Gabrielle M. Spiegel

title.none: Van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies

identifier.other: baj9928.9502.007 95.02.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Van Engen, John, ed. The Past and Future of Medieval Studies. Notre Dame Conferences in Medieval Studies, IV. Notre Dame, IN London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 431. ISBN: ISBN 0268038007.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.02.07

Van Engen, John, ed. The Past and Future of Medieval Studies. Notre Dame Conferences in Medieval Studies, IV. Notre Dame, IN London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 431. ISBN: ISBN 0268038007.

Reviewed by:

Gabrielle M. Spiegel
Johns Hopkins University

Meditations on the "state of the field" have become a prevalent, albeit minor, academic vice in this age of self-reflectivity, a sort of disciplinary epiphenomenon of the "me" generation, adept from young adulthood at the intense scrutiny of its physical, emotional and intellectual well-being. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I picked up John Van Engen's published proceedings of a conference convened at the University of Notre Dame in February, 1992 to consider the past and future of Medieval Studies. While Van Engen's collection conforms in broad outline to generic expectations, it is far more worthwhile than such expectations might lead one to surmise, even if, not surprisingly, it tells us more about our past than our future. Twenty-three essays on various topics are framed by two written by Van Engen himself. The first consists of an "Agenda Paper" sent to contributors which laid out the parameters of the topics to be discussed — the place of medieval history in an increasingly multicultural world; its distinctive methodologies and specialized technologies; its lack of theoretical awareness; its customary privileging of philosophy, theology and intellectual history at the expense of literature and the arts (or so Van Engen contends) — the second of an "Afterward on Medieval Studies" in the light of the findings of the conference (on which more later).

The first thing to register about this collection are the areas considered worthy of review and those left out, whether as a result of choice or from the failure to entice an appropriate scholar to comment. The most notable omission is political and institutional history, certainly the heart of medieval studies in immediately past generations in North America (if not still) , and the discipline in which most historians presently active were trained. They are included obliquely in Patrick Geary's essay on "Visions of Medieval Studies in North America", which seeks to examine North America scholarship on medieval history from the point of view of Europeans, but that essay is concerned primarily with the differential impulses and modalities that govern the investigation of the past here and abroad: the greater comparative perspective among Americans, their pragmatic rather than ideological approach to learning, as well as their lack of nationalist bias, Latin learning, and native familiarity with the medieval past, in contrast to European societies which, Geary asserts, "have appropriated the Middle Ages as their own [and] have integrated it into their national and regional mythologies, and thus have created explicit but highly arbitrary links with this period" [p. 52]. Nor do we find treatments of political and institutional history's close cousins, legal and constitutional history, though these, too, were and continue to be subjects of high interest in medieval historiography. Missing as well is medieval historiography proper — that is, the writing of history in the Middle Ages — a domain that is inching from the margins towards the center of current concerns. (I confess, I was asked but couldn't participate, though surely there are many others who might have). Most surprising is the absence of any contribution on Old French literature, a field that has attained boom status and, in the last two decades anyway, has been in some senses an engine driving medieval studies, due in part to the sheer volume of work dedicated to it and to its own increasingly sophisticated nature, hence impact on the field as a whole.

That said, it must be emphasized that there are serious and enlightening essays on domains not normally included in mainstream surveys of the field. To this reviewer, the most interesting of these were by Jeremy Cohen on "Medieval Judaism and Medieval Studies" and Richard Bulliet on "Orientalism and Medieval Islamic Studies." Cohen persuasively argues that "there are informative parallels between the situation of Jewish culture in the context of medieval European Christendom and the place of medieval studies in the modern Western University." Both straddle the margin: they are "perceived as irrelevant and obsolete, and grounded in languages, texts and terminologies inaccessible to the majority..."[ 73], and yet both are central to the dominant culture's construction of its own distinctiveness. Cohen here offers a fascinating overview of the medieval Jewish world, its profound sense of existing in a state of exile (galut), alienated from the spatial and temporal homeland for which it had been destined, yet at the same time entertaining rich relations, both intellectually and economically, with its surrounding Christian environment. To the extent that medieval studies continues to waiver between a commitment to the centrality of the Middle Ages as the "origin " of the European West and its equal belief in the inherent alterity of medieval culture, we share the anomalous and ambiguous status with respect to our academic surround that then characterized Jewish-Christian relations. Cohen also provides a compelling account of the progress of modern Jewish studies since the Enlightenment, a story marked by a profound ambiguity over the question of Jewish assimilation into the modern, secular rational world. To the extent that the contemporary study of medieval Judaica emerged to justify Jewish emancipation — to confirm to Christian civilization, that is, the worthiness of Jews to be integrated as equals into modern European society — it threatened to efface precisely what most distinctive about Judaism. With the failure of the Enlightenment and emancipation to secure for modern Jews the freedom and equality which they craved, Judaic scholars, Cohen notes, have begun to question the benefits of assimilation. Thus, like medieval studies as whole, the study of medieval Judaica stands poised between the desire for contemporary acceptance and a deep suspicion of the long-term wisdom of acting on that desire.

Bulliet, in contrast, demonstrates the extraordinary impact that a single book has had on the field of Islamic studies, medieval and modern alike. That book, of course, is Edward Said's Orientalism, which has completely reoriented the study of Islamic culture in the modern University. Prior to the 1950s, Bulliet explains, medieval Islamic studies had been a subdivision of an older tradition of orientalism that was preoccupied with the editing of texts, the theology of Mohammed and the Koran, and the broad outlines of Islamic philosophy, literature and political history. Arabic, rather than Turkish and Persian, in focus, the grand narrative of "medieval Islam" was typified as "the saga of Mohammed's life, the political history of the caliphate, the transmission of Greek philosophy to Europe via Arabic translation, and the subsequent decline of Arabic poetry, considered the greatest art of the Muslims." [p. 95]. Orientalism changed all that. In it, Said proposed that the older generations of orientalists, made up primarily of non-Muslims born and educated outside the Islamic world, had contributed to the reification of a quasi-mythic "Other" — the Orient — thereby collaborating in the imperial domination of the Middle East and converting the study of its culture into a form of colonial hegemony. Whatever the inherent merits of this thesis, Bulliet opines, it has fundamentally changed the climate in which medieval Islamicists work. Responsible now not merely to a scholarly audience, Islamic medievalists must satisfy the demands both of technical scholarship and political correctness and must respond with a new sensitivity to the "philosophical principles underlying the study of a faith community." Hence, surprisingly like medieval Judaic studies, Islamic studies now confronts the new salience of faith as a constituent of identity politics, which it ignores only at its peril. A brief essay by Michael McCormick on Byzantium completes this triad of western society's medieval "others". In his essay McCormick that poses the question "why study Byzantine history" (presumably a question that presents itself even to practitioners as more pressing than the question why medieval history generally) and responds with the assertion of its utility for the comparative study of the medieval West.

In a sense, the clearest pronouncement on the "other" question is proffered by Kathleen Biddick, who recommends a new basis for the study of western Christian society as the means of saving that study from itself, that is, from its hegemonic, essentializing, and foundational tendencies. Biddick locates traditional medieval studies in a dream world, (one subtitle of her essay is " Dreaming the Middle Ages," the actual title being a less readily intelligible "Bede's Blush: Postcards from Bali, Bombay, Palo Alto," [?]) hovering between the dual consciousness of the Middle Ages as "a place and time of non-origin" (i.e. the dark, deathly period constructed by and in the Renaissance) and that of origin (the old "origin of the modern world"). Caught in this double bind of non-origin and origin, lack and plenitude, Biddick avers, "the Middle Ages can be everywhere, both medieval and postmodern, and nowhere, sublime and redemptive." [p. 17]. It, too, is infected by "orientalism," which she defines as "the historically situated Euro-American project of producing an experience of scholarship, order, truth and management based on the textualization of imaginary others" [p. 24]. To combat the pernicious consequences of such "orientalism" Biddick advocates the application of post-colonial discourse as a way of creating a "non-foundational medieval studies which articulates rather than re-presents the Middle Ages as a historical category."[ p. 18] Put more simply, Biddick wants us to move to a post-positivist, postmodern approach to the Middle Ages that is both self-aware and morally chastened, admiral goals, to be sure, though the precise ways in which they might change our historiographical praxis remains somewhat unclear.

If Biddick is optimistic about the bracing effects that methodological innovation can achieve for medieval studies, the same cannot be said about all the contributors. The gloomiest essays in the volume are those that address Medieval Studies' traditional domains of inquiry: Mark D. Jordan's on "Medieval Philosophy of the Future", Joseph Wawrykow's "On Dispelling the Malaise in Scholastic Theology," Richard Rouse's on "Medieval Manuscripts in the Modern Curriculum," and to a lesser extent Marcia Colish's on "intellectual History," and Roberta Frank's "On the Field," the latter of whom laments the passing of old-style philological expertise and pedagogy. Jordan, in particular, is deeply pessimistic about the lack of cogency in the Academy's reasons for the modern treatment of his field, concluding that "we have yet to find coherent secular motives for an institutional program for the study of medieval philosophy" [p. 154]. While Colish believes that the study of medieval intellectual history has benefitted from major changes in cognitive styles and scholarly concerns over the past several decades [ e.g. analytical philosophy's interest in the history of logic, women's study, the introduction of anthropology, sociology, semiology and other neighboring disciplines, which have heightened awareness of the period's implicit as well as explicit values and systems of meaning] she too sees a future for medieval intellectual history only at the expense of discarding its traditional modes of analysis and creating a "new story line," one that emphasizes the "multicultural" ingredients that went into its making in the first place [p. 196-197]. Derek Pearsall, on the other hand, is rather dubious about the inherent values of new methodologies for medieval studies. Rehearsing his experience in studying the Peasant's Revolt, he found that the "text-centered" interpretative turn in much recent literary criticism , while it may have philosophical and political point, was "of little use to either literary or historical understanding." [p. 228]. Instead, he advocates the adoption of "new historicism" as the approach that offers the most promising avenue for broadening the horizons of literary study and achieving a genuinely interdisciplinary methodology that can integrate historical and literary modes of inquiry, one of the original goals in the rise of Centers of Medieval Studies such as that at York University which he directed.

Among this group, perhaps the most sanguine is Ann Matter, who presents the "Future of the Study of Medieval Christianity" as enormously benefitting from the new study of the history of Christian women, barely on the horizon before the 1970s, together with the new interest in mysticism, heterodox, and popular forms of religion. Almost alone among the contributors, Matter holds out the prospects of great gains to be made through the employment of new technologies made available by cybernetics, in particular the technological resources that will enable scholars to manipulate texts like the Patrologia Latina ( now on CD-Rom) with speed and sophistication. Like Matter, Judith Bennett lauds the impact of feminist scholarship on medieval studies and chronicles the entrance of women into the profession in an essay reminiscent of her recent contribution to Speculum. Equally targeting the future of medieval studies are the essays by William Jordan on "Saving Medieval History; Or, the New Crusade" and Karl Morrison ("On the Statue") , both of whom see the practice of medieval history as vastly improved over the last few decades by comparison with its first fifty years in North America (roughly the first half of the twentieth century), although it should be said that neither has a particularly high opinion of this earlier work, Jordan especially. Both urge greater attention to popular interest in the medieval past as a means of salvaging the field, while remaining faithful to its traditions of scholarship. One powerful bridge between popular culture and medieval studies, Michael Camille suggests, is through the renewed study of medieval art in an age that increasingly utilizes the visual as the very medium of knowledge. Camille and Jeffrey Hamburger, the two art historians included in the symposium, regret the marginality usually assigned to the study of medieval art and Camille, in particular, makes a strong case that the so-called "new art history" — " incorporating theoretical models from linguistics, anthropology, literary theory and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis" [p. 366] - - holds out the best prospects for invigorating medieval studies as a whole while appealing to a visually conditioned and sophisticated public culture shaped by images.

Other essays are less pointed in their prophesying and less directly engaged in the prescriptive agenda of the conference, being content to bring to the reader's attention particular and/or new dimensions in their fields of endeavor. Thus Sabine MacCormick reviews the history of the reception of Vergil from late antiquity (Augustine), through medieval (Dante) down to early modern times (in the work of the Spanish American Don Enrique de Villena) in order to underscore her belief that medieval studies is a discipline open to ambiguities and uncertainties and to demonstrate her conviction— through tracing the reception of Vergil — that we are scarcely the first to experience contradictions and confusions in formulating our ideas about how the past is to be understood. [p. 107]. Brigitte Bedos Rezak offers a brilliant, if highly personal, synthesis of her approach to the study of diplomatic sources and medieval documentary practices which should be read by everyone who uses archival materials, although it has little to do with past practice in this most recondite of medieval disciplines since she is almost single-handedly attempting to introduce semiotic analysis into the very heart of the analysis of medieval charters, the rockbed of all medieval historical investigations. Similarly, Leo Treitler treats us to a splendid survey of the rise of medieval musical and notational systems that argues persuasively for the importance of its study for comprehending not only the history of music, but of oral and written composition generally. Like Biddick and others represented in this volume, Treitler believes that one of the most significant aspects in the history of musical medieval studies has been the failure of text- critical methods to produce "truth" and certainty in the field and advocates in its place an interpretive mode more closely related to those employed by ethnologists and folklorists. The adoption of this new approach, he claims, would constitute a radical shift in a field "that has from the beginning been informed by a philological stance and goals learned from Classics and tied to written texts"[p. 358].

In what is perhaps the most intriguing of the essays included in this volume, Lee Patterson champions a "Return to Philology," a title self-consciously modeled on an article of the same name by the late Paul de Man. Although de Man understood philology in a highly deconstructionist manner not shared by Patterson, the essay takes as its point of departure de Man's keen awareness that the postmodern turn to theory occurred as a return to philology, that is, to "an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces." [p. 236], the result of which is a willingness to defer interpretation in favor of an investigation of the text as text. Ideally, what philological inquiry practices is close reading, with attention paid to the philological or rhetorical devices of language, the ultimate outcome of which is what de Man called "negative knowledge", the recognition that "it is not certain that literature is a reliable source of information about anything." It is from this "negative" achievement that philology derives its subversive edge, its power to undermine humanistic pieties about the utility of learning and the study of literature. For Patterson, the very isolation of medievalists from the mainstream of current academic concerns poses the same kind of challenge to contemporary literary study that de Man claimed for philology —namely, the scandal that "the whole enterprise cannot be justified in terms of social effectiveness." The very attentiveness to historical difference and the maintenance of unfashionable scholarly practices that constitute the hallmark of modern medievalism issues, finally, in a belief, as Patterson states, that "knowledge is its own warrant and its value must remain a hostage to the future." What Patterson is suggesting is that as medievalists we have been blind to the power and potential of the very things we tend to construe as weaknesses and that, therefore, far from trying to advertise the extent to which we share the same interests as our colleagues in other fields, we should brazenly declare pride in our intractable penchant for pedantry, our capacity for "Sitzfleisch", and our fascination with the difficult, the obscure and the esoteric" [p. 241].

A final essay by John Van Engen takes a long view of the development of medieval studies in North America, focusing on some of the inherent paradoxes that marked the enterprise from the beginning. Although medieval civilization represented the triumphal past of "Catholicism" and "Gothic culture," a world organized according to the dictates of a deeply traditionalistic outlook on life and social customs, in North America its first historians tended to be Protestant, enlightened and revolutionary founders, who entertained serious doubts early on about the utility of medieval culture viewed as the parent civilization of the modern West, hence inevitably, (in their thought) of America itself. To be sure, Henry Adams ushered in a new era by embracing, with emotional intensity, what was in some sense — at least from the perspective of Enlightenment thinkers — its most offensive aspects, but his passionate, slightly irrational, celebration of the medieval past was not to be continued. Instead, under the leadership of Charles Homer Haskins, American scholarship was to dedicate itself, virtually down to the present time, to the investigation of the political and institutional development of the monarchical states of northern Europe, in particular England and France. Progressive and Democratic in their politics, as Norman Cantor has convincingly demonstrated in his recent, entertaining (if somewhat nasty) book, Inventing the Middle Ages, Haskins and his most famous pupil, Joseph Reese Strayer, were to direct toward institutional matters the practice of medieval history in North America from the 1920s down through the late eighties. It is clear, however, as Cantor shows and Van Engen seconds, that the paradox here is more apparent than real, for neither Haskins nor Strayer were interested in monarchy as such, but rather, as the title of one of Strayer's more popular works announces, in "the medieval origins of the modern state", a concern which earned Strayer decades of employment as a consultant to the CIA. A second interest of Haskins's was science (he helped to found both the Medieval Academy of America, along with its journal Speculum, and Isis, a journal still dedicated to the history of science in very much the terms of its founding by Haskins), and this aspect of his influence was continued and amplified by Lynn White's investigations into the history of technology, beginning in the 1950s, the effects of which were, in Van Engen's helpful phrasing, "to rewrite medieval culture to approximate American dynamism" [p. 414]. (In a characteristic gesture, Cantor notes that Haskins's prospects for a career at Harvard, where he was invited to teach in 1910, were enormously boosted by the fortuitous departure of White to head a women's college in California). A parallel consequence of Haskins's dominance, Cantor has argued, was to leave medieval studies in America firmly in the hands of "a small enclosed world of determined, middle-class WASPS, ruling unchallenged (before the German emigration of the late thirties) on the history of Roman Catholic Europe," [Inventing the Middle Ages, p. 254] for the teaching of which Catholics knew intuitively they need not apply.

It is precisely on this point of the social recruitment of American medievalists that Van Engen offers some of his most insightful and helpful comments. With a great deal more nuance than Cantor, he seeks to understand the motivations that have prompted Americans to take up the study of the Middle Ages, in whatever aspect, in light of its absolute remove in space as well as time from their personal and/or familial experience. Even for those with cultural roots in Europe, most came, Van Engen believes, from among peasants, the unfree or dispossessed, retaining, therefore,"little personal stake in the old European order" [p. 414], much less in the nobility Americans have tended to make the object of their social history. Moreover, Van Engen insists, "the sting of that removal was real...the heirs to those immigrants have never been able to decide whether they should spitefully keep their distance, avoiding that old corruption, or return to Europe with pent-up intensity, reclaiming or making space for all that was once denied them. The study of the European Middle Ages remains for Americans a continuing dialectic between connection and disjunction, the tug of social and cultural features still influential among us and the shimmer of something totally and yet perceptibly other." [p. 414]. Surely, this — together with the here unexamined influence on American scholarship of the German Jewish refugees (Panofsky, Kantorowicz etc) — provides one of the profound reasons for our current disorientation, or to put it more positively, re-orientation, in the study of the Middle Ages. For ours is the first generation of those immigrants, both from among the dispossessed of the "old European order" and the refugees from Hitler's Europe, to enter the American Academy in massive numbers, bringing with it all the ambivalence toward and desire for mastery over that world we have all, in some deep way, lost. Given this, it is hardly surprising that the most powerful sense of the Middle Ages now current in the Academy is what passes under the name of its "alterity", for that hermeneutic alterity offers the best means of escaping from the model of total (and totalitarian) identification which was one of the chief modes of studying the Middle Ages in the past. The critical question for our generation, Van Engen concludes, is "whether medieval Europe still has the compelling quality of something worth studying and quarreling about, whether indeed it has any noteworthy function in public culture, or is merely one possible origin, one possible figure of the distantly "other", among which Americans could choose?" In a sense, this final question subtends all the essays in the book, haunting the investigation of our past practices, which increasingly seem distant and unsustainable. How it shall ultimately be answered, only the future will tell.