- The Problem of the Premodern
Humanism, the premodern, the posthuman, medieval and early modern studies, periodicity, the “subject”, hybridity, Troilus and Criseyde
Many scholars of early British literature share a frustration with period labels, for we know that the ascension of Henry VII in 1485, which marks the beginning of the Tudor period, did not occasion a generative break with a benighted past. Continuance abounds even in the most tumultuous circumstances; as David Matthews and Gordon McMullan note, the cultures of religious reform offer an especially fruitful point of continuity (1–14). It is an expansive idea of cultural reform, in fact, that prompts James Simpson to focus his pioneering literary history on the years between 1350 and 1547. Yet, as he observes in a moment of leave-taking, “Despite the many connections between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ culture, . . . there are, I am now convinced, very significant changes of cultural practice in the first half of the sixteenth century” (558).
These changes occur on several cultural stages. They are linguistic, as John Foxe’s audiences can see when he cautions readers concerning the “olde English” of the anti-fraternal satire Jack Upland (late 1400s) (335). They are also religious, as audiences of Sir John Oldcastle (1600) can see when the play invokes John Wyclif as a figure of majesty and mystery, whose unexplained and unlawful doctrines empower as well as endanger the titular hero. Some of the most fraught changes, though, pertain to ideas of the human. Medievalists cringe (or worse) at Jacob Burckhardt’s contention that the Renaissance saw “The Development of the Individual” in Italy after 1400.1 As a correction to this kind of reductive assessment, a host of medievalist criticism is dedicated to outlining a discrete yet riven subject, whose interiority is responsive to specific cultural demands. As this work shows, it is vitally important to dispel simplistic accounts of earlier literatures and cultures.2 Nevertheless, I believe the “we were there first” argument is a disservice to medieval and early modern writers, along with the scholars who study them. [End Page 146]
This conviction rests on the contention, elaborated here, that we should not be eager to claim the privileged version of human centrality that is the enduring legacy of this debate. Doing so, in short, is historically unfaithful to the multiplicity inherent within British literatures and cultures up through the seventeenth century. This is not to say, of course, that a grand narrative of human centrality did not emerge, or that its cultural prestige has been diminished for our critical present.3 It is, rather, to urge scholars to think about how a particular form of human privilege took shape, and how it gained the lasting power it did, especially given the ethical, political, and material costs—nonhuman but also human—that this account continues to entail. The story of how we became human cannot be confined to one period, one discipline, or one language. Yet, in the brief remarks that follow, I would like to focus attention on “premodern humanism” as a critical problem that British literature scholars working on either side of 1485 might join together to address in creative and constructive ways.
As recent scholarship attests, twelfth-through fifteenth-century writers nourish a hybrid notion of the human, with autological contours that are not yet fixed.4 And, while the fluidity of this subject triggers prejudicial reactions—against heretics, infidels, women, animals, and sundry Others—early British writings retain a creative sense of productive connection between all kinds of bodies. One need only recall the goshawk-knight of Marie de France’s “Yonec” (c. 1200) to understand the porous nonhuman-human divide. Similarly, numerous writings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries feature radical artistic conjunctions that manifest a willingness to think across nonhuman-human boundaries. Although he deliberately invokes the medieval travelogue Mandeville’s Travels (c. 1400), Sir Walter Ralegh’s fantastic creatures in The Discovery of Guiana (1596) are meant to evoke the wonder of New World discovery for contemporary audiences. Nevertheless, over successive centuries the nonhuman-human divide becomes more recognizable, more embedded, and more aggressive.
This entrenchment does not happen following a clean...