Tag Archives: medievalism

In which, identity politics poisons yet another community once ruled by love (of their subject): the guild of medievalists.


A New York Times article can’t resist the obvious and amusing verb as it describes an ugly scuffle within the guild of those who study the Middle Ages: “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.”

The article chronicles an unedifying tale of buffoonish clashes between the grievance-identity guerillas and the tone-deaf Old Scholars Club. My first reaction was to dismiss the whole donnybrook as yet another illustration of Sayre’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre%27s_law).

But then I realized that the humor here is only surface-deep: I have attended the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo for the past seven years as a fascinated scholarly outsider (my field is the history of Christianity in the nineteenth century). In that time, I have found medievalists to be, more than the scholars in any other field I know, “amateurs” in the best sense of that term. That is, even the best credentialed and most published among them tend to study what they study out of pure fascination – love (the root amare, from which “amateur” is derived) is not too strong a word. This political posturing is a distraction and a blight in the midst of a Guild of Extraordinary Geeks who study what they study out of no other agenda than coming to a deeper acquaintance with fellow humans long dead–whose lives, cultures, and ideas compel them to long, late nights of study, and all the accompanying sacrifices of the academic life.

This vitriolic battle among the lovers of medieval knowledge is also sad because while courtesy, circumspection, humility, wisdom, and so many other (intellectual) virtues all fall among the first casualties, at the same time careers are being made–and everyone knows it.

And this just shows how deep the infection of political posturing runs in academe as a whole, and how unlikely it is that it will heal itself anytime soon.

(Tangent-that’s-not-really-a-tangent: while I was at Duke University in the late ’90s, I heard a distinguished and celebrated Americanist call some figures from American history “fascists.” The parallel (though I don’t remember what group he was attacking) was simply ludicrous. This historian was clearly subsuming responsible scholarship and teaching to partisan attack. In that moment I lost all respect for him–and I started developing my “crap detector” for such unhelpful polemic. I hasten to add that, in the classes (at least) that took, that detector almost never went off around professors. Unfortunately, however, when it came time to start teaching undergraduates at that same university, I could barely hear myself think for the jangling of that detector’s alarm. The sport of elite undergraduate students appeared to be that most ugly and unpleasant game of heated, moralistic attack-dogging.)

A final word: this present climate constrains me to add: I find the poison on the left and the poison on the right here equally, well, poisonous. A pox – or (why not) a full-on medieval plague – on both their houses!

Let us learn from such “jousts” what we should certainly learn: to discern where our work may illegitimately and harmfully minimize past sins or silence present voices. But also, to discern where the agendas of a variety of “culture wars” have rendered us useless as scholars. Let us not allow an honest desire to redress scholarly wrongs to become yet another one of those currently ubiquitous self-righteous and self-aggrandizing crusades (yes, I used the word), waged from the saddle of that most ugly of animals: the Moral High Horse.

And then, having dismounted and recovered what may be the dim and fragmented light of truth from the smoking furnace of polemical heat, let us return to the field of the Passionate Intellect with a redoubled will. For honest scholarship that follows wherever the evidence leads is a balm in a time of turmoil.

The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis (Kalamazoo 2011 paper)


Finally this year, I earned my keep at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, MI by presenting a paper. For as long as some folks remember, there have been slews of sessions on J R R Tolkien, and a resounding silence on C S Lewis. This seems passing odd, given that Lewis contributed more to the field of medieval studies than did Tolkien. My theory for the many Tolkien sessions is that so many medievalists first got into their field under the influence of the grand master of fantasy.

In any case, two sessions of three papers each were presented at Kalamazoo 2011 on the subject of Lewis’s and the “Discarded Image” (the medievals’ worldview as he presented it to his Cambridge students, published posthumously in the the book of the same name). Here is my contribution to the second of those sessions. As always, reproduction of all or any part of the following without prior written consent by me is strictly prohibited.

The Intuitive Medievalism of C. S. Lewis

Paper given May 15, 2011, International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, MI

Two words in my title require some explanation. “Medievalism” is the easier of the two, I take it to denote the ways people since the Middle Ages have appropriated, reframed, and selectively highlighted medieval culture, to fit their own questions and agendas. Lewis was, professionally, a professor of literature, and he spent much time reading, teaching, and producing scholarly works on the Middle Ages, both its literature and its culture. And of course we needn’t go far in the work of Lewis, or of such of his modern friends as Tolkien, Williams, and Sayers, to find that the varied versions of “the medieval” plied by these authors were full of distinctly modern, or more accurately, anti-modern, concerns. Continue reading

Medievalists: 11 on the Geek Richter Scale


Thanks to Carpetbagger to clarifying the degree of “nerd cred” necessary to become a medievalist:

Medievalists in the English departments are considered the weirdest of the weirdos, the nerdiest of the nerds.  Medievalists are a little bit crazy.  They believe, often enough, that the world is in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, including over who ought to fill the copy machine with toner and paper.  They can’t quite relate to the debate in the faculty meeting because no one has claimed divine right.  There are twice as many job openings for Medievalists and half as many qualified applicants.  Weird is not the only minimum job requirement — see below for the others — but it helps. . . . Continue reading

The intuitive medievalism of C S Lewis–a paper proposal for Kalamazoo 2011


Just submitted a paper proposal to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, 2011, for a session sponsored by the Purdue C S Lewis Society. Whether or not it includes me, this session will be a historic event: as long as I or the convener can remember, Kzoo has done without even a single C S Lewis paper.

This is quite odd, given that, in the words of Norman Cantor, “Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience.” I’ve seen lots of Tolkien sessions at Kzoo, but nary a Lewis session.

Wish me luck . . .

ABSTRACT: The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis

Lewis did not set out to be a medievalist, but from early in his life—before his conversion—medieval thinking and values drew him inexorably, eventually forming his deepest commitments. Continue reading

New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading

Chesterton on Chaucer: The testimony of two biographers


One of the modern figures I think I will be using in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants as guides into the Middle Ages for today’s readers is the early 20th century author and apologist G. K. Chesterton. Among Chesterton’s works are biographies on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi and a work of literary criticism on Chaucer.

I will post, below, the assessments by two of Chesterton’s biographers of his Chaucer work. But first I can’t resist repeating the famous story about how the brilliant academic medievalist Etienne Gilson responded to Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. Remember that Chesterton himself had no academic degree in medieval philosophy or any other related topic. Here’s how biographer Maisie Ward reports Gilson’s response: Continue reading

Marshall McLuhan: We must separate G. K. Chesterton’s moral insights from his Victorian literary medievalism


Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and literary critic who gave us ‘The medium is the message” and “the global village,” had some penetrating things to say about G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to the little book Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). I think he got Chesterton both very right and very wrong. Right in talking about Chesterton’s moral thought. Wrong in trying to separate that thought from various aspects of his literary imagination and literary style.

Basically, McLuhan thought we should all dump Chesterton the Victorian literary medievalist in favor of Chesterton the “master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.”[1]

This does not mean that McLuhan saw Chesterton as a systematic moral philosopher (which he certainly was not). McLuhan enjoined editors to produce, “not an anthology which preserves the Victorian flavor of his journalism by extensive quotation, but one of short excerpts which would permit the reader to feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.” Why? Because “he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.”[2]

McLuhan is quite hard on Chesterton’s Victorian literary medievalism, as were many contemporary and later critics. He saw that frame of Chesterton’s work as derivative, low-quality, and not inherent to the great writer’s metaphysical-moral thought (his clear-sightedness into the many moral conundrums of his age, rooted in metaphysical insight):

“So very impressive is this metaphysical side of Chesterton that it is always embarrassing to encounter the Chesterton fan who is keen about The Ballad of the White Horse or the hyperbolic descriptive parts of Chesterton’s prose. In fact, it might be the kindest possible service to the essential Chesterton to decry all that part of him which derives so obviously from his time. Thus it is absurd to value Chesterton for that large and unassimilated heritage he got from [medievalist and all-round wacko] William Morris—the big, epic dramaturgic gestures, riotous colour, medieval trappings, ballad themes and banal rhythms. Morris manages these things better than Chesterton ever did: and nobody wants to preserve William Morris.”[3] Continue reading