- Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England
Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England is an ambitious collaborative essay volume that succeeds both in its specific scholarly aims and in articulating a number of more general intellectual possibilities and desires for medievalists and early modernists concerned with questions of periodization, the temporality of texts and disciplines, the historicity of individual and national identities, and the past of the past. The editors' introduction outlines the general argument of the project: "that the early modern must be defined not in distinction from the medieval but through it, that the urge to periodise and the development of the [End Page 1018] concept of nationhood are wholly interpenetrated, and that the reading of the medieval in early modern England has in several ways bequeathed to us our understanding of both the medieval and the early modern" (7). On top of this relatively generic historical thesis the volume floats a more complex correlative vision for its relevance to the present, namely, that it gives witness to fundamental reconfigurations in our understanding and practice of the boundary between the medieval and the modern.
The first essay, James Simpson's "Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies," reads the debate over Purgatory between Simon Fish's Supplication for the Beggars (1528) and Thomas More's Supplication of Souls (1529) as emblematic of the "strategies of . . . 'past-creation'" (22) pervading the 1530s and 1540s, strategies that, by virtue of their imprisonment within "the binary, revolutionary logic that underlines the very notion of periodisation" (28), initiate the "five-hundred-year historical agon" (29) of the medieval/modern distinction. Following Simpson's lead — indeed, Simpson's Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002) is noticeable reference point throughout the volume — McMullan and Matthews see their book as a sign "that this agon may be nearing its end" (4). So what might/can/will this boundary become? Essentially, Reading the Medieval desires not so much the disappearance of the medieval/modern distinction as its receding within the deeper horizons of more present-minded scholarship. Simpson thus critiques "the theme and the tools of medieval studies" as melancholic devices that "guarantee our alienation from the 'medieval'" (28), appeals instead to "a Gadamerian version of historiography" (29), and imagines "the transformation of a rigidly philological historicism into scholarship unashamed of its own historicity" (30). So David Wallace, whose Premodern Places (2004) is a recent example of such scholarship, and whose afterword serves as a prepackaged review of the volume, compares the Reformation and the Middle Passage in order to persuade "medieval philologists . . . to consider more contemporary work, poetic and scholarly, achieved in the face of social and cultural disintegration" (226) and calls more generally for "greater and longer mappings of human experience" (227). Note that the burden of this transformation is here named as falling especially on medievalists, despite the fact that, as Wallace mentions, "most of the new initiatives in medieval and Renaissance studies" have "been made by medievalists reading forwards rather than by Renaissance scholars reading back" (220). Perhaps this is another, higher order instance of medievalists (p)reserving an identity of peripheral centrality, of misplaced originality within the literary humanities. Do not all fields have their proper philologies, literal and symbolic, to which they are melancholically attached? I prefer to think of the institution of alterity within medieval studies not as a site of special responsibility for breaking down past and present binarisms, but as a place of promise, a potentiality, that medievalists are increasingly exporting, like a plague of otherness, beyond their traditional boundaries precisely because it has such breaking-down as its essential function. As Louise O. Frandenburg explains, "Though the difference or 'otherness' or 'alterity' of the [End Page 1019] Middle Ages is thus urged upon us, the interpretive deal is one in which hermeneutic otherness, difference, or disagreement, is in fact purged" ("'Voice Memorial': Loss and Reparation in Chaucer's Poetry," Exemplaria 2 : 173).
The power of Reading...