It has been almost two decades since the last issue of New Literary History devoted to medieval studies. Someone born that year could vote this year in most of the world’s democracies. The likelihood of living in such a democracy, too, has greatly increased, as has the likelihood of dying subjected to creeping forms of global capitalism. The Cold War has ended, and with it some of the world’s greatest experiments in social engineering. Where Marxism is not being etiolated into a practical form of capitalism it is more likely to engage itself with forms of social capital than with “real” capital. And with the spread of the most traumatic pandemic since the Middle Ages have come new flows of exchange, identity, pleasure, and desire.
But medieval studies still has not been reestablished in the educational canon. Hans Robert Jauss’s hope expressed on the first page of that issue that a “reestablishment of interest” in medieval studies would outlast the “technocratic regression of the pessimistic seventies” 1 has probably not been answered, as medievalists teaching at most major universities today would attest. Nor has the problem raised by Brian Stock in his piece found its resolution, as he suggested it would not. We are faced with a two-fold problem, he says: “how, on the one hand, to sustain interest in a period whose discontinuity with the present cannot be easily overcome and, at the same time, to avoid the distortions which, while making the Middle Ages more accessible, prevent any genuine understanding of its inner artistic or spiritual life.” 2 It is a problem we all, as teachers of the Middle Ages, continually confront, competing with the dazzling allure and immediate relevance of the subjects that some of our colleagues teach. It is a problem compounded by the scrupulous reluctance of some of us to make our work more alluring and relevant in a fin-de-siècle, popular culture sort of way and by the conviction that in the very otherness of the Middle Ages lies its appeal. Without the conviction that otherness is a problem, and a problem that in its particular manifestation of temporal alterity did not exist in the Middle Ages, we run the danger of replicating the conditions of our own culture, with its demands for nostalgia, simplicity, and political clarity.
We may be closer, but not much closer, to listening to Stock’s eloquent [End Page 157] warning that we “must learn to live with [our] own interpretive structures and, in a less embarrassed manner than in the past, to use them to advantage” (399). Those who survived the 1995 Interscripta discussion on cultural studies and the notion of the everyday in the Middle Ages will know that embarrassment has, if anything, been replaced by irritation and incivility (protracted, sad to relate, by one of the present writers). Lying behind the intense affections that surface is a confusion over what, precisely, are the interpretive structures of the medievalist eighteen years on. In 1979, it is fairly clear that hermeneutics and/or semiotics were dominant discourses, following in the wake of early Derrida, of Ricoeur’s discourse analysis, and Jakobsen’s cognitive analysis of verbal performance. It is not as clear, now, what constitutes the prevailing “interpretive structure,” or even whether it is still relevant to talk about interpretation, much less structures. Discourses that dominate are certainly gender studies and queer theory, although the extent of their dominion is still unclear. Yet they represent some of the most coherent and focused theoretical approaches to the Middle Ages. At the same time, however, these approaches are metonymically interested in medieval cultures, and run the risk either of excluding crucial aspects of the Middle Ages or of allowing themselves to become so attenuated in other discursive registers that the force of their particularity is lost.
While these essays do not represent a “new” approach to the Middle Ages, they do represent new approaches. Some may take up theoretical topics and theorists that are new to the Middle Ages, such as Jeffrey Cohen’s Deleuzian-inflected piece on masochism in Chrétien’s Lancelot, or...