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Anna French – Reviewing Early Modern Culture

In gathering links for another of my intermittent trawls through the early modern internet, I came across an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books which requires more than just a passing reference.

‘Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters’ by Jim Hinch is an essay about the critic Stephen Greenblatt’s recent and award-winning book, The Swerve. Greenblatt is a revered figure, particularly in Shakespearean criticsm, and his early works, notably Renaissance Self-Fashioning and Shakespearean Negotiations, are required reading for anyone interested in early modern mentalities, society and culture.

Since then, however, Greenblatt has taken a more populist turn – his Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare, became a New York Times bestseller – and The Swerve is written with the general audience in mind. Nothing wrong with that, of course! But accusations have appeared in previous reviews of the book that Greenblatt isn’t just writing for a general audience, but maybe pandering to it. In his new LARB essay, Hinch does a wonderful job of showing how.

Students who’ve taken my first-year introduction to the early modern world will know that the Renaissance was a complicated and conflicted period, taking equal inspiration from the colour and artistic vibrancy of the medieval Catholic Church as from the Classical discoveries of the Humanists. Most importantly, they’ll know that the old-fashioned, Enlightenment vision of the Renaissance – in Italian the ‘Rinascimento’, or rebirth – is that it ‘rediscovered’ Europe’s Classical inheritance, the ancient Greek and Roman wisdom which had been forgotten and suppressed during the Catholic Church’s millenia of dominance. As with all easy stories, there’s a tiny grain of truth to this – but to write a serious work of history on this basis, as Greenblatt seems to have done, is to rest too much on a version of the past very much abandoned by serious scholars. Here’s some of Hinch’s wonderful retorts to this old-fashioned view:

First, it may be true that “it is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing.” But that didn’t happen in medieval Europe. Indeed the Middle Ages are considered Europe’s most bookish era, a time when books — Christian, Greek and Roman alike — were accorded near totemic authority.

Along these lines it is simply untrue to assert that classical culture was ever lost, ignored or suppressed during the Middle Ages. As Garry Wills noted last month in The New York Review of Books (reviewing the latest publication by Augustine biographer Peter Brown): it is a “discredited […] myth […] that the Roman Empire (but only in the West) ‘fell’ overnight when barbarians invaded and brought it down. The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages.”

Equally untrue is Greenblatt’s claim that medieval culture was characterized by “a hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage and an obsession with the afterlife.” I know Greenblatt has read Chaucer. He’s quoted from him in numerous books. Has he forgotten the ribald pleasure-seeking in The Canterbury Tales?

[…] medieval monasteries were among the least religious and most worldly institutions of their time. Like modern research universities, medieval monasteries were wealthy centers of learning and power whose leaders rotated into and out of careers in secular government.

If Greenblatt remained one of the “tenured radicals” he once was accused of being (by no less a scold than George Will), The Swerve might have told readers that notions such as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are little better than shorthand for arbitrarily bracketed periods of time in which certain changes in the pattern of human life are interpreted as significant and others are not.

The whole of Hinch’s piece is well worth reading for anyone interested in the current scholarly consensus around the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It’s a welcome corrective to the perils of a seductive – but simplistic – view of a crucial, and complex, period of history.

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