Why “The Swerve” shouldn’t surprise us at all, and why its damage will be minimal

[Apologies in advance if the following article offends any parties critiqued, jibed, quipped, or otherwise disagreed with]

The first time I became aware of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern was when I came across Jim Hinch’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It seemed a pretty damning review–arguing that Greenblatt’s argument rested on a foundation of manure, that manure being his horrifically incompetent portrayal of the medieval world. Only by crafting such a pejorative picture of the Middle Ages could the shining light of THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD  burst through (a disturbing practice more common among early modernists than you would think).  And Hinch goes on to expose this heavily distorted, if not outright incorrect, picture very thoroughly.

Since then, I’ve run across The Swerve in a lot of places, especially now that it has won one of the Modern Language Association’s prestigious prizes–my English lit friends and acquaintance have been quite up in arms. And rightly so, I guess. It certainly makes our jobs just a bit harder, at least on face.  Steve Mentz put up a great column, “Swervin’: Modernity is not History.”  Kelly Robertson critiques Greenblatt starting on page 108 of her article “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” (I particularly like her description of “Middle Ages = Dark Ages” scholarship as a “‘donut’ materialist narrative with the medieval hole at its center.”). And my old colleague Kate hits the nail on the head and summarizes the book’s problems about as concisely and accurately as you’re going to find.

Now that we’ve vented our spleen, however, I think it’s worth asking, “Is this really such a big deal, or so surprising?”  Early modernists have been trashing the Middle Ages for a long time, often along the same lines as Greenblatt, so there’s nothing new here. Just to be weakly anecdotal for a moment: I was once at a conference on (mostly medieval) kingship, and a Tudor historian present basically said that everything we were discussing was nice, but really irrelevant to England after 1485. Wow.

In terms of popular culture, I’m not entirely sure that Greenblatt’s tome, which I just saw on prominent display in the Raleigh-Durham airport, will add much to the morass of confusion and misinformation which my students bring to my medieval classes. For example, The Swerve‘s message will add little to pre-existing misconceptions on the crusades that I have heard over the years, whether from conversational encounters in a bookstore, random remarks from a friend’s artsy, intellectual other friend, every freshman class I’ve ever taught, and more senior history majors than I care to acknowledge–at every level from community college to elite university.

In general terms, The Swerve has little on Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Firestill the most readily accessible book on the Middle Ages, available in your local Barnes&Noble, etc. The Middle Ages, to Manchester, was a different world, “where there were no clocks, no police, virtually no communications; a time when men believed in magic and sorcery and slew those whose superstitions were different from, and therefore an affront to, their own” (Author’s Note, at the beginning of the book).  A little later, in chapter 1, he describes the barbarian horde theory of the fall of the Roman Empire, and leads into his discussion of the Early Middle Ages with the classic sentence, “The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension.” It just goes on from there. Not nearly as sophisticated as Greenblatt’s book, perhaps, but a lot more accessible for a lot longer. And I would say that not much our students or non-ancient/medieval colleagues can find in The Swerve really clashes with what they’ve sought and found in popular culture anyway, whether it’s the History Channel’s Dark Ages, the series Game of Thrones (which I do like), films like Elizabeth and The Golden Age (a movie I well remember seeing in theaters), even ostensibly Early Modern shows like The Tudors and The Borgias. And let’s not even start with the glorious amalgam of medieval and early modern in most ren fairs and anachronistic creative societies–though I suppose all of these display a desire to conflate the two periods in ways that must irk early modernists and medievalists alike. And heck, most Lego castle sets in your local WalMart have some sort of sword-and-sorcery theme…So, the fallacious portrait created by Greenblatt hardly stands apart from our society’s conception of the Middle Ages. Whether he should know better or not is largely beside the point, at least in terms of its broader impact.

Furthermore, I would caution against wasting too many words on the subject (certainly not as many as I’m doing!). Many of the medievalist discussions coming out of this debacle of scholarship are neither “new” nor likely to cause many waves (due to the popular culture outlined above). Regarding “modernity” as a “story,” as Steve Mentz suggests,  isn’t a new project–it’s something with which medievalists have long been cursed with preaching, to the irritation of their fellow historians. “The modern,” suggests Mentz, “might not be a thing that ‘begins,’ but a narrative humans tell about the felt experience of change. Discontinuity challenges any kind of systemic thinking, and ‘modernity’ as a story makes sense of discontinuous change through the metaphor of the Break, the once-and-for-all transformation of what was into was is, or at least what is-becoming.”  Or, as Jeffrey J. Cohen puts it in typically more complex terms, “If time is a forward moving line, then ‘early modern’ is in the alterist framework an autonomous segment cut from that vector and stabilized into self-containment.”  To both of which I can only say, um, yes, of course it is; we’ve known that for some time–among many examples, the Fall 2007 (37:3) issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, titled Medieval/Renaissance: After Periodization is perhaps the best, as it draws on much previous scholarship (Also see Theresa Coletti’s syllabus for her Folger Institute Seminar on the same topic, Fall 2011). On page 453 of her article “The Modern Divide: From Either Side,” Margreta de Grazia captured the false essentialism exemplified by books such as Greenblatt’s:

Whether you work on one side or the other of the medieval/modern divide determines nothing less than relevance. Everything after that  divide has relevance to the present; everything before it is irrelevant. There  is no denying the exceptional force of that secular divide; indeed, it works less as a historical marker than a massive value judgment, determining what  matters and what does not. It is no wonder that Renaissance studies should  covet its inaugural title “early modern,” and that medieval studies might  wish to preempt it with the still earlier claim of being “premodern.”

This analysis, mind you, was published five years ago. On the whole, therefore, Greenblatt’s book flies in the face of the long-time work of many serious scholars. But, unfortunately, not all–else it would not have garnered the acclaim it has. In fact, in my experience it is mostly modernists and naughty early modernists who fall into the periodizing quagmire that snagged even philosopher Charles Taylor, most especially in A Secular Age (2007)–a book whose entire premise is based on a misreading of medieval culture to rival The Swerve‘s.

On the other hand, part of The Swerve‘s and pop culture’s portrayal of the medieval as “Other” derives from the inescapable fact that, well, it is “Other,” in many ways. A few years ago, I was discussing with a modern America colleague my upcoming Western Civ 2 course, and his first question to me was, “How are you addressing modernity?” I actually wasn’t sure what to make of that, since I was deliberately not emphasizing “the crisis of modernity” as such–I couldn’t, since as a medievalist I took a “long view” of the political and social transformations from around 1270 to 1815, and saw/see no such “broken vector,” no definitive break with the past, as to warrant arguing to my students that we stand apart from the rest of history. But that is not to say that major change did not occur, and in such a way as to warrant the division of  Late Medieval/Early Modern–the symbiotic relationship of war and the growth of state power, for example, while continuing in a direct line from Edward I/Philip IV to Charles I/Louis XIII, was, by the end of, say, Henry VIII’s reign, practiced in such a way as to require an altered vocabulary and modified set of social/political expectations.  And I subscribe quite fully to the old theory that the Enlightenment, American/French Revolutions, and Industrial Revolution, were the crucial triple blows that destroyed what one might call the neo-medieval order of Early Modern Europe (how’s THAT for periodization!!!).  Change did occur, and its cumulative, generational effects were massive, and periodizing on the basis of (perceived) change is a necessary epistemological and ontological exercise. That much is true.

Ultimately, Greenblatt, in mischaracterizing one era to extol his version of another, has likely done disservice to his reputation as a scholar, and, depending on the demographic, to medievalists’ efforts to get their period a fair hearing. Yet the overall “damage” is far less than appears at first glance. Sure, precocious freshmen will be more likely to have read it, but every aspect of our popular culture already supports Greenblatt’s interpretation of the Middle Ages. Modernists do so wittingly or unwittingly. Heck, medievalists themselves contribute every time they show The Name of the Rose to their classes. And that is because there exists some basis for the periodization, some shade of validity to the criticisms of the Church (especially the post-conciliar Church of the fifteenth century).  As always, it is the half truths that are so much harder to refute than the outright lies. Nevertheless, we have been refuting them for some time, and the message will not change. Greenblatts and Manchesters we will always have with us, but to waste too much breath on them would be a mistake. That’s why, to my mind, to call yourself a “Swervist” or an “InterSwervist,” to say that, in debating periodization, you are “swervin,” is both counterproductive and a little silly. Sure, I’m going to assign readings from this Riesentheater, this hubbub, to my class at the end of the semester. By then, my students will have lost most of their pre-Swerve preconceptions of medieval folk anyway, and The Swerve and its critics will be in their proper and most effective place–as a parting thought to the serious study of the Middle Ages of  West European Civilization.

2 Replies to “Why “The Swerve” shouldn’t surprise us at all, and why its damage will be minimal”

  1. I’m guessing you got a bit riled by seeing this in Ral-Dur airport? Great post and some good links I had not seen–thanks!

    But you say “medievalists themselves contribute every time they show The Name of the Rose to their classes.” Agreed (though I do love the film), but this brings up a question which rests upon a circularity here: media, including Hollywood, “knows” that medieval-premodern so anything they make will by necessity emphasize the non-modern aspects, to the point of caricaturing them (and of course for entertainment and emotive effect).

    So I’d love to show something (admittedly, to vary the presentation) that does not know that. I’ve seen numerous anachronistic versions of Shakespeare (a performance of MofV set in the Depression; Luhrmann’s R&J) that time-shift the early modern setting for another, which then manages to help us understand the (or A) social function of the play’s elements (I think that Luhrmann’s use of a TV talking head newscaster for the R&J chorus is particularly brilliant).

    Do you know of anything good for the Middle Ages in that regard? I am appalled that a website devoted to “good historical films” still lists “The Warlord” (1965) as the best medieval film. MIght as well just throw in Chrichton’s “Timeline” (2003) and tell the students to ignore the time travel… (Heck, he is THE authority on Ibn Rushd, anyway).

  2. I’d been planning to write something about this for some time–and then everyone started writing, and then seeing the book front-and-center at the bookstore kind of drove home how much exposure Greenblatt is actually getting.

    I think you’re totally right about the circularity, Steve, and it’s something that really complicates any sort of coherent medievalist response to things like “The Swerve,” because at a basic level medieval times *are* different. Soooo… Movies emphasize difference, and we perceive difference; we perceive difference, and movies emphasize difference.

    That website you mention sounds familiar. “Timeline” was at least fun–I like to bring up the scene where Paul Walker says “Look, we have, like, 600 years of knowledge on these guys, getting out of here should be easy,” and then he finds out that that isn’t so. 😛 “The Black Knight” with Alan Ladd has got to be one of the worst medieval films I’ve seen; the old “Prince Valiant,” and of course “Sword of the Valiant.” Man…

    Have you seen the new “Coriolanus” yet? I’ve gotten part way through it, and thought the setting in modern Rome was pretty effective.

    My favorite medieval films, for teaching, are, first, (you’re going to laugh) A Knight’s Tale, because I think it tries to make us bridge that gap by showing, through rock music et al, how medieval folk were like. 🙂 The others, which I think I’m going to show to my classes this term, are the Swedish films “Arn: Knight Templar,” and “Arn: Kingdom at Road’s End.” They kind of get the complexity of medieval society across without pandering to the audience. And medieval piety is presented in a very straight-forward way, which is very refreshing to see.

    Monty Python’s Holy Grail, is, naturally in a class by itself. 😀

Leave a Reply