Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 18 September 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This book examines cultural history and cultural transformation in the period spanning the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and how such transition relates to modernity. Taking a dynamically diachronic approach, it offers a fresh perspective on the historiography of culture and literature, with emphasis on the idea of periodization and the tendency to divide cultural history into different eras. Many of the essays focus on themes spanning the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, each linking pre- and post-Reformation cultures, including those related to religion, and highlight the creative and destructive anxieties as well as the legacy of the Reformation.

Keywords: cultural history, cultural transformation, Renaissance, Middle Ages, modernity, historiography, culture, literature, Reformation, religion

‘A Sibyl and a Prophet’ is the title that has been given to a beautiful painting in grisaille by Andrea Mantegna, perhaps from the last decade of the fifteenth century (reproduced as the frontispiece to this volume).1 The image is a sumptuous imitation of a bronze relief, almost a trompe-l’oeil, with highlights of gold against a base colour of pink-brown. This is the surface burnish of a scene of underlying dramatic intensity. A conversation is taking place, or better a debate, marked out starkly against the backdrop of a jet black open doorway. The empty space behind the figures only serves to accentuate the relationship between the two talking heads, which are in any case in iconographic opposition. The figures represent female versus male, young versus old, perhaps secular versus priestly. The argument between the two has been best described by Edgar Wind: ‘While the Prophet holds the sacred script, the sibyl explains it to him with persuasive clairvoyance, numine afflata, touching the crucial passage like a divine enchantress, while he listens with awe to her inspired utterances.’2

Wind’s authorship of that classic work of Renaissance historiography and iconography, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, may suggest to us an inevitable dichotomy between the sibyl and the prophet in Mantegna’s image.3 Is there a subliminal message of cultural transformation here, between old and new worlds, or old and new ways of learning? Is the prophet a medieval scholar, and the sibyl a humanist critic? They argue over a text, which appears as if it may be written in Hebrew. The tight grip of the scroll between the thumb and forefinger of the older, (p. 2) male, master suggests a method which is exegetical, critical, and learned; while the younger, female interpreter, depicted by Mantegna with a virtuoso di sotto in sù view of her hand, is visionary, inspired, and improvisatory.

This book fights hard against the stereotypes that might encourage any such iconographic division between medieval and Renaissance modes of thinking. Before we rush to associate the sibyl with an incipient classical and scientific methodology poised against the prophet’s scholastic appeal to authority, it is worth pausing to consider that the modern title given to the work is only conjectural. The painting may in fact be a fragment of a larger whole that might yield an entirely different meaning to the figures in front of us. This problem is a good emblem for the philosophical pitfalls of the historiography of culture, and especially for the idea of periodization and the division of cultural history into separated eras. Scholars conceive of these eras as discrete, and as inviting a description of their distinguishing features, yet the motivation for identifying their autonomy lies in the needs of historical analysis: the features scholarship discovers are more often than not predetermined by expectations of the material. After all, the sibyl is a major symbolic figure in medieval narrative from Macrobius to Dante, while there is no reason at all for us not to find in the prophet an icon of Renaissance method: pedantic, immersed in ancient texts, and overwhelmingly male.

Cultural Reformations is an exercise in redrawing historical categories, or in the period unbound. It is a study of the idea of change or else of resistance to change; perhaps better, of process, or of historical temporality itself. Yet it is pre-eminently also an exercise in collective scholarship, which represents heterogeneous approaches to heterogeneous materials. Half of us are professionally tied to what for want of a better term we call the Middle Ages, and half to what we now tend to name, with no better intrinsic reason, the ‘early modern’. In investigating the invisible boundary line between us, and the grounds for conceiving of any gap between us in the first place, we have all undertaken to examine material either side of the jubilee year of 1500, each in relation to a topic that has, in modern academic study, been taken to be a site of cultural change.

Yet we do not consider ourselves immune to the historical boundaries which define our subject. Nor do we write outside their consequences. Revolutions not only attract revolutionaries; they also attract historians, partly because historians need to generate explanatory narratives from apparently seminal, liberating starting points; revolutionary moments claim to provide those liberating points of origin. Such moments, to a much greater degree even than decisive wars, characteristically claim to restart the very measures of time and sequence. Historians may also be drawn to revolutionary zero points because they sympathize with the new cultural order ushered in by the revolution.

Historiography is, then, deeply connected with revolutions in and of time. Since the end of the eighteenth century, at least, most Europeans and Americans (p. 3) are, whether they like it or not (and whether they know it or not), profoundly revolutionary creatures, necessarily shaped as they have been, one way or another, by the formative revolutions of our epoch. Our very conception of historical periods, divisible into detachable segments of time punctuated by liberating convulsions, is itself the product of revolutionary aspiration to neutralize the pathologies of time and start afresh. The philological tools of our historiographical enquiry, designed as they are to erase the accretions of tradition and to give us access to worlds freshly perceived ‘in their own terms’, are also themselves revolutionary tools.

Many periodic terms across English literary history embed ideological claims within apparently neutral periodic divisions. But the deepest periodic division in that history has been between the medieval and the early modern, not least because the cultural investments in maintaining that division are exceptionally powerful. Narratives of national and religious identity and freedom; of individual liberties; of the history of education and scholarship; of reading or the history of the book; of the very possibility of sophisticated individual self-consciousness, and of persuasive historical consciousness: each of these narratives (and more) has been motivated by positing a powerful break around 1500. None of these claims for a profound historical and cultural break at the turn of the fifteenth into the sixteenth centuries is negligible. But the very habit of working within those periodic bounds (either medieval or early modern) tends, however, simultaneously to affirm and to ignore the rupture. It affirms the rupture by staying within standard periodic bounds, but it ignores it by never examining the rupture itself. The moment of profound change is either, for medievalists, just over an unexplored horizon; or, for early modernists, a zero point behind which more penetrating examination is unnecessary.

Institutionally, too, our intellectual life is organized, before we have begun to consider the matter, within these periodic bounds. Publishing houses tend to insist on commissioning and marketing journals and books within tightly periodic frames. Many academic departments or alliances also organize intellectual practice within the terms given us by revolutionary consciousness. This is especially true of ‘Medieval Studies’ and its pair ‘Renaissance’, since these terms imply the notion of civilizations entire unto themselves.

Such institutional formations tend to privilege synchronic relations of analogy between different discursive fields, within the same ‘period’. The merging of literary history and cultural history, to produce what might be called ‘cultural poetics’, has for some decades been extraordinarily fertile, not to say exhilarating. That said, that scholarly practice has remained, until recently, resolutely held within synchronic boundaries, underwritten as it has been by a Foucauldian archaeology of knowledge (itself built on an archaeological substratum of the French Revolution). That archaeology posits unbridgeable epistemic crevasses between periods. Committed as they are to synchrony for profound reasons, both medievalists and early modernists have tended to rest steadily within set (p. 4) chronological frames, rehearsing well-worn cliches about what came afterwards or went before.

Cultural Reformations takes a dynamically diachronic approach to cultural history. Many of the essays range in the full span between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, we could say from Lollardy to the Commonwealth, or from the Lancastrian coup d’état to the British Civil Wars. This is not only to bring the perspective of a longue durée to literary history. It is because the chronological divisions that we are arguing about first come to be framed within this time period. To continue to exist politely on either side of the divide is to ignore the way that the works we study, and the way in which we study them, are implicated in the complex history of that terminology and its making. The term media tempestas seems to have been first used in 1469 by Giovanni Andrea de’ Bussi, Pope Paul II’s librarian.4 For a literary historian, there is a wonderful power in the fact that he coins the word to describe a history of books. A century before this, Petrarch had begun to identify an age of barbarism intervening to obscure the richness of the classical past. Following in his wake, and with increasing confidence, Italian humanists such as Flavio Biondo, Marsilio Ficino, and Lorenzo Valla proposed the modern era as a bridge to the culture of the past, an age of renewal of the glories of the antique. The intervening middle age, lending the new its spectacular identity, was an age of intellectual oblivion. In England medium aevum first appears, in more neutral terms as a period in history, in John Selden, the jurist and historian of Judaism, in 1610.5

One prevalent version of cultural history is that the Renaissance invented the ‘modern’. A more interesting analysis, or irony, would be that the humanists of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries conceptualized their own place in history not so much by inventing the modern as by inventing the ‘medieval’. They created the third term as a conscious polemic. And increasingly in the sixteenth century, most eloquently in the work of Erasmus, they postulated as the distinguishing features of the new age, in relation to the middle age, methods and concepts that are central to the practice of modern literary history: philology, textual criticism, and the idea of ‘literature’ (or bonae literae) itself. This fact alone means that literary history has a need to investigate this claim.

In April 1517, Erasmus predicted in a letter to Pope Leo X that saeculo huic nostro (‘in our time’) a new golden age might be upon us, and that the revival of learning would bring with it the restoration of Christian unity.6 Even in a history of (p. 5) spectacularly bad predictions this would have a proud place. The Lutheran Reformation, and the peculiar English one that followed it, only served to exacerbate and reinforce the distinctions embodied in the medium aevum. Indeed the Reformation gave ideological exactitude and political compulsion to emerging prejudices.

Nonetheless, even a decade ago the Reformation barely had a place in English literary history. The Reformation in literary terms was seen as the rebarbative and recondite home of a few special interests. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems that, after all, the huge ritual, social, political, and economic rifts of the sixteenth century could hardly be more relevant to the way that we write a history of literature. That this is the case is due in part to the past work of the contributors here assembled. But it has also happened because of an interesting, we might say glacial, shift in the subject and its period boundaries. Medievalists have come forward into the Reformation just as early modernists have moved backwards from Shakespeare to mid-century. There has been an interesting renegotiation in the middle.

We are therefore at a peculiarly appropriate moment to reassess the energies of literature between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is timely for us to examine once again, in a more general way than is possible by any single scholar, what the creative and destructive anxieties of the Reformation were, and what their legacy is. This gives a special stringency to the historiography of cultural history and cultural change. For the idea of change propels the Reformation moment into creating the modern version of the Middle Ages, by rejecting its values in the first place. The concepts by which we frame our subjects as either ‘Medieval Studies’ or ‘Renaissance Studies’ or ‘Reformation Studies’ or ‘Early Modern Studies’ occlude the historiographical certainties of the revolutionary moment, whether of ‘reformed’ religion or humanist philology.

A more complex understanding of English cultural history is the impossible project of this volume. Fredric Jameson might be correct in saying that ‘we cannot not periodize’, but in this volume we nevertheless want to try.7 Or, rather, we want to initiate new periodic conversations in reaction to Cultural Reformations, in particular across the standard boundaries of the ‘medieval’ and the early modern, or Renaissance, or Reformation. In our view, both ‘periods’ look different when set into dialogue with each other. We propose that there is a good deal of unfinished business to be transacted within English literary history.

We invited contributors to focus on a theme, of their own choosing, that connects pre- and post-Reformation cultures. The volume is not designed to summarize what is known in a given field, not least because the ‘field’ we hope to outline does not yet exist. Neither does it provide ‘coverage’, since we wanted our (p. 6) authors to write to their passions, and that meant giving them freedom to pursue those passions. In many cases the themes chosen are of apparently less pressure for either medievalists or early modernists, until set into periodic dialogue, when their importance is suddenly perceived afresh. We had, we underline, no party line, no implicitly expected or desired view of continuity, rupture, or permutations of the two. In the following essays, on the contrary, many models of the relation between pre- and post-Reformation cultures emerge. In some cases the relation is one of stark contrast of the new and old, of new post-Reformation worlds that were impossible or undreamed of before 1500. In other cases the relation is one of continuity, even if that continuity might be visible only after the event, when pre-Reformation materials begin to look prophetic of the convulsions to come. In other cases still, the relation is one of visible continuity. In yet others, pre- and post-Reformation cultures stand in a relation of what might be called a hydraulics of culture: if one powerful aspect of a culture is depressed, it will resurface later, one way or another, in disguised form, as the return of the repressed. Such a notion is applicable, for example, to the notion of place, on which many of our essayists chose to focus: repress monastic and conventual sites of contemplation, and they resurface, one way or another, in noble households. Or, to take another example, repress the forensics of conscience in the sacrament of penance, and it will resurface, one way or another, in dramatic and legal forensics. Cultural forces migrate, under pressure, from one discourse to another. Repression of the religious life of contemplation can even produce the enclosed ‘experimentum’ of the empirical science.

Even where the emphasis is on continuity, that continuity might not be obvious: materials forged for a pre-Reformation historical moment are suddenly rediscovered, and redeployed, for a largely different historical need, in which those materials gain a sudden new urgency and relevance that their original shapers could not have foreseen. The pre-Reformation clerics who posed anti-fraternal attacks on idleness could not have predicted how their ideological materials would be wielded by Reformation polemicists against the Catholic Church at large. Or, in other cases, the continuity remains for the most part unobserved simply because we as scholars tend to read books produced by authors in our given periods; we tend not to read books by long-dead vernacular authors, even if those books continued to be printed in large numbers and avidly read, as the works of Chaucer were in the sixteenth century, for example. Other essays disabuse us of continuity, by pointing out that the continuity is only apparent: historical players might continue to deploy the same key words as they put themselves on the line (‘sacrament’ is an example; ‘despair’ and ‘saint’ are others), but the words’ deeper meaning is utterly transformed, or their referent changed, by circumstance.

The emphases of the last paragraph might suggest that the Reformation is the centre of this volume, and that what might emerge from these essays is a new ‘period’, running from the late fourteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, a period characterized by the origin and final triumph of reformed religion. There might be (p. 7) considerable mileage in such a proposition. It makes a certain historical sense. It might suit the strategic needs of both medievalists and early modernists in a contemporary academic culture in which ‘the past’ (always conceived as something definitively ended) is considered to stop at 1800. Despite, however, the centrality of the Reformation in any discussion of periodic sense, we did not wish to make the Reformation the single, non-negotiable pivot of this volume.

True, contemporary world history is investing the cultural poetics of religion with a commanding attention. True, too, that late medieval and early modern religion stand in very significant asymmetry with ‘secular’ culture in societies where relatively few could read but all were deeply involved, one way or another, with the practice of their religion through visual art, liturgy, and, not least, the fate of their souls. This is an especially fertile moment for the cultural study of pre- and post-Reformation English religion. Historical scholarship has revised deep-set persuasions about the Reformation in Britain; that scholarship increasingly envisions the Reformation moment as less of a break with, and more of a deep expression of, powerful currents within late medieval religious experience.

What is more, phenomena that had been taken to be purely ‘secular’, characteristic of the ‘increasingly secular’ Renaissance, turn out instead to be deep reflexes of a post-Reformation religion that, so far from waning, is instead becoming too hot to handle. By this account, even when post-Reformation texts are silent about religion, that silence might be very loud. ‘Secular’ love lyric, for example, apparently most resistant to and insouciant about religion, turns out to be deeply informed by it. Autobiography finds newly experimental forms and media even as it reabsorbs older forms of penitential and confessional practice. The very notion of ‘secularity’ itself, after all, turns out to be the product of long religious histories. Certainly, European secularity is a reflex of the Reformation centuries, repudiating as it does the visceral, non-negotiable hatreds of intra- and extra-Christian violence. But secularity also has a more specifically Christian history, as the upshot, mutatis mutandis, of the late medieval Church’s turn to the saeculum out of the enclosure of the monastery, a turn initiated in the early thirteenth century.

Those essays that do address religious cultures avoid the error of treating confessional identities as reified and constant essences; instead, they define the unstably variant nature of such confessional identities. Confessionalization is rather the product than the motor of change.

The situation in which we find ourselves at the present moment within the field is an odd one. The term ‘Renaissance’ occupies a strange intellectual no-man’sland. It continues to have a currency with the general reading public, and in common culture, that is happily borrowed for course design or for the entitling of books. Yet academically its power is etiolated beyond recognition: the rejection of Jakob Burckhardt’s paradigm of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is so (p. 8) widespread as to be a minor industry. The term ‘Renaissance’ no longer encourages much faith, and has become a bastard term. This has partly been due to what has been called ‘the revolt of the medievalists’—a powerful rebuttal of the claims in Burckhardt, especially around the idea of the birth of individualism and subjectivity. Yet this phrase was first coined by Wallace Ferguson in 1948, and there has been no corresponding revolt against the idea of the medieval.8 If anything, medievalists are surprisingly happy with a term that was first invented to exclude and disenfranchise them.

Here we should note the curious asymmetry between the different terms in use. We use the combinations ‘Medieval and Renaissance’ or ‘Medieval and Early Modern’ routinely and interchangeably, whereas the words themselves are incapable of signifying commensurate states. The ‘medieval’ is a concept of long-term continuity. If we find it difficult to say when it begins and when it ends, this is because the word means something non-terminal in the first place and is an intrinsically medial signifier. The ‘Renaissance’, on the other hand, is not a temporal term at all. It describes an event, or better a state of mind or feeling or body. In historical significance it tends towards the idealization of the momentary, the ruptural and the sudden. It has now largely been replaced in technical parlance by ‘Early Modern’, sometimes on the basis that this new term is less prejudicial and ideological. That is a very odd view. ‘Early Modern’ in relation to ‘Medieval’ does quite different work, but the juxtaposition is just as divisive. It is a strange phrase: at once proleptic and parasitic, implying a state that is both with it, and not quite there yet.

Yet it is modernity we are always half arguing about anyway. Does modernity have a beginning? If not now, when? The debates are endless, timeless, sometimes tiresome. Yet they are hardly irrelevant to our volume. One common view of the transition between medieval and Renaissance is that it encompasses the very birth of the modern. In questioning the models of both medieval and Renaissance that inform this, we may also be understood as questioning that view, too. Yet this should make us think all the harder about what we mean by ‘modernity’. Modernity is not the subject of these essays, but it is the unseen spectre, or the uninvited guest at the feast. We both welcome this guest and propose some education of its rather boorish manners. For while modernity, as an experience, could be said to be as old as time itself, it is not such a very old idea. Indeed, it is a medieval idea. The Latin word modernus, appropriately enough, is post-classical. It first came into use in the fifth and sixth centuries among grammarians attempting to construct a history of literature and of linguistic usage. Priscian (fl. 500) routinely distinguishes between a Latin grammar or style used apud antiquissimos from one used apud modernos.9 (p. 9) Whereas now we tend automatically to valorize the newness of the new, it is salutary to recall that Priscian routinely prefers the most ancient sources to those of the present day. Cassiodorus (d.585), betraying a more modernist sensibility, refers to a contemporary as not only copying the ancients (antiquorum imitator) but also inspiring writers of his own times (modernorum institutor).10 Later medieval usage is equally ambiguous or perhaps sometimes neutral: it is never quite clear whether (on the grounds of timeliness alone, as opposed to scholarly method) in fourteenth-century universities the scholastic via antiqua was more valued for its authority or the via moderna for its logical novelty. It is difficult to believe, however, that the moderni did not have some smugness about trumping their predecessors, much like post-structuralists in a latter-day Paris in relation to their merely structuralist professors.

The burden of the modern is not one equally shared among scholars of the medieval and the Renaissance. Perhaps the latter group are too much in thrall to modernity, in the forlorn hope that their own object of study thereby becomes more exciting. Probably it is more rewarding to think of the modern as always a relative term, and therefore always in flux. These essays are written in the hope that we can continue to be alive to the paradoxes and reversals of time as well as to its inexorable teleology. Our title is Medieval and (not to) Renaissance, since our default position is that historiography moves both backward and forward. As cultural historians who receive our historical categories from history, that is, we move from Renaissance to medieval as much, if not more than, the other way around. Yet Cultural Reformations is not primarily conceived in the spirit of setting out a new chronology. Rather it is an ongoing conversation, or debate, between different kinds of modernity in the past, and others still in the future.


(1) The date is uncertain but it has been suggested that it was painted in 1495. Although the original purpose is unknown, it is possible that it was hung at a height above eye level, perhaps over one of the doors of the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este in the Corte Vecchia in the Ducal Palace at Mantua. By 1603 it was in the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in Rome. It is now owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum. See Andrea Mantegna, ed. Jane Martineau (Milan: Electa, 1992), 401–3.

(2) ‘Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 51 (1965), 47–84, at 60–1.

(3) Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber & Faber, 1958). Wind was of course himself a formidable medievalist and a brilliant opponent of cultural stereotypes.

(4) Apuleius, Opera, ed. Johannes Andreas (Rome: [Conradus Sweynheym and Arnoldus Pannartz], 1469).

(5) Iani Anglorum facies altera Memoria (London: Thomas Snodham, 1610). For the development of periodic terms for both medieval and Renaissance, see the evergreen study by Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948).

(6) Epistola No. 566, Opus epistolarum Erasmi, ed. P. S. Allen, 12 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906–58), 2: 527.

(7) A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002), 29.

(9) Institutiones grammaticarum libri XVIII, ed. Martin Hertz, Grammatici Latini, ed. Heinrich Keil, 8 vols., repr. ed. (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1961), e.g. 2: 11.