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  • The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Peter Haidu . The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. Pp. xii + 448.

Haidu's first sentence gravely declares "The modern subject was invented in the Middle Ages, such is the thesis of this book, destined to disturb medievalists and modernists (including postmodernists) alike" (1). Yet extending the state back in time of itself does little to alter the contemporary contours of state forms. Such extension might be interesting but it cannot of itself sufficiently motivate an "effort to deal with a world increasingly seductive and terrifying" (6). I would give much just to know what Haidu means by "deal with." Behind that vague idiom lurk the unexpressed but amply intimated ambitions of the book.

Linking state and subject will not necessary have much to say to literary studies, unless literature itself can be shown to be part of this emergent state and its formulation of subjecthood. Haidu argues such weight is indeed literature's to bear: medieval texts "participate in the cultural invention of the subject as part of the political invention of the state" (2). The performative imperative that literature can launch helps to explain why Haidu turns to a canon of revered medieval French texts to explicate his argument. Canonicity also gives his materials a natural coherence.

The further the book moves from its vatic beginnings, the more compelling its unfolding critical narrative becomes. The impossible agenda set out early slowly recedes into a series of sophisticated readings that stress the complicated subject positions various texts engender. A sophisticated treatment of the Song of Roland (a poem Haidu made his own long ago) starts to foreground contradiction and heterogeneity better, so that by the time Chrétien de Troyes arrives the book's early reductiveness has given way to a generosity of interpretation. Prose that had seemed overly turgid becomes replete with an inventiveness that better suits its subject matter. The discussion of Marie de France as postcolonial writer could have been an interpretive tour de force, but its argument is weakened from its appearance ex nihilo: Haidu writes as if younger medievalists like Michelle Warren and Patricia Ingham had never contemplated similar questions.

The last chapter, on the criminal cleric François de Villon, offers a more satisfying meditation on being a "problematic subject" and subalternity. That turn to a renegade writer who composed "ballades for the voiceless," sometimes featuring prostitutes and working class women, sometimes written in argot, allows Haidu to speak his project as the book concludes with a directness that it previously lacked. Indeed, the conclusion is the most compelling section of the volume. His argument for memorialization of and affiliation with voices that might otherwise have been lost—voices that strain to be recognized in their desires, in their humanity, even after such things were denied them in life—seems to me among the best things that a medievalist's engagement with the past can achieve. Whether the modern subject is medieval and the medieval subject modern is, in the end, beside the point (how could they really have been otherwise?). What matters more are the exclusions from full subjecthood upon which the modern and medieval notions of the human are based, and the tools we have at hand (including history) that might yield a more capacious, less violence-limned and affirmative conception of what "human" really means.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
George Washington University


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