The Idea of a Middle Ages

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The Idea of a Middle Ages
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  Part I The Middle Ages  Chapter One The Idea of a Middle Ages Edward D. English and Carol Lansing  Understandings of the European Middle Ages have long been shaped by the old master narrative, in contradictory ways. The name itself was, of course, coined first by Renaissance humanists to characterize what they saw as a long stagnant, barbaric period between the cultural flowering of Antiquity and its rebirth in fourteenth-century Italy. 1  The idea was taken up by Enlightenment  philosophes  , who saw the period as one of superstitious ignorance. The term medieval is still commonly used to evoke savage barbarity; medieval scholars were amused when in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction   Ving Rhames turned on his former torturers and threatened to “get medieval” on them. 2 “Medieval” continues to be associated with backwardness, darkness, indiscriminate  violence. Bruce Holsinger has recently analyzed the ways in which politicians and pundits in a bizarre twist of Orientalism use the term to characterize Islamic oppo-nents like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, said of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “He personified the dark, sadistic and medieval vision of the future – of beheadings, suicide bombings, and indiscriminate killings.” 3  Some professional medievalists have echoed this approach, faintly, when they argue that the Middle Ages are best understood in terms of The Other or the grotesque. 4 Other views of the medieval were also driven by ideology. Crucially, many of the great source collections were created in the eighteenth century by professional reli-gious who sought to demonstrate the rationality of medieval religion while protecting the property and reputation of their contemporary Church. 5  The emphases in those collections have profoundly shaped the field of medieval history: orderly edited sources attract the most study. Popular culture has had a variety of influences as well.  With the opening of travel to a wider number of people from the mid-nineteenth century, Anglophone travelers and expatriates created a huge literature describing, for example, medieval and early Renaissance Italy, especially the city states, often with an emphasis on the oppressive hands of a retrogressive Catholicism. 6  The same period – even in the United States, founded as separate from the evils of the old European regimes – saw a romantic fascination with medieval culture and architecture. 7    4  edward d. english and carol lansing The Middle Ages were popular with pre-Civil War southern aristocrats worried about honor and chivalry. 8  Movies throughout the twentieth century brought a variety of ideas about what was medieval to popular culture. This was done complete with knights riding by the occasional telephone pole and enriched by the use of a faux dialect called “speaking medieval.” 9 Political regimes in the twentieth century recognized the value of the medieval past as a tool to legitimate themselves and also to encourage tourism. Mussolini in Italy did not just promote the cult of imperial Rome but also co-opted the Italian Middle Ages and Renaissance in spectacles and schemes to “restore” buildings and piazzas. 10  In contemporary Italy, one political party claims legitimation from the medieval past by holding rallies attended by men dressed as “Lombard Knights.” 11  The Middle Ages turned up again as part of the “Culture Wars” of the 1990s  when the attack of the newly elected congress led by Newt Gingrich on the funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) included ridicule of medieval projects. An NEH-funded program on teaching ways in which medieval people understood sex and gender directed by Edward English, one of this volume’s editors, came under attack. Besides a plain old-fashioned anti-intellectualism, these Republican members of Congress were uncomfortable with ideas that such concepts as sexuality and gender might have history that should be discussed in colleges and universities. 12 The discipline of medieval history was shaped in part by responses to these carica-tures. Twentieth-century professional medievalists in part responded with an emphasis on the ways in which the modern world srcinated in the Middle Ages. Colin Morris argued for a twelfth-century “discovery of the individual.” 13  Joseph Strayer’s 1970 On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State   is an influential example. Strayer pro-moted parliamentary systems and constitutional democracy, in response to the world  wars and totalitarianism. It is, of course, correct that many aspects of the modern  world ultimately derive from the European Middle Ages, including institutions such as universities and the Catholic Church. However, one effect of this approach has been to privilege the historical winners, aspects of medieval Europe that became important in later centuries, above all the nation state. To give a favorite example, arguably the liveliest cultural innovation in the thirteenth century was Mediterranean, centered on Frederick II’s polyglot court and administration in Palermo. Frederick’s response to papal pressure to go on Crusade was to travel to Jerusalem and hammer out a diplomatic solution, an effort that won him a papal excommunication. Sicily and the Italian south in later centuries suffered a long slide into overtaxed poverty and marginality. Textbook narratives therefore focus not on medieval Palermo,  with its Muslim and Jewish bureaucrats and Arabic-speaking monarch, but on the historical winners, Paris and London. What would the European Middle Ages look like without this contradictory intel-lectual baggage? The project is, of course, an impossibility: the questions of scholars are always informed by their experience. Our past is in the present. Still, some dra-matic scholarship has recovered aspects of medieval culture that have simply been left out. To give an example that is not reflected in this volume, the field of medieval English literature has recently been shaken up by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, who is mapping “the French of England”: late medieval English elites kept writing in French, producing a large volume of literature that has been little studied because
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