Yet, that's seen as a "separate," somehow "different" area of study from others. Were these particular authors not impacted by economic, social, politial, or cultural factors? Of course not.

Another example: every time we use critical editions (unless they're quite recent) we participate in the 19th-century project of trying to find an ur-text, tied to a proto-nationalism that will inevitably lead to "England," "France," "Germany," etc. or "Protestanism," "Catholicism," etc.

Again, I don't yet have a clear path out of this mess but we need to understand that the thicket isn't made of medieval brambles, but modern ones.

Matthew Gabriele said...

and see another manifesto at http://600transformer.blogspot.com/2012/05/history-and-commitment-manifesto.html

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

I was really moved by both manifestos. Thank you!

Eileen Joy said...

Loved it when you read it in front of me, and love it even more on the page.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks, Jennifer and Eileen!

tenthmedieval said...

... looking backwards gives the illusion of narrative...

That's fantastically put, Matt, I have to start using that phrase myself. Up till now the best I had was Alice Rio's, "the possibility of a discontinuous evolution is worth considering," which is also very wise but not quite so snappy...