12.04.28, Chazelle et al., eds., Why The Middle Ages Matter

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Glenn W. Olsen

The Medieval Review 12.04.28

Chazelle, Celia, Simon Doubleday, Felice Lifshitz and Amy G. Remensnyder. Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice. London: Routledge, 2012. Pp. 208. ISBN: 978-0-415-78065-0.

Reviewed by:
Glenn W. Olsen
University of Utah

The goal of the present book is to engage the contemporary reader by showing how various things considered unjust today were handled by our medieval predecessors. The intention is not to make a case for the superiority of one period or the other, but to enlarge understanding. The four editors begin with an Introduction that places their project in succession to awareness of the limitations and deceits of the idea that history can be composed in a neutral and objective manner. The historian must approach the past from the perspective of the present, of the problems of the present, of the needs for social justice of the present. Perhaps knowing the past may awaken the imagination to paths leading to the diminution of current injustice. The past to be known is not simply that of the powerful: indeed the often formerly unproblematic presumption of the goodness of power fails if we are in pursuit of justice. It is not clear to me whether the editors see a paradox in wanting to empower the formerly powerless. But so far, so good.

Next we are told that historians are obliged to give voice to the silenced of the past. Without denying that doing so would be a good thing, I would like to see an argument, here or elsewhere in this book, grounding this obligation, or the attendant notion that we are all historians of human rights. There is a tendency in this book not to define or philosophically ground such terms as "power" and "rights" (neither word appears in the index), but more to assume that we all understand and approve current usage, and find it adequate. Similarly, though I can not recall any of John Boswell's (with Howard Zinn one of the persons to whom this book is dedicated "in memoriam") students speaking any way but fondly of their years of study with him, it does not seem quite right to write of his publications that "they remain prized today by gays and lesbians" (6), without noting that from the first there has been serious criticism directed against his views (see my Of Sodomites, Effeminates, Hermaphrodites, and Androgynes: Sodomy in the Age of Peter Damian. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011).

The Introduction closes with useful suggestions as to how medieval environmental history might be taught. Instead of speaking of the early medieval retreat from Roman practices epitomized by garbage dumps full of pottery fragments as a decline in the standard of living or a decline of civilization, Roman consumerism might be contrasted unfavorably with the benefits of medieval emphasis on local production, consumption, and exchange. I note that the opposite side of this coin is that we might have to call the recovery of long distance trade and cities in the High Middle Ages a decline of civilization, or at least acknowledge the relative success of other times and places such as contemporary Germany in reconciling urbanism with the preservation of the "natural" environment. Then medieval history could be understood as part of a very long series of experiments in quest of finding the place of humans in the environment (née cosmos), a quest that virtually rules out any single narrative line, and only comes to full consciousness long after the Middle Ages. Presumably the whole terminology of "Middle Ages" (qualified but not abandoned in this book), which tends to preserve the progressive narrative of history beloved of the Enlightenment(s), could itself be left behind. But then we would have to stop speaking, as the editors do, of encouraging "optimism that change is always possible" (12). Change certainly is always with us, but it is a large question whether fostering optimism about its beneficent control is not one more form of "the Whig interpretation of history." At the least, if understanding is our true goal, a good word might be put in for such medieval categories as Original Sin and tragedy, and the suggestion made that possibly history has a dramatic form, that is, is about the continuing struggle of good and evil (Geoffrey Koziol does suggest this).

The contemporary problem that provides Celia Chazelle's "Crime and Punishment: Penalizing without Prisons" its point of departure is the fact that the United States has the largest percent of its population incarcerated of any in the world. Chazelle observes that the early Middle Ages was much more concerned than we are with the reintegration of wrongdoers into society. Whereas we largely rely on a judicial apparatus for criminal justice, early medieval justice used a system of dispute resolution, not necessarily thinking of even murder as a crime. Reparation and penance were to be used to the end of the reestablishment of "love," viable social bonds, between wrongdoer and community. Chazelle provides a list of possible reforms today, centering on allowing offenders to live and work among their relatives and neighbors, rather than being incarcerated at a distance from them. It is probably fair to say that in general one learns less about the Middle Ages itself from a book composed of such pieces than from the traditional introductory medieval anthology, but this essay succeeds admirably in showing the relevance of medieval studies for illuminating the present.

The second essay, by G. Geltner, is on "Social Deviancy: A Medieval Approach." It centers on what some call the marginalizing institutions of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries: hospitals, brothels, leper-houses, prisons, and Jewish quarters. The language of "marginalizing" begs important questions of causation and change over time, but in service to affirmation of the idea that these semi- inclusive institutions benefited the weakest in society in ways from which we could learn. The argument is in line with Chazelle's earlier quest to keep social bonds alive between prisoners and families and neighbors, but the essay has all the limitations of trying to treat a large subject in a small compass.

The following essay, Frederick S. Paxton's "End of Life: Listening to the Monks of Cluny," is very interesting. After the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment people die very differently than before. Formerly, death was a family and liturgical event. Now, by and large, it has moved from the home to the hospital, and the role of ritual has decreased. Death is more defined by the clinic than by the family or the church, and it is kept out of sight. Most prominent of the protests against this development has been the hospice movement, in some respects a return to the Middle Ages. Less known is the practice of music-thanatology, dying with music, at the center of which is Therese Schroeder-Sheker, with whom Paxton has collaborated. For Christians death is birth into eternal life, and music thanatology, as Shroeder-Sheker conceives it, is training in midwifery of the soul, preparation for birth into eternal life. A music thanatologist is a "contemplative musician" in Schroeder-Sheker's view, delivering voice and harp music, avoiding songs known to the dying person because the goal is to disengage him or her from this world. This "singing people through the transition from this life to the next" (45) is rooted in the practices of the medieval Cluniac monks, hence the title of this paper. Paxton traces the many birth pangs of this movement, streams of which depart significantly from Schroeder-Sheker's ideas, and Paxton stresses that since this is a practice intended for the contemporary world, its connection to what the Cluniacs once did is rather limited.

Ruth Mazo Karras' "Marriage: Medieval Couples and the Uses of Tradition" is another short essay on a vast topic. Karras focuses on the analogous arguments for and against clerical marriage and same-sex unions made then and now. Compared are the medieval and modern appeals to scripture, notions of purity, conceptions of social order, and practice of toleration. Felice Lifshitz' "Women: The Da Vinci Code, and the Fabrication of Tradition" introduces those unfamiliar with the Middle Ages to a number of facts that must qualify generalizations as that across the centuries women have been victimized. Lifshitz emphasizes understanding practices within their social context, and that one can not easily play off an unenlightened pre-modernity against the present. In the Middle Ages some women were powerful, some learned, some respected. Lifshitz is one of those many medievalists who were never taken in by the Da Vinci Code, and most of her essay is given over to a spot-on demonstration that the Code is more anti-feminist than feminist.

Mathew Kuefler, "Homosexuality: Augustine and the Christian Closet," develops one part of the long story of the struggle in Christianity between professed ideals and actual practice, the Christian closet as it appears in the time of Augustine. Kuefler's view is that it is likely that Augustine had a sexual past containing "homoerotic sexual expression" (79). He gives a rereading of Augustine's sexual biography that is not particularly well informed. For instance, in his comments about the classical ideal of friendship as only possible between men, he does not take into account all Augustine says about marital friendship, as studied, say, by Emile Schmitt. In my opinion, Kuefler's rereading is possible, but not likely. He has rather undifferentiated views of ancient same-sex intimacy (again, cf. the opening chapters of my Of Sodomites). He, like Karras earlier, seems not fully to appreciate the depth of the Christian debt on matters sexual to some of the classical thinkers.

Dyan Elliott's "Sexual Scandal and the Clergy: A Medieval Blueprint for Disaster" challenges those who think the suppression and denial by the higher clergy of sexual abuse over the centuries to be a corruption of procedure: her argument is that "this pattern of evasion has been shaped by centuries of discussion in canon (church) law and theology about how to contend with clerical criminality and scandal" (91). That is, clerical sexual scandal may or may not be something hidden from view, but its specific form is something carried down the centuries by clerical culture. Although one might quibble over a few things said, Elliott gives a very helpful overview of the ways that canon law and theology have sought to protect the reputation of the clergy to the present. Whether the remedies she suggests for this cult of secrecy--primarily the abolition of clerical celibacy and adoption of clerical marriage--actually would work is another question. The incidence of sexual abuse and practice of secrecy in that regard seem to be quite common in those churches with a married clergy.

The next essay, "Labor: Insights from a Medieval Monastery," by Martha G. Newman, full of useful distinctions, is excellent. The essay, focused on the ideas of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Cistercians, is directed against the still widespread views on work of Max Weber, and properly notes that in no period has there been a single view of labor. The essay is set against the backdrop of the commodification of labor in capitalism, to which medieval views are contrasted, but not romantically, with due attention to the anticipation of modern conditions in the Middle Ages. Especially of concern is the relation between labor and human identity, on the way work transforms, or may transform, body, mind, and self. Also of interest are the distinctions drawn between God's work, especially creation and by extension human spiritual endeavor and discipline, and work as a punishment and penance for sin, work as toil and pain. For the monks, work could be a form of ascetic discipline or of the "exploration of the possibilities of human physicality" (111); "work could produce a reformed human being" (112). Newman cites a number of Cistercians, showing the emergence of an appreciation of the economic value of work similar to that of some of the early scholastics.

Kristina Richardson turns to "Disability? Perspectives on Bodily Difference from the Middle East," asking what might be learned from re-envisioning the medieval Islamic world in the field of disability studies. Noting that 60% of Afghan suicide bombers are "disabled," Richardson traces the parallels between medieval and contemporary ideas about how to mitigate disabilities or broaden the lives of the disabled, and proposes that we treat disability as a socially constructed category. Next is Maghan Keita, "Race: What the Bookstore Hid," an attack on myths of racial homogeneity, and specifically an attempt to write Africans into English history. According to this account and classification, the first scientifically proved case of an African in England is that of a thirteenth-century man from the Maghreb. The essay uses Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthurian tales, and is directed against "the popular modern view of medieval 'Western' culture as 'white,' Christian, and European, unmixed with other religions or ethnicities." Those who do not hold this view, or are bothered by the frequent shifts in this essay between the category "African" and the category "black," may be unsatisfied.

Next treated are "Refugees: Views from Thirteenth-Century France," by Megan Cassidy-Welch. One of the goals of this chapter, handily accomplished, is to show that refugees are not a specific product of modernity, but existed much earlier. Jewish history illustrates this, but so does Albigensian history, specifically the Albigensian Crusade, Cassidy-Welch argues, devoting the rest of her chapter to this. Amy G. Remensnyder, "Torture and Truth: Torquemada's Ghost," intelligently examines the use of "the Spanish Inquisition as a negative foil for modern values" (155), and in giving an overview of torture's past, shows how the Middle Ages can provide opponents of torture a useful weapon. It is not that torture never works in getting at the truth-- it can--but that in a period in which it was a legal method for obtaining confessions, there were regularized means for its exercise lacking in our culture. The presence of these, according to some modern experts, gives the best chance of producing accurate evidence. Truth, not punishment, was the goal. That said, "the Spanish Inquisition teaches modern policy makers the negative lesson that torture is an extremely poor method of obtaining accurate information" (164).

Peter Linebaugh's "Class Justice: Why We Need a Wat Tyler Day," seems to me a more philosophically problematic piece. If one finds the "ideal of the commons" (169) attractive, one will likely find this article attractive; if one wants this ideal grounded in careful argument, countering say the arguments of Plato or Aristotle for the natural inequality of humans, one should go elsewhere. The article in delineating the Peasants Revolt of 1381 traces the connections between the ideals of equality and of the commons, and selectively traces these to the present. There follows "Leadership: Why We Have Mirrors for Princes but None for Presidents," by the always thoughtful Geoffrey Koziol. This essay centering on the Carolingian period explains the issues and costs of the elimination in liberal political theory of such categories as "wisdom," and the banishment of ethics from public political discourse. Koziol, n. 5, says there is no English translation of Gregory I's Moralia, but there is (not easily available, but I have a copy), in A Library of Fathers, 3 vols. (1844-47).

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Glenn W. Olsen

University of Utah