The Post-Historical Middle Ages (review)
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The Post-Historical Middle Ages. Edited by Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Federico. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Pp. xii + 237. $90.

The front cover of this essay collection gives equal space to a picture of Karl Marx and a medieval manuscript, but neither of them is at the center of what the editors and contributors really have in mind for their readers. In fact, George Edmondson’s essay on the “Naked Chaucer” in Brian Helgeland’s 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale may serve to explain why Marx and manuscripts can only serve as backdrops to the scholarship presented in this volume. Edmonson posits that if [End Page 520] “the naked Geoff” in Helgeland’s movie “acknowledges that the figure of Chaucer always belongs partly to another time and place than his own, that he is always at least partly dispersed—at any time more Geoff than Geoffrey—he also represents a Chaucer who might yet elude the trappings of monumental history.” Thus, a naked or at least uncanny Chaucer obliges us to acknowledge “that we live in a world of second natures, symbolic forms that may continue to exist, in undead states, long after the life forms that animated them have fallen away” (p. 147). In Chaucer’s case, then, we only know him in a recontextualized state, after he has become equated with his own texts in the fifteenth century, at a point when he has already become “an ambiguous object, the vehicle of desire,” to which are added ever-new layers of reception (p. 146). Without succumbing to an unacademic presentism, Edmondson would want medievalists to abandon a dominant Pattersonian notion of historicism as the moral obligation to understand those who preceded us solely in terms with which they themselves would have been familiar. He sees contemporary medievalists’ ethical obligation extending that perspective to one that sees history as “a discontinuous sequence of synchronic periods, each one haunted by the moment of its diachronic foundation” (p. 141).

This kind of continued historicizing of earlier historicisms is what the editors, Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala, seek to promote, and the title of their introductory essay, “Getting Post-Historical,” aligns their goals with those of Carolyn Dinshaw, whose 1999 monograph Getting Medieval exemplifies the kind of complex nonteleological perspective that crosses the boundaries of genre, place, time, and reality to shed new light on medieval as well as modern modes, practices, and mentalities. If Edmondson advocates for a similarly complex and recontextualized Chaucer on the basis of medieval and postmedieval evidence, Federico and Scala, more generally, hark back not to Marx’s own nineteenth-century historicism but rather to its recontextualizations, as part of the New Historicism, by medieval scholars such as David Aers, Sheila Delany, Paul Strohm, David Wallace, and Lee Patterson. While these medievalists are credited with extricating scholarship from the stranglehold of New Critical and exegetical approaches, they are at the same time held responsible for gradually abandoning the critical edge of the once avant-garde “New” Historicism. “Historicist practice,” the editors state, “has not, as [Lee] Patterson called for, resisted the claims to power of its literary and critical texts; rather, over the course of its long tenure it inevitably has claimed, and now often wields, that power for itself” (p. 3). Federico and Scala propose that alternate, especially psychoanalytically informed modes of historicizing medieval texts as well as critical investigations of the discipline of medieval studies are best equipped to challenge the hegemonic historicism currently confining medieval studies.

Elizabeth Scala’s own essay on “The Gender of Historicism” is a fascinating example of the latter approach. By looking at various cases in which the work of women medievalists engaged in feminine and feminizing French psychoanalytic theory have been silenced, maligned, and attacked by the alpha males of a masculinist Germanic (new) historicism, she reveals historicism as an integral “part of the structure of fealty that holds together the field of medieval studies today” (p. 204). To Scala, then, the reason why a complex, feminized/feminizing, and destabilizing French psychoanalysis has not found more acceptance by the medievalist professoriate lies with the “sharply wielded patronage system” (p...