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Affective medievalismLove, abjection and discontent$

Thomas Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781526126863

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9781526126863.001.0001

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Discontent in the age of mechanical reproduction

Discontent in the age of mechanical reproduction

(p.118) 5 Discontent in the age of mechanical reproduction
Affective medievalism

Thomas A. Prendergast

Stephanie Trigg

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter asks whether the mutual discontent we have diagnosed between medieval studies and medievalism is inevitable in future practice in these fields. Through its interest in recuperating the past, medievalism is an exemplary practice for the humanities and their understanding of history and culture. Facsimiles of medieval manuscripts further exemplify many of the similarities between medieval and medievalist study, and also our necessary discontent with most of the ways scholarship attempts to get back to and ‘touch’ the past. In the face of contemporary critiques of disciplinarity, we suggest that medieval and medievalism studies together are well placed to model new forms of academic engagement and resistance to the utilitarianism and vocationalism that increasingly dominates our universities. Productive engagement with the medieval past, from a wide range of disciplinary approaches, remains an urgent task for understanding the world around us.

Keywords:   disciplinarity, manuscripts, facsimiles, reproduction, simulation, universities

At the end of Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud famously recapitulates the thesis of his book by suggesting that something has altered the eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos. Human aggression now has the capability to extinguish not just some lives, but all humankind and this, he claims, has led to ‘their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety’.1 It is futurity and the uncertainty of whether one will inhabit it that leads to the most profound discontent. We won’t make such apocalyptic claims about the nature of medievalism and its discontents here, but it seems clear that medievalists have the capability to have a decisive impact on their own survival. So, to put it crudely: where do we go from here? We have suggested that our relations with the medieval past are often structured as affective histories. But just as importantly, we have tried to trace the genealogy of feelings about medievalism itself, which have not always been positive ones. What are the implications of all this discontent about medievalism for the future of medieval studies and medievalism? Are we all forever doomed to a future of mutual discontent with each other? Or can we unite in perpetual discontent with those outside both fields who, beyond the academy, continue to relegate the medieval to the most barbaric and irrelevant margins of modernity and, within it, to the most vulnerable extremes of a humanities syllabus in crisis? Is it possible to imagine a future of teaching and research in both fields that might operate according to a different dynamic? We would like to close our study by speculating about some possible futures for the medieval. We would also like to raise the stakes of the debate even higher. What can we learn about the way academic disciplines traditionally focus their greatest competitive energies – their discontent – onto the most adjacent fields? Is it possible to refocus those energies on to the more productive contributions medieval and medievalism studies might make to the future of the humanities, especially in the modern university?

(p.119) As we have acknowledged, the relationship between the institutions of medieval studies and medievalism has become less stable and predictable than it was when we first conceived this project some years ago. We do not mean to measure and simply count the strength of numbers in the growth of the ‘secondary’ field, though the proliferation of sessions on medievalism at major conferences (Leeds, Kalamazoo, New Chaucer Society) is a clear indication of research interest in this area and the way medieval studies has opened up its gates to the newer critical field. The growth of university subjects, dissertations, published guides to, and studies of, medievalism also testify to greater interest in teaching and researching medievalism. We may also identify a renewed sophistication in much of the cultural and literary theory that informs many recent publications in medievalism studies. No longer is the dominant mode of medievalism studies simply the identification and description of medievalist elements in post-medieval culture, or arguments for the depth and breadth of medieval allusion. The most sophisticated and wide-ranging work in this field now participates in rich, diverse dialogues with other fields such as cinema studies, gender and race studies, historicism, colonialism, game theory, literary theory and fiction studies.2

Nor is the antagonism between medieval and medievalism studies as pronounced as it used to be. There are a number of recent studies, publications and working groups that have substantially and deliberately broken down many of the conventional distinctions between these fields. These range from archaeological and genealogical studies such as Bruce Holsinger’s The Premodern Condition, Andrew Cole and Vance Smith’s The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages and the revisionary queer historiographies of Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval and How Soon Is Now?; to political interventions that foreground the shaping role of medievalist thought (Holsinger’s Medievalism, Neo-Conservatism, and the War on Terror); to revisionary literary histories such as James Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Revolution and cultural histories such as John Ganim’s Medievalism and Orientalism; to journals that actively signpost their commitment to a medievalist approach (e.g. postmedieval); and projects like ‘Global Chaucers’ that wind modern and global versions and translations of Chaucer into productive dialogue with Middle English texts. Social media also plays an important role in disseminating and promulgating a less formal version of medieval studies. On Twitter, in particular, scholars, students, novelists and enthusiasts of all kinds can share images, (p.120) information and questions about the Middle Ages in a way that has the effect of breaking down some of the more formal academic hierarchies and disciplinary distinctions that have often set medieval and medievalism studies at odds with each other. And in a most conspicuous example, the HBO television series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, regularly brings scholars and fans into the immediacy of online debate and discussion. Medievalism here generates a global community of historical scholarship, critical analysis and enthusiastic play.

In spite of these signs of rapprochement, however, one of our main starting-points or motivations for this book remains unresolved. The stand-off between medieval and medievalism studies does not appear so often in printed or oral discourse – partly because it would now sound so old-fashioned and defensive to complain about each other – but the shadow of that earlier mutual distrust still falls between the medieval and the medievalist. There still seems a stubborn suspicion in many quarters that medievalism offers a false object in place of a true medieval one while claiming that the false object is somehow constitutive of the true one; or, from the other point of view, that medieval studies is hopelessly invested in a backwards-looking positivistic project, denying academic positions and futures to (younger) scholars who might be able to revivify their discipline.

We have argued that the relationship between the medieval and the medievalist can no longer (if it ever could) be reduced to a simple hierarchy that could be seen as either chronologically or ontologically stable. Indeed, we think they are now irrevocably, and mutually (though unevenly) constitutive of each other. We also claim that a productive medievalist practice needs to take both fields into account. And yes, we deliberately use that adjective ‘medievalist’ to blur the familiar distinction. Not all the time, of course; it would be absurd to suggest that every article, chapter or lecture in the fields of medieval literature, medieval history and medievalism all need to reference materials and insights from those other fields. However, we think that to insist on a form of mutual exclusion, or the uncontaminated purity of one from the other, is not only intellectually misleading but also politically damaging. Both fields are under substantial threat in a Western university tradition that persistently and increasingly devalues non-vocational training: neither medieval studies nor medievalism studies can afford to slip into an old-style disciplinary regime that spends most of its energies policing its own borders against (p.121) its nearest rivals. Instead, both fields have every reason to engage with contemporary debates about politics, meaning and culture; to articulate the power of literary and cultural texts, and patterns of historical change; to inform the way we track social change, the way our feelings of and knowledge about the past can change, and the relation between politics, society and the imagination.

We also advance the claim that medievalism – conceived most broadly as an engaged dialectic between the medieval past and the post-medieval future – is and/or could be seen as an exemplary discourse or practice in relation to the humanities and their understanding of history and culture. This practice would function not only in terms of the dominant thematic tropes of nostalgia or fascination with the abject; not even in terms of the emotional patterns of love and fear we have focused on, but in the very lure of the object, the artefact, the structuring narrative of the (scholarly) quest for truth, the lure of the aura of the past, the desire to find a past narrative or a mythic structure to serve as a mirror for ourselves, or to use as a springboard for revolutionary change.

The problem underlining all of these claims returns to the phenomena of loss and recovery. We have, a number of times in this book, made claims about the ability to recuperate the medieval via the medievalist that many may find naive, troubling or even flat out untrue. And we acknowledge that even the most rigorous ‘historicist’ project will necessarily come to a truth that is partial, fragmentary and ultimately unsatisfying. Medievalism and medieval studies both enact a form of Zeno’s paradox. Little by little we break down the things that separate us from the past but in spite of all our scholarly labours and imaginative work, we will never ever get there in its full plenitude. This has led a number of those who study medievalism to embrace a relatively radical postmodern rejection of any idea of the original.

Specifically, the theoretical positionings of Jean Baudrillard have proved very influential on many who study medievalism. The powerful concept of the simulacrum seemed to capture the attenuated relationship of medievalism to medieval studies especially in what Baudrillard characterised as third order simulacra – ‘no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.’3 As one critic put it, ‘There is no longer any depth, any reality behind representation, only other representations’.4 For Lauryn S. Mayer, the simulacrum structures a contrast between ‘traditional medievalism’, which is ‘haunted’ by its challenge to its desire to recreate (p.122) the medieval past, and postmodernist or neomedievalism which deploys the simulacrum to critique those older forms.5 This concept and way of thinking about ‘copies’ or ‘simulations’ was itself informed by the notion that while in the past a copy might actually have an original, postmodernity had moved on – ‘never again will the real have a chance to produce itself’ (our emphasis).6 The only thing that is left is nostalgia, for ‘when the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning’.7

As is no doubt apparent, we have profound doubts about the radical scepticism underlying Baudrillard’s theorising about the past. To say that any attempt to recuperate the past is simply a nostalgic attempt to recapture the lost and unattainable object of desire, or, in psychoanalytic terms, the objet petit a, seems reductive.8 To say, as Baudrillard does, that ‘today’ (a word he uses obsessively) the copy has lost the ability to refer to the original seems itself a product of nostalgia generated less by any semiotic state of affairs than a theory of periodisation that relentlessly pursues a ‘true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure’.9 William Kuskin suggests that this is simply novelty’s ‘attempt to deny the past entirely in a bid for everlasting presence’.10 To embrace such a theorisation of the present’s connection to the past (or rather lack of connection) seems to us only another way of so completely othering the medieval that it can never speak.

A facsimile of the Middle Ages

To make our point we turn to a convergence of the medieval/medievalist phenomenon in order to recover what might be called the quidditas of the medieval. The example of the manuscript facsimile is a powerful and indicative one. These are objects used equally in research and in teaching, in the fields of art history, textual and manuscript studies. Libraries that cannot collect medieval manuscripts are often able to put together a facsimile collection that may well cover a wider range of styles, genres and historical periods than many smaller collections of original manuscripts. Facsimiles are also bought, admired, loved and studied by the amateur, the private owner, the student and the lover of the Middle Ages. They are a good example of our claim that there are many productive continuities in medievalist readerly and scholarly practice. Facsimiles are used both inside and beyond the institutional borders of the library and the university. Most professional medievalists, even those who specialise in manuscript studies, don’t handle the original (p.123) manuscripts they study on a daily basis. Even if their final work cites the manuscript in its archival home, a facsimile (or increasingly, an online digital image) has often played a key role in the research. If there is a difference in the social circumstances of facsimile use, the amateur reader or private owner may even have an advantage of proximity and intimacy in the touch of the page. Manuscript facsimiles vary widely in their rarity and expense, of course, but the most expensive, when held in libraries and museums, are sometimes treated with the same care and curatorial attentiveness as original archives. The scholar or student may still have to read and work under the disciplinary and institutional surveillance of the librarian. By contrast, the private owner or collector, whether professionally trained or not, is able to touch, handle and even write on their own copy. Most of all, the facsimile allows the individual to own, to domesticate, to touch and to display a more or less affordable piece of the exotic medieval, through the same love and desire for the medieval fulfilled by the thousands of tea towels, replicas of jewellery, stained glass, carved bosses, books, facsimiles, and key rings sold to a variety of budgets in gallery, library, and art museum shops around the world.

In their intricate and artificial materiality, facsimiles combine the modern technological sophistication of accurate reproduction with the sensory, affective appeal of the medieval. The Patrimonio company is a good example, producing many facsimiles of European manuscripts. The by-line on their website is ‘The only company which uses pure gold and true precious stones for its facsimiles of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world’.11 Their website describes the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry in the inflated language of glamorous medievalism as ‘the King of Illuminated Manuscripts’, and alludes to the mysteries of their specialist expertise in language that combines the vocabulary of scholarly – medieval – work and that of the commercial patent: ‘our necessary and exclusive secret process of medieval ageing’.12 The term for their handcrafted ‘pergamenata’ paper invokes the learned world of Latinate parchment, and to capture its rarity value, we are told it is ten times more expensive than normal paper. Most intriguing in this context is the appeal to the senses:

Sense of touch: absolutely similar; sense of hearing: characteristic sound while passing its folios; sense of sight: undulation and roughness similar to the folios of the original codex; sense of smell: characteristic smell.13

(p.124) In a discussion of earlier facsimiles of the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, Michael Camille had, in fact, made the point that early facsimiles of the book had only been visually convincing – a product of modernity’s obsession with photography and the purely ocular.14 The professional medievalist, of course, may scorn this reproduction of smell, touch and hearing, but we think most will have experienced something of this thrill the first time they opened a medieval manuscript previously familiar only through print, microfilm or digital image, and marvelled at the discernible contrast between the smooth inner and the stippled outer side of the animal skin parchment, or the surprising thickness of medieval paper, and smelled the characteristic musty aroma of the medieval book. Moreover, this quidditas – the whatness – of the medieval manuscript sits behind many a medieval scholar’s insistence to various grant bodies that a research trip to the archive is necessary, in spite of the availability of a printed facsimile or digitised version of the manuscript in question. To minimise any sense that these reproductions are cheapened or diminished through their multiplicity, the Patrimonio imprint is limited, and copies are numbered. Their facsimiles also bear the touch of the human hands that applied the 22.25 carat gold leaf illuminations, themselves further layered with ‘an ageing patina and subtle micro detachments, due to the passing of centuries and currently noticeable in all medieval illuminated manuscripts’.15

This discourse artfully conflates modern technology and temporal progression. The medieval and the medievalist are held together in the suspension that is typical of the medievalist imaginary: the ‘detachments’ of gold leaf promise to replicate not just the original manuscript or its current state, but the ageing process itself. Buyers can thus experience not just a simple historical thrill of seeming to touch the past by the immediate transportation into the past; they can also touch the ‘noticeable’ passing of time through a speeded-up process that is recoded here as painstaking and slow. Medievalist objects may be new, or of recent making, but they often carry with them the potential for affective or imaginative time travel for consumers.

This is not to say that one is completely content with ‘reproductions’ of the Middle Ages. Walter Benjamin famously claimed that copies of the work of art inevitably denatured the original, saying ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’.16 Camille quotes Benjamin with approbation but takes the stance that even if the Très Riches (p.125) Heures is locked away forever because the reproduction is so perfect (something that early promotional material claimed would happen), it shouldn’t matter because if anything ‘we should view every manuscript as an object in its own right’ (even or perhaps especially copies).17 This sounds suitably democratic and would seem to inoculate us from fetishising the idea of the origin. But the symptom, our original discontent, cannot be so easily disposed of. As any number of critics have made clear, copies don’t so much damage the aura of the original as stimulate our desire for the original. And the practical dangers of being satisfied with copies (especially digital ones) have been well rehearsed.18 At the same time, our discontent cannot be completely eased by the so-called return to the book (though we both value and have written about its materiality). The book itself is merely the expression of an idea of the work. It is, in material terms, the closest one can get to that idea, but the book often hides or obfuscates that idea by its form.19 It is, in a sense, the first material form of work – the original copy, but still a copy. Medieval studies and medievalism both share in common a desire to get back behind these copies to the original idea or work. They do so by somewhat different means but they share a discontent that runs wide and deep.

Are we disciplinary enough?

We conclude by thinking about what role this discontent has had (and might have) in much broader discussions about disciplinarity and the future of the university. We think it is fair to say that disciplinarity has generated its own level of discontent. Some argue that the real interest of disciplinarity is to perpetuate itself. Professors train students in a particular discipline who become professors in that discipline and these professors in turn train their own students to become professors and so on and so on. In this thinking it is a system more intent on its own sustenance and reproduction than on the production of knowledge.20 Others claim that disciplinarity and specifically the discipline of medieval studies closes us off to ‘amateur’ approaches to temporality that might teach us that the ‘present moment is more temporally heterogeneous than academically disciplined, historically minded scholars tend to let on’.21 And we ourselves, giving voice to our discontent, have described ‘discipline in its most controlling sense [as] one of the things we find most disturbing, for it indicates an almost totalizing, almost totalitarian desire to control the extent to (p.126) which the field is defined’.22 Disciplinarity in all of these instances seems to signify things that should be abhorrent to those interested in advancing the cause of education and knowledge. Disciplinarity is something that limits us; it is a mindless beast only intent on replicating itself (much like Spenser’s Error); it is a relic of the nineteenth century and potentially fascistic, promising punishment to those who would exceed its boundaries.

The alternatives to this idea of a disciplinary world inevitably define themselves in terms of prefixes to the idea of discipline itself: anti-, inter-, trans-, post-and even pre-disciplinarity have all been deployed to resolve what is seen as a problem for the modern university. With the exception of pre-disciplinarity, all seem to deal with the idea that disciplinarity is really just a holdover – a dated way of thinking about the organisation of knowledge that harks back to the nineteenth century. The goal of these various methodologies is to engage with the ‘new’ reality of the modern university by remaking disciplinarity itself as new. One of the oldest ways of ‘making it new’ is to stress the nature of interdisciplinary work. And, indeed, in 1968 interdisciplinarity seemed to possess ‘liberatory potential’ as one critic put it.23 But as we all know, this potential hasn’t quite been realised, because interdisciplinarity (in attempting to broach the boundaries of various disciplines) actually eliminates the great desideratum of interdisciplinarity itself, which is a kind of bumping up of one discipline against another: ‘Built around a plurality of approaches and perspectives, interdisciplinarity endeavours to establish a middle-ground of knowledge that will prove unobjectionable to the constituencies of various university and professional communities.’24 In other words, interdisciplinarity can provoke a quiescence – as Russ Castronovo puts it: ‘the politics of interdisciplinarity often amounts to a nonpolitics, a negation whose pursuit of interpretative consensus minimizes the conflict and continuing debate that characterize’ truly radical approaches to knowing and acting.25

Post-disciplinarity would seem to offer a bit more hope. As originally conceived it was methodologically eclectic, boundary-crossing and post-professional. Its presupposition was that sanctioned modes of inquiry didn’t matter because we had moved beyond them.26 In a purely abstract way, this post-disciplinary, post-university world looks quite exciting. If we embrace the idea of post-disciplinarity as something produced in the utopic/dystopic ruin of the university, we may enjoy a collective frisson in the destruction of traditional modes of knowledge, even an (p.127) obscene delight in creative destruction. But what would happen if we embraced this death wish and took a plunge into the abyss of no future? This may be a bit too exciting, however, if it means becoming part of an academic structure that might see the ruin as a perfect laboratory in which to build a corporate creature modelled on economically pragmatic lines. As Louis Menand suggests, administrators would ‘love to melt down the disciplines, since that would allow universities to deploy faculty more efficiently [our emphasis]. Why support medievalists in the history department, the English department, the French and German departments and the art history department … when you can hire one supermedievalist and install her in a Medieval Studies program, whose survival can be made to depend in part on its ability to attract outside funding?’27

As Aranye Fradenburg points out, whatever country we work in, we work increasingly in a world defined by agreements like the Bologna Declaration, which proclaims that universities across Europe should ‘facilitate migration for education by homogenizing their programs of study in order to create a system of easily readable and comparable degrees … in order to promote European citizens [ sic ] employability [and mobility] … The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labor market as an appropriate level of qualification.’28 Astonishingly, this bit of bureaucratic rhetoric actually outlines what might be our not too distant future.

Perhaps not so strangely, representatives of broader culture have especially targeted medievalists as being out of step with the ‘new’ university. In what has now become a seminal moment, British Education Secretary Charles Clarke mused, ‘I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them’.29 Clarke’s dismissal of medievalists as the decorative houseplant of the modern state indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the study of medieval history and culture. But medievalists of all stripes were especially concerned when the government minister for education felt able to attack a specific educational programme on the basis of irrelevance. Both medievalists and columnists responded swiftly to Clarke, claiming both that the notion of ornament was not so easily to be dismissed and that knowledge of the medieval was essential to the creation of the responsible citizen of the modern state.30 Events that followed showed that the implications of Clarke’s comments, and others like them, were not confined simply to medievalists. Those who trotted out such easy dismissals of our discipline probably had a broader (p.128) agenda in mind that embraced most of the humanities. Indeed, as became clear later, it was not just medievalists, but a certain conception of community, that Clarke was challenging. In clarifying his comments he argued, ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that’.31 This seems a straightforward enough (if somewhat short-sighted and ham-handed) rejection of epistemology, but Clarke also seems to be answering a question that nobody has asked. ‘Medieval concept of a community of scholars? Where did that come from?’

Part of the answer might lie in Bill Readings’s prescient book, The University in Ruins. In it he avers ‘that the twilight of modernity makes the premodern a crucial site for understanding what a non-Enlightenment structure of thought might look like’ – a structure that he thinks might offer some hope for the re-formation of the university.32 For Readings, this temporal site – at once a locus of extinction and renewal, outside present structures of thought and fundamentally recoverable – begins to possess attributes that look very much like an earlier formulation that was used to good effect by Paul Goodman at Berkeley in the 1960s to defend the free speech movement and argued ‘for a renewal of the medieval conception of the university as a “community of scholars” capable of governing itself and resisting outside forces’.33

The idea of a medieval conception of a community of scholars is appealing (even flattering), but it is worth examining how Readings actually characterises this community. Readings, of course, cannot escape the historical fact that the medieval university was a place where great feuds developed, ‘particularly at Paris between the faculties of arts and theology and between the secular clergy and members of the mendicant orders’, but he also asserts that ‘the medieval University as a society for the study of knowledge was a corporate community, in the medieval sense like a guild’.34 Some might dismiss Readings’s analysis of the Middle Ages as a kind of melancholic fantasy, or quasi-Marxist nostalgia, in which ‘personal dependence form[ed] the groundwork of society’, and the abrupt change came when ‘the guild-masters were pushed on one side’ by the rise of capital. But is this all it is?35

To get disciplinary for just a moment, we may ask, what did this community of scholars actually look like? And why is it regarded with such suspicion by the government and such hope by academics? The great power of the university was, of course, embodied in its corporate nature. Their members ‘elected their own officials and (p.129) set the rules for the teaching craft … each faculty elected its own head and held its own assemblies’.36 Its power devolved from its ability to act corporately in its own interests. To give one famous example – during the carnival of 1228–9 a group of students in Bourg of S. Marcel entered a tavern and ‘by chance found good and sweet wine there’.37 There was a dispute with the landlord about how much they owed. A fight broke out, and the innkeeper called in his neighbours who severely beat the students. The next day, the students returned with reinforcements – they broke into the tavern, avenged themselves on the innkeeper, opened the taps and sallied forth into the streets. In the meantime, the Prior of S. Marcel had complained to the papal legate and the bishop who urged upon the regent, Blanche of Castile, the suppression of the riot. The mercenary bodyguard were called out and they attacked not the rioters themselves, but (if we can trust Matthew Paris) a group of innocent students engaged in holiday games outside the walls. A number of these students were killed. The masters of the university suspended their lectures and complained to the bishop and the legate but to no avail. On Easter Monday, the masters resolved that if they did not get justice within a month, they would dissolve the university for the period of six years and would not return until then even if they did receive redress. Ultimately most of the scholars left Paris to travel to Toulouse, Orleans, Reims and Angers and stayed away until 1231 when they apparently did get justice partially through intervention by the Pope. They were also granted a series of privileges that effectively limited the power of the bishop and the chancellor over the masters.

Over fifty years ago the Columbia historian, public intellectual and former communist Richard Hofstader used this example in his book-length treatment of academic freedom. Responding to investigations of American universities by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and a notorious case involving the dismissal of a Columbia anthropology lecturer (Gene Weltfish) for invoking the fifth amendment, he argued that the origin of academic freedom lay in the ability of faculties to act as a corporate entity. This corporate entity existed and maintained its power, he argued, only as long as it remained disciplined and enforced the disciplines. Depending on the work of the unconventional medieval scholar Mary Martin McLaughlin, he argues:

The very solidarity of the masters in such instances suggests more than esprit de corps – it suggests discipline. If masters were (p.130) to undertake a cessation of lectures or migration in a body, if an entire university, or at least a faculty of theology or canon law, was to render corporate judgments on vital issues, some internal regime that would encourage if not compel agreement was necessary … Every corporate unit of the University of Paris, for instance … the colleges, and the separate faculties – adopted statutes and ordinances affecting almost every conceivable facet of academic life, from trivial details of dress to the subjects and methods of lectures and disputations.38

Most of us are a long way from enforcing sumptuary laws, or telling our colleagues what their daily lectures should contain. But we suggest it is still true that the disciplines and specifically the discipline of medieval studies not only provide us with a method to understand the past (the so-called search for truth), but also suggest a way in which that past might gesture to a future.

The idea of a discipline still holds pragmatic force. Taking Readings’s view of what a future university might look like, even proponents of post-disciplinarity suggest ‘not a generalized interdisciplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude.’39 These proponents suggest ‘holding on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger’.40

If our goal is, as Fradenburg suggests, that ‘people ought … to be allowed to explore for themselves what they want to learn, teach, be, and do’ (and note that her formulation includes teachers and students), then we have to acknowledge that the root of this freedom actually resides to a certain degree in discipline and the disciplines.41 It is no accident that during times of crisis in the academy (the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties, the campus unrest of the sixties and our current crises around democracy, international relations and the role of journalism, to name just a few) the idea of the medieval community of scholars reappears, either as the utopian desideratum for academics, or for those interested in restricting intellectual freedom, as an irrelevant piece of nostalgia. There is nothing quite as terrifying to administrators and politicians as disciplined faculty resistance to external pressures because it makes transparent what should be blazingly obvious – that without academic teachers there is no university. This is (p.131) why they so often cry foul, saying that we are the ones who are intolerant of dissent, that we are nothing more than an academic echo chamber, that we don’t understand the best interests of the university and so on.

This is not to suggest that we should deploy the disciplines like some massive immobile Maginot line. This would be to fall into the administrators’ trap of coding ‘traditional’ disciplines as reified ‘disciplines’ when, in fact, the disciplines have always been able to mobilise precisely because they are mobile (even if some of us would like to enhance this mobility just a bit). But time is short. With tenured and tenure-track positions on the decline and administrative positions on the rise there soon may not be enough with the freedom to make the question ‘are we disciplinary enough?’ a meaningful one.


Are there any? One of the most painful things we have discovered as we were writing and rewriting this book is that the ground was shifting quickly beneath us and around us, on different continents and in different contexts. Terminologies changed and took on different resonances; new scholarly voices emerged; some institutions changed, while others did not; and new collective and collaborative forms of scholarship and intellectual community rendered some of our starting propositions less urgent. To summarise the state of play as we finish this book (this version; this final manuscript; this copy-edited text; these proofs) would provoke disagreement, disavowal and denial. This changing state of affairs is not unique to our field, of course: instead, we suggest it is symptomatic of the contemporary humanities. Where so much is at stake – such competition for shrinking resources – such dissent, and such powerful feelings, are inevitable.

However, we think that medieval and medievalism studies are well placed to model new forms of engagement. By this we mean something very different from the older, somewhat reluctant and often patronising concession by old-school medieval scholars that the modern enthusiasm for medievalism in popular culture might serve as a kind of lure to attract students into the field of medieval philology and history. Instead, our final suggestion is that we actively embrace the proliferation of terms that have entangled many commentators, between medieval and medievalism, as well as neomedievalism, post-medievalism, the medievalist and all the (p.132) others. What if we were to let go of those hard-won but ultimately unsuccessful distinctions, and accept that they serve only to divide us from each other? What if we were to redefine all of those things as performing essentially the same work: that is, helping us to imagine our future as well as reading our past. We might all start, then, by being discontent with both medievalism and medieval studies, for a variety of reasons: because they are not medieval enough; or because they do the medieval, or medievalism, the wrong way; or because the medieval has come to mean the wrong thing. Such discontent, however, borne out of love, is our best way forward to future collective and productive dialogue with the past.


(2) Matthews makes the case for medievalism’s ongoing dialogue with cultural studies in the conclusion to Medievalism: A Critical History.

(7) Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6. Baudrillard makes himself even clearer later when he claims, ‘history thus made its triumphal entry into cinema, posthumously (the term historical has undergone the same fate: a “historical” moment, monument, congress, figure are in this way designated as fossils). Its reinjection has no value as conscious awareness but only as nostalgia for a lost referential’ (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 44).

(8) For a recent example of this kind of reading see Trilling, ‘Medievalism and its discontents’, pp. 216–24.

(9) This is Paul de Man’s characterisation. Qtd in Kuskin, Recursive Origins, p. 44.

(12) http://patrimonio-ediciones.com.mialias.net/en/facsimil/the-tresriches-heures-of-the-duke-of-berry, accessed 22 February 2013. ‘First, true and unique fine facsimile edition with pergamenata paper specially treated. This exclusive handcrafted paper which price is 10 times superior to couche paper, used by Patrimonio in their commentary volumes, enables you, after our necessary and exclusive secret process of medieval ageing, to enjoy the following senses.’

(p.133) (14) Camille, ‘The très riches heures’, pp. 103–4.

(18) See Edwards’s ‘Back to the real?’ for a concise rehearsal of this argument.

(19) See Smith’s invocation of Blanchot above (p. 102). As Smith points out, some believe that the work cannot be separated from its material form.

(29) Smithers and Woodward, ‘Clarke dismisses medieval historians’. After a good deal of criticism, Clarke, in a letter to the Guardian of 10 May 2003, attempted to explain what he meant, saying ‘My use of the word “medieval” in this context has obviously been somehow transformed into a criticism of the study of medievalism in all its forms, which is not at all what I think.’ Interestingly, in a discussion of university fees, he had earlier dismissed Classics (though not Philosophy).

(30) The responses were many, but see Lightfoot, ‘Medieval study “is history”’.

(31) ‘Clarke questions study’.