Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Long Thirteenth Century

A really interesting conversation began a week or so ago in the blogosphere about periodization and the value of "early modern" as a label:

A Periodization Collation

However, it turned into a debate on the merits of Stephen Greenblatt's newish book, The Swerve, after he was given an award by the MLA. Many medievalists took issue with his construction of a world in which first there were the dark ages and then *boom!* there was modernity:

Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong and Why it Matters

The Swerve and the Prize

Modernity is Not History

I'm not sure I fully agree with the characterization of the book (about which, incidentally, I've had a post in the works for a while now, hopefully to be completed over the winter). Besides that, though, I get the impression that the swerve towards The Swerve is as much about popularization as it is about periodization. Greenblatt is an easy target not necessarily as much for what he writes as much as for the audience for whom he's writing. Loads of academics look down upon popularizers, that is, people who write for a general audience in addition to writing for an academic one. And I think that when popular writing comes into play, people tend to be less than honest about what's really at stake in any given debate. There tends to be a lot of huffing and puffing about inaccuracies and distortions and flattening out and omission as though it were a scholarly work and seemingly without any recognition or awareness that writing for different audiences requires different sets of priorities. In my immediate field, books like these two, just to choose the two that come immediately to mind, have been subject to that treatment.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating bad history, even though I am, I suppose, fundamentally a literature scholar. (I reject the polarity of the distinction between literary and historical writing — although that's an issue that deserves a separate post — and am defending myself against the anticipation of a charge, that people who read literature don't care about historical narrative, that I hear made all the time.) It just strikes me that there's a lot under the surface to the effect of how dare he write for the uninitiated?! that it might be worth unpacking before continuing a debate.

It might also be worth considering that discussions like this one tend not to happen until there are awards in play.


Returning to the issue that is explicitly at hand, though, periodization has been a topic near the front of my mind this whole year. The fellowship that I'm holding is thirteenth century-themed. At the start of the year, there was a round-table discussion amongst the most senior of the fellows about the extent to which . The bottom line, at least from that brief discussion was that from an institutional and intellectual history perspective, the thirteenth century does cohere as a unit, but from a social-cultural history perspective, it doesn't.

Even as an intellectual historian, though, the thirteenth century doesn't totally work for me. When I first wrote my proposal for the fellowship, I was pretty sure I'd be discounted out of hand with a project that begins in 1150 and is basically, in its continuity, wrapped up by the middle of the 1230s. But when I arrived in the fall, I started to realize that my "long" thirteenth century was just about the shortest one in the group. We have thirteenth centuries that begin in the eleventh and some that end in the sixteenth. Say "the log thirteenth century" amongst this lot and you tap into what has become a running group gag. The more the year has worn on, the less it seems (unsurprisingly) that "the thirteenth century" isn't really a sensible period of time to talk about.

I don't have something really good to fill in the narrative void, though.

I wish I had more to say about this or a real and concrete conclusion to arrive at beyond saying that an arbitrary numerical system isn't going to map very well only any trends in history or literary production,  but I don't. Perhaps at some point in the future I'll have a dramatic flash of insight about the value or lack thereof of the thirteenth century. But until then, I at least wanted to jump into the discussion while it's still current-ish

No comments:

Post a Comment