Steve Guthrie (Agnes Scott College)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?

Presentism and Pastism

Most historians are presentists. The ones who know it can see more clearly than the ones who don’t. My undergraduate Chaucer professor in 1966 was an emeritus don of Oxford who introduced the Wife of Bath to us as “a five letter word meaning lady dog.” He was a presentist in the way that he was an Orientalist: his purpose was to colonize and civilize the Middle Ages in the name of the queen.

F. N. Robinson was an unconscious presentist with respect to Chaucer's meter; he rescued it from a tendency to late medieval cadences in the name of his late Victorian ear (and in so doing, among other things, added the phantom word, qualm, for the shrieking of birds, to the OED. Look it up.). The Riverside Chaucer, which claimed to be a new edition but mostly reproduced Robinson, was presentist in that its motivating question was how to corner the market with a new bibliography and a minimum of old-fashioned scholarship.

The conscious presentist on the other hand lets a “present material thing set the agenda for a particular critical interrogation of the past” — looks at the past in order to understand, and even change, something in the present. The wave of feminist, gender studies, and queer theory readings of  Chaucer since the 1970s has been consciously presentist. Any number of books, articles, and conference papers on these lines have opened with the scholar's  acknowledgment of a felt need to reexamine the medieval materials in light of his or her obligations to the present.

In pastism, we have the search for sanctuary, the lure of the exotic: “Take me somewheres east of Suez . . . . ”  Pastists let the past as they know it set the agenda. The itinerary. They visit shrines, take photographs, cherish fingerbones. They  paint themselves into corners of their favorite centuries. They police the discipline. I know pastists for whom the Middle Ages is a green and pleasant land. Sometimes they do good work, but it tends to be green. I too enjoy walking the walls of York — they do inspire reverence, and they’re the quickest way to get to Sainsbury’s from across town — but I also can’t help thinking of the hands that built them (a stone carrier might make enough to eat wheat bread in a very good season), and I can’t help thinking of these walls in the context of other walls, down to Michael Chertoff’s current project.

But presentism can be heavyhanded too. After four years of research on torture, the phrase “critical interrogation” makes me nervous. What if the past doesn’t want to answer our questions? What will we stop at? Paul Zumthor used to talk about breaking the codes of the Middle Ages, a figure drawn from semioticians who did intelligence work in the Resistance (such as Roland Barthes, whose  Mythologies has passed into history but needs to be read again). Interrogation is messier than codebreaking, and we know from all periods — Aristotle said it — that coerced information is unreliable: electrodes in, garbage out. If I made Chaucer stand on a box, could he tell me if he was a feminist? If I waterboarded the court of Aquitaine, what could they tell me about Andreas Capellanus that I would understand? Most detainees have no useful information to give, and most interrogators have no useful questions to ask. So “critical interrrogation” is out. Either they clam up or they die on you or they just tell you what they think you want to hear.

“Critical investigation” is more appealing. Not just code-breaking but behavior-tracing, paper-trailing, myth-cracking. The Justice Department torture memos (one more of which was been made public last month) have unassailable verbal parallels in the papal documents of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Inquisition. We demonstrably ride in the wake of the Middle Ages on this one, and if Alberto Gonzales didn’t know it, as he surely didn’t, Jay Bybee or John Yoo did. If you want to know what they’re going to do next, read Tudor policy under Elizabeth I.  

In other words, good scholarship has predictive power, and predictive power may just save us from the present catastrophe, if we’re willing to exercise it and anyone is willing to listen. Our record is not good, but we must behave as if.  So the question, for the survival of the Constitution (see Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception) and maybe the species, to the extent that that outcome is in the hands of medievalists — and we might as well take it on; no one else is doing a very good job — is not whether medievalists ought to write about Abu Ghraib but whether the presentist approach or the pastist is more likely to save us from our present circumstances.   

A good pastist depends on the agenda of the period, and on the question of torture there are no flags waving in the published record. There is plenty to make sense of, but only in the presence of a motivating question — a hunch — drawn from now.   The published record is there if you have an idea of the pattern to look for. So the useful medievalist is like I. F. Stone, the independent Washington reporter who for decades published his influential weekly newsletter by starting with a question or a scent, combing the papers and wire services, and putting two and two together. The person who does it best now is Noam Chomsky. It’s investigative journalism at the level of scholarship. Its purpose is to salvage the present in the name of the future.

Think of this in reverse: scholarship at the level of investigative journalism. So let me substitute “investigative medievalism” for “critical interrogation.” The difference is important to me. It’s the difference between feeling like I.F. Stone and feeling like Donald Rumsfeld. That substitution in place, I’m all for presentism. It boils down to this:

We start with the present because that’s where the bodies are buried.