[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.