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In Praise of Messiness, or What is Gained by Losing Strong Periodization?
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In his extraordinary book Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn, David Wallace has a chapter entitled “Genoa,” a version of which appeared prior to its inclusion in the book under the title “Chaucer and the Slave Trade.” In a synopsis of that chapter, which is found in the book’s introduction, Wallace writes, “A first visualization of Chaucer crossing the lines of the slave trade comes as a shock . . . : it messes with every kind of periodization and disciplinary division that has structured our . . . thinking; Chaucer and slavery have inhabited quite different parts of the English curricular woods. But in coming to Genoa, Chaucer undoubtedly crosses global circuits of trade that had long linked . . . Genoa to Caffa and Alexandria” (5–6). Messing with periodization has become something of a trend in medieval studies recently. It has certainly been central to my own recent work. Let me begin by recounting briefly something that messed with my sense of the relationship of the medieval and the early modern in a big way, a big enough way that it led to my most recently published book.1 Then, I want to spend some time contemplating the implications and benefits for medievalists and early modernists alike of messing with the categories of “medieval” and “modern.”

Several years ago, I encountered this passage in a text by an early British female author:

When I lay in my bed of sorrow . . . then ugly shapes and a fearful view of hellish figures and monstrous apparitions presented themselves unto my mind. . . . And in the instant thereof there was the figure of the face of a man exulted and lifted up. Whereupon I settled the eye of my mind most fixedly, beholding well the countenance of that face which was so dolorous and sorrowful as no heart can imagine. . . . And in the very same instant of my beholding that face my heart was stirred up to apprehend with a deep impression, the sorrows of Christ’s death, hanging upon the cross, sweating water and blood in the garden, his stripes, buffets and spittings in his face, with a meditation thereupon. And immediately in the same instant all the said fearful shapes vanished away to the great consolation of my mind. For I was most assuredly persuaded in my heart that Jesus Christ together with God his heavenly father and the Holy Ghost . . . did vouch-safe to visit me in this my bed of sorrow.2

Now, I am trained as a medievalist, specifically as a scholar of medieval female spirituality. So, when I read this passage, I found something very familiar to me. It sounds quite like passages I have found in the writings of various medieval female mystics and visionaries; it especially reminded me of the sixteenth revelation (particularly chapters 66–69) in the Long Text of Julian of Norwich’s Showings. However, this passage does not come from the writings of a medieval mystic or visionary. Rather, it is from the meditations of a Protestant English gentrywoman named Grace Mildmay, who lived from 1552 to 1620.

Accounts of English religious culture have historically tended to be organized so that Catholicism and Protestantism, the medieval and the early modern, are mutually exclusive “others.” I hasten to add (lest I offend my early modernist colleagues) that such binarism, though still pervasive, is not, of course, universal, and I am certainly not the first to challenge it (and I do so rather less combatively than some others, since I now see myself as almost as much of an early modernist as a medievalist). An excellent departure from this either/or perspective is Anthony Milton’s Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640. Alexandra Walsham’s scholarship also provides exemplary models of a more nuanced stance as in, for example, her book Church Papists: Catholics, Conformity, and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England. Other more recent efforts to paint a more subtle picture of the religious landscape in early modern England are found in the essays collected in the volume Catholics and the “Protestant Nation”: Religion, Politics, and Identity in Early Modern England. Generally, though, each religion, each period, is defined in...



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