Andrew Scheil (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

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

To Find Ourselves More Truly and More Strange

As is customary with roundtable discussions of this sort, I’ve re-cast and specified our cryptic guiding rubric to a certain degree. When asked “What is the place of the present in medieval studies?,” for me, a literary critic based in Anglo-Saxon studies, the question resonates most compellingly when directed toward the current protocols of literary criticism within medieval studies: namely, the asymmetrical and imperfect dialectic between historicist and “non-historicist” approaches to literary texts, between literary approaches that foreground the “pastness” of the literary text and literary approaches that, self-consciously or not, privilege the “presentness” of the literary text. For if literary criticism constitutes its object as a historical artifact (implying some sense of distance from the present), then my answering question for our discussion is what claim can medieval literature have on the present if the reading of medieval literature is subjugated to a project of historical understanding?

“Always historicize!”: forth went Frederic Jameson’s call in 1981, and twenty-seven years later the echoes are still reverberating. Within the field of literary criticism, history has triumphed: relevant evidence could range from the explicit methodology of published monographs to departmental “mission statements.” To have one’s critical position or interpretation dismissed as “ahistorical” is almost as bad as falling prey to the adjectives “essentialist” or “under-theorized”–short-hand for “no, this simply will not do; please take it back to the kitchen.”  The easy mobility of such a charge tells me that the broader domains of institutionalized literary study are now in large part conditioned by an assumption of historical methodology, explicitly and implicitly.

To be sure, one can quibble with the details of this generalization: what about the legacy of formalism? What about the field of medievalism? What about the current debate between historicism and psychoanalysis in Middle English studies? Without digressing too much, it seems to me that mid-century Anglo-American literary criticism (too often caricatured and dismissed as “mere formalism,” but consisting of critics as disparate as Cleanth Brooks, Leo Spitzer, Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke) was a brief not-quite hiatus in the overall continuity of the historical study of literature, particularly medieval literature: less the Old Historicism conquered first by the New Critics and then swept away by a New Historicism supercharged with poststructuralist thought, but rather a continuity of historical explication supplemented and re-imagined in an ongoing cranky process. The result is that any number of critical methods that might be applied to literary texts that seem to militate against the tide of historicism—psychoanalytic, postcolonial, or queer theory, for example—remain nevertheless in a complex process of constant negotiation with historical method (at the least): again, no one in 2008, no matter the critical position, wants to be branded as “ahistorical,” because the word seems to imply an unsavory allegiance to Transcendent Truths, which I’m told is a Bad Thing.

The triumph of history, history as a normative category in literary studies: this might be simply therefore a “Good Thing.”  I suspect a majority of medievalists would say that the prevalence of historicism (for example, in the form of the ever-expanding application of new social contexts to literature or in the flourishing attention to manuscript culture) is a real advance in the field and that while new approaches and projects will of course continue to gestate, come and go, they must do so within an avowed historical template of understanding.

But the contrarian in me likes to ask: if this is the case, what is lost?  If this is the loud chorus, what is being drowned out? Anything of worth or of value? One possibility I would advance as a subject for our discussion is the potential immediacy of medieval literature, its “place in the present,” as something (anything) other than an adjunct to historical study. Whatever one might say of the so-called New Critics, those eternal straw men of literary criticism, they were oriented to the present, even the medievalists. Chaucer: An Anthology for the Modern Reader (i.e., the reader circa 1958): Talbot Donaldson says in his 1975 preface to the second edition “Chaucer may be legitimately treated as little more than a distinguished representative of the culture of the Middle Ages [the historical approach]. But Chaucer is a great poet whose poetry is as valid and as exciting today as it was in the fourteenth century; to the student of literature, indeed, it is far more important than the fourteenth century.”[1] Inevitably, even to my own ear, parts of that simple statement sound naïve: we have been taught that there are ideological depths beneath phrases such as “great poet,” “valid and exciting,” and “more important than the fourteenth century.” And I do not dispute the presence of complex assumptions behind those words. But it also bothers me that I affix a mental asterisk to “valid and exciting.” Today we would say that it is the fourteenth century that is more important than Chaucer; that the cross-currents of history traversing his work should be our necessary focus, the real business of professional literary criticism and scholarship. But to the extent that historical understanding mediates our experience of the text, that text loses its immediacy. How can it not?

Let me be clear: I am not advocating a simplistic impressionistic naïve enjoyment of the literary text as a path for future scholarship. (Nor do I think that was what Donaldson meant.) In the spirit of a roundtable discussion I am not necessarily advocating anything, but rather airing an issue. One peculiar trait of literature is its proclivity for endless temporal regeneration: the “I” of the lyric, for example, is re-activated, bound to the reader, no matter the distance of that reader from the historical moment of composition; it is an essential component of lyric form that it lives again, with each new voicing, in more than a superficial way. As a phenomenon, what do we do with this subject, part textual artifact of the medieval century, part contemporary reader? I do know that our current dominant modes of literary criticism are not well equipped to handle that disjunction, burying it beneath History. I think bringing to bear our critical faculties on the immediacy of that phenomenological moment should occupy us as vigorously and seriously as the application of endless social and historical contexts.

George Steiner describes the experience of literary apprehension in this way:

We engage the presence, the voice of the book. We allow it entry, though not unguarded, into our inmost. A great poem, a classic novel, press in upon us; they assail and occupy the strong places of our consciousness. They exercise upon our imagination and desires, upon our ambitions and most covert dreams, a strange, bruising mastery.[2]

It is safe to say that the historical method of literary criticism tries to cool such fervor, intentionally or unintentionally, in favor of a more measured, contextual understanding; I do not doubt that Steiner here sounds a bit mystical and Romantic to the medievalist. But I suspect that Donaldson would agree with Steiner, and would not object to having the validity and excitement of Chaucer’s poetry expressed in such as way.

Do we lose something vital, something that allows us “to find ourselves more truly and more strange,” when we depress the unsettling power of the literary text and corral its wayward potentials with the burden of historical context? For me, the question “What is place of the present in medieval studies?” encourages us to look for modes of criticism that validate the immediacy of the literary text, understood as a transhistorical phenomenon that manages to hold History at arm’s length, at least for the duration of that moment when literature “presses in upon us.”


1. E.T. Donaldson, ed. Chaucer’s Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader, 2nd ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1975; first edition 1958), iii. Further: “In accordance with the aim of the edition to make history serve Chaucer’s poetry rather than be served by it, the historical background has received less attention than it generally does. Even historical considerations must not be permitted to detract from the reader’s enjoyment of great poetry” (vi).

2. George Steiner, “Humane Literacy,” (1963), repr. in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, 1967), 10.