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Has the Renaissance warped our view of the Middle Ages?

By Kathleen McGarvey, University of Rochester

If you think the Middle Ages were dirty, backward, and generally unpleasant, you’ve been misled—by proponents of the Renaissance.

So says medievalist David Wallace, the Judith Rodin Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He is this year’s Ferrari Humanities Symposia visiting scholar and has just completed his presidency of the Medieval Academy of America.

“The Renaissance is a great ‘brand’—it’s about rebirth, repackaging, and newness. And everything that’s wonderful and marvelous about it, you emphasize by contrasting it with the awful, smelly, stinky, dangerous Middle Ages,” he says.

Needless to say, Wallace has a different view of the period. “In Chaucer’s England, nobody was ever burned or tortured for their beliefs,” he says. “But go forward 200 years, to Henry VIII, and people were burned and tortured for what they believed. And witch burning is a Renaissance phenomenon, not a medieval one.” He attributes the violence, at bottom, to the consolidating power of the state in Europe after the medieval period. “There’s a lot more variety [in political structures] in the Middle Ages than later.”

Investigating the richness and multiplicity of medieval life has driven Wallace’s career. In 2016, Oxford University Press published his two-volume Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418. In editing the landmark book, he brought together 83 scholars from around the world to explore how people, literature, and ideas moved around before the advent of the nation-state.

The Middle Ages have traditionally been defined, Eurocentrically, as the period between the end of classical antiquity and the rediscovery of its thought in the early 1400s. But that’s become an “outdated paradigm,” says Wallace, and a new, more global understanding of the period is taking hold, thanks to his work and that of other scholars. “It’s the swathe of time between the decline of the great world empires, like the Roman Empire, and the rise of the new global empires, like Spain and then Germany and Britain. It’s that period of 1,000 years in between.”

Wallace “combines the deep knowledge of a specialist with a restless belief in literature without borders,” says Ferrari Humanities Symposia organizer Thomas Hahn, a professor of English at Rochester. Wallace’s books include Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford University Press, 1997), which won the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association; Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn (Blackwell, 2004); and Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory, 1347–1645 (Oxford University Press, 2011). His scholarly record is matched by his determination to reach beyond a purely academic audience. “In his writing, his lectures, and his radio broadcasts, David has ever been a fierce advocate of channeling the strangeness and enduring truths of the past to those of us alive now,” Hahn says.

Wallace’s most recent work is the inspiration in his first public event at Rochester, the lecture “Fascism, Medievalism, and the Rochester Legacy of Margaret Schlauch.” In 1930s Europe, countries drew from the Middle Ages in radically different ways. French progressive-left groups spurred a theatrical revival of medieval dramas; Iceland, fighting for its evolving independence from Denmark, turned to its famed medieval sagas as foundational national documents; English writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote wildly popular fantasies inspired by Norse culture. Horrifically, the Nazis appropriated medieval images and carried out the Holocaust with invocations of an imagined “racially pure” German past.

American scholar Margaret Schlauch was forthright in her early rebuttal of Nazi historical claims. A linguist and a specialist in Viking and Anglo-Saxon literature, Schlauch produced a pamphlet—titled “Who Are the Aryans?”—that was published by the Anti-Fascist Literature Committee in 1934. It was an expertly informed take-down of Nazi claims to racial superiority and was reprinted several times in the 1940s; Rochester’s Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation holds two of those editions. A selection of her works will be on exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery when Wallace speaks there.

He’ll also give the keynote address of the Ferrari Humanities Symposia on April 11 at Rush Rhees Library, with the lecture “Sacrifice Your Daughter: Horrible History in Chaucer and the Book of Judges.” Playing off the popular British “Horrible Histories”— a series of books and a television program for children, surveying dark and twisted chapters of history—Wallace considers the biblical story of the daughter of Jephthah, one of three children whom fathers in the Bible are told to sacrifice. The other two—both boys, Isaac and Jonathan—are spared. But Jephthah’s nameless daughter is not.

“This was a story the Middle Ages, all the way from Saint Augustine, found just horrible, a terrible story,” says Wallace. “They couldn’t see the point of it. They couldn’t see anything good to come out of it.” Geoffrey Chaucer took it up in his Canterbury Tales; when the physician tells a version of the story, innkeeper Harry Bailly becomes ill—he demands an elixir to soothe his heart, which has been physically pained by the story. The question of what can be done with a story too terrible to tell is the focus of Wallace’s talk.

He comes to Rochester fresh from an encounter with what he sees as another troubling story, the Brexit crisis unfolding in his home country of England. At the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies on March 29—long planned as “Brexit Day,” the date when Britain was scheduled to leave the European Union—Wallace took part in a conference on the relationship between Europe and Britain and cultural exchanges from the medieval to the modern periods.

“I’ll be coming from the belly of the beast of that debate to Rochester,” he says, and eager to discuss Europe’s past and future with local audiences.

Our thanks to Kathleen McGarvey and the University of Rochester for this article.

Top Image: The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux

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