Monday, 31 May 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions 2: Historiography

We'll begin, I suppose, with the author's note. Before we can really get started at setting up pins and knocking them down, we need to really evaluate the source. This is a book where the author felt as though he wasn't working on a serious topic, or at least that if he was, he wasn't doing so seriously. As Medieval History Geek points out in his review of the book (go read it, I'll wait), Manchester believed that this would be an easier task than writing about Winston S. Churchill. Though he points out his own hubris in thinking this, it nevertheless does not seem to have given him pause for thought -- as the resulting book/travesty seems to show. But there is more to this. From the author's note,

Another oddity of this book was that it was written, so to speak, inside out. Ordinarily a writer does not begin to put words on paper before he knows much [sic.] he is going to say. (1)

This, one would think, would be a bad sign. It would be forgivable if it were evident by the end of the book that he had learned much about the Middle Ages. But the problem is that by the end of the book, all he's garnered are the extreme end of over-generalizations about the so-called "Dark Ages" (a phrase whose usage he defends), snatched out of the less liberal writings on the subject from before the First World War.

As most of you who read about medieval history are probably aware, books on the Middles Ages from before World War One tend to be written by people of a certain mindset. They tend to be (and I admit, this is a generalization, though not one so outlandish as to raise too many eyebrows, I hope) classicists, who share the view that after the sack of Rome (in their words, the Fall of the Roman Empire) "civilization" collapsed, and did not show its shy face again until the capital-R Renaissance saved philosophy, religion, math and science from the murky depths where they had languished for some thousand years.

In the author's note, Manchester makes reference to one of these -- and it is the only reference to a writer of medieval things. He refers to Henry Osborn Taylor, and his 1911 masterwork The Medieval Mind, in fact subtitling his own book after it: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.Now, to be fair, Taylor's work was actually rather forward-thinking for its time. He was trying very hard to see the positive aspects of the Middle Ages, its people's ingenuity, their culture. But even so he was stuck with an early twentieth century classicist's view, seeing the people of the Middle Ages as incapable of creative thought, but rather only of synthetic thought. They were capable of intellectual excellence, but only at their one intellectual skill: combining a pair of hand-me-downs from Roman times, "Latin culture and Latin Christianity" (2). Taylor even tries to take the high road, decidedly putting aside "the brutalities of medieval life" and "the lower grades of ignorance and superstition abounding in the Middle Ages"(3).

Manchester then does something remarkable. Writing in 1990 or 1991, he looks back at scholarship from eight decades earlier -- which, if he had done the tiniest bit of historiography he would know had a classical bias -- and decides that it is not biased enough.

...but I do not see how [a "just appreciation of [medieval society's] aspirations and ideals"] can be achieved without a careful study of brutality, ignorance, and delusions in the Middle Ages, not just among the laity, but also at the highest Christian altars. Christianity survived despite medieval Christians, not because of them. Fail to grasp that, and you will never understand their millennium.(4)

To this he adds his own bias, which we see later in the work, for his preferred period, the twentieth century. This is where he has done the majority of his scholarship, and probably quite well. But it would seem that in all his studies he has not noticed the classicism of the early part of that period, its yearning for by-gone days, its elevation, carried over from Victorian and even Elizabethan thought, of Roman civilization and Greek philosophy.

What emerges is a book that elevates the classical age in the same manner as the Victorians, and then again elevates the Renaissance and, moreso, the twentieth century, leaving the Middle Ages as nothing but the "Dark Ages" in between, in which only the worst caricatures of thought and action could possibly prevail.

After an introduction like that, who could possibly not want to read more?

1. Manchester, William. A World Lit Only By Fire. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1992. p. xiii.
2. Hulme, Edward Maslin. The Philosophical Review. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan. 1912) p.104.
3. Taylor, Henry Osborn. The Medieval Mind. Quoted in William Manchester. A World Lit Only By Fire. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1992. p. xvi.
4. Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire. p. xvii.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Exhibit: A Success?

Contrary to every expectation and even to good old common sense, my exhibit opened today. We're still missing three pieces (which equals one empty wall), and a fourth only arrived this morning five minutes before we opened, but all things considered, it's pretty close to complete.

Continuing the trend of surrealism which defined this week, Vellum and I found ourselves driving back from Almost Neighboring State yesterday morning with two paintings crammed into the backseat of a Toyota hybrid. I spent most of the trip desperately hoping we neither hit nor were hit by anything, because the $250,000 worth of art in the backseat was worth more than I will make in the next decade. We survived the trip, and now those charming paintings are hanging cheerfully in the exhibit.

I've had 12 14 visitors today (only one of whom was a token guest - my mother), and most of them seemed to enjoy their visit. The challenge with this exhibit is that it's not an art exhibit (i.e. not a "look at pretty things" exhibit) but rather a teaching exhibit.

I'd like to claim that this is only because I think everyone should know more about the artists who lived and worked here, but the truth is, I ran out of art after a room and a half. The exhibit is four rooms. Something else needed to go up, and that something ended up being text teaching visitors everything they ever wanted to know about the lone art historian in the colony, the architect who designed the houses here, the fancy pageant they put on in honor of the colony's founder, the composers and musicians who summered in the colony, and all the various and sundry art styles which were at one time or another used in the colony.

The last two visitors here actually read every single bit of text. I was impressed.

With the exhibit more or less hung, I've turned to trying to create a shiny catalog for it. Before I return to that task, though, I'll leave you with a pretty picture of one of the pieces in the exhibit. Major points if anyone knows who the artist is or what it's a painting of. I didn't know it existed until a month ago, and I've never heard of the artist, so if you recognize anything about this, I will be extremely impressed. And then I will have to ask you to keep your mouth shut, because you would know exactly where I work, and probably know me in RL, too.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions 1

Hello hello, and welcome to the first issue of "A World Lit Only By Misconceptions".

First, a description:

Imagine that someone wrote a book that took for granted every single stereotype that you had spent your few pithy years on this planet trying in vain to eradicate. Imagine that hyperbole was no obstacle to a description of this book, and that it could with only a little bit of complete exaggeration be depicted as everything wrong with the world. This is William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire" as described by this, the forthcoming series of posts.

At first, I didn't believe it. I was told that it was full of absurd underestimations of the intellect, cleanliness, humanity and overall sanity of the people of the Middle Ages. "But!" (quoth I) "It says 'National Bestseller' on the cover! Surely it can't be that bad!" But sage as she is, Vaulting reminds me that J. B. Russell's "Inventing the Flat Earth" is, sadly, NOT a 'best-seller'. And in generalities and sloppy over-generalizations, it is exactly the opposite of "A World Lit Only By Fire": the former, a book about righting other people's misconceptions, and the latter about displaying the author's own.

Now, this book purports to be about, rather than the author's misconceptions about the Middle Ages, Ferdinand Magellan. Any talk of the Middle Ages, then, must be an accidental by-product. But Wait! The back of the jacket exclaims:

In handsomely crafted prose, and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth -- the dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history's greatest poets, philosophers, painters, adventurers, and reformers, as well as some of its most spectacular villains -- the Renaissance."


The entire medieval period. A "civilization tottering on the brink of collapse." Hm.


Interesting idea.

...Well, who am I to argue with the authority of an extraordinary gift for narrative history?

[stage direction: insert dramatic pause]

See, here's the thing: I can't stand this crap. Rome didn't fall, the Dark Ages weren't dark, and the only reason people think that Columbus proved the world wasn't flat is because they're so used to perpetuating an American foundation myth that they can't be bothered with the truth: we are not that special, we are not some sudden leap into "civilization," we are both the latest in a long string of ignorant blunders by the human race as well as the culmination of thousands of years of muddling about in the dark. Our predecessors were just as clever as we are now and -- what's that?
Preaching to the converted?
Oh, I see. Boat's on the beach, Michael. Stop rowing.

[stage direction: Vellum steps down off his soapbox]

So this series of posts is designed to figure out where Bill went wrong. How, in writing a book about Magellan, he managed to perpetuate some of the worst myths about the people of the Middle Ages, like how, between 791 and 991, "in all of Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or, apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one other in a meaningless, timeless blur" (page 23). Or that, in pensive moments, the medieval peasantry worried about their souls because "should the left eye of a corpse not close properly, they knew, the departed would soon have company in purgatory. If a man donned a clean white shirt on a Friday, or saw a shooting star, or a will-o'-the-wisp in the marshes, or a vulture hovering over his home, his death was very near. Similarly, a woman stupid enough to wash clothes during Holy Week would soon be in her grave" (page 61). Or else that "in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by Romans were still the best on the continent" (page 5).

Yeah, because the Anglo-Saxons only ever built "trackways".

So the way these posts will work will be as follows: one quotation from Mr. Manchester and his historical-narrative-based authority, followed by a series of article citations, explanations, and elucidations concerning his statements. By the time I finish his book, I hope to have generated something that a well-meaning young medievalist might accidentally stumble across, in order to learn a little about the way we perpetuate absurdity in our society.

I know I do it every day :)



No one ever wakes up in the morning thinking, you know what I'll do today? I'll sit scrunched up on the floor of a rental truck balancing a $10,000 painting by an important 19th century artist on my knees and hope we don't crash or get arrested. Or, at least, I don't; maybe you do. But if you perhaps had been considering it, let me advise you: DO NOT.

Some days, I have the strangest job.

Back to work.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Word Hoard (Kalamazoo Acquisitions 2010)

So I said we'd be posting about a number of things. We've decided to skip directly to a brief (ha!) report on the books we bought at the ICMS. Every year we spend more than we should, but it's so, so worth it. :) So without further ado: books!


This one wins the prize for Best Deal Ever: Roy Liuzza is the editor for this collection of essays which includes Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe on Orality and Cædmon's Hymn, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne on Ælfric and Christian heroic poetry, and Robert Bjork on exile and The Wanderer (among many others!). Sure it's not the most recent scholarship in the world (compiled in 2002), but it's not dated. And what's that on the price tag? $5.95? Oh who would pay such a hefty sum! $3.00, ladies and germs. That almost makes up for the rest of what I spent.


This one wins for unexpected but cool impulse buy. In the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture series, The Apocrypha, edited by Frederick Biggs. Basically a listing of the apocryphal texts known in Anglo-Saxon England. Very useful for my work. And relevant to my interests. $10.

This one was a shock to me. I work on rhetoric in Anglo-Saxon England, and I NEEDED a copy of Bede's de schematibus et tropiis, but the only good copy was in the CCSL CXXIIIA: part one of Beda Venerabilis Opera -- Opera Didiscalica. Which in hardcover is $225.00. Little did I know that, walking past the Brepols table I would see a cheaper, paperback copy, one that would itself, upon my mentioning that I was a poor student, be reduced in price by half. $46.50. And I'm happy about it.

These two are my last two. Part of my ongoing quest to own a complete set of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records by Krapp and Dobbie, I managed to get these (too new feeling and shiny-white to be originals, but they'll do just fine) for $29 and $35, though I can't remember which for which. Either way, not a bad deal. Now I have I, IV and VI, and will continue to be on the lookout for II, III, and V. Gotta catch 'em all!

Now I'll turn you over to Vaulting, who, for roughly the same amount of money, purchased one more book -- all of which are fancy and expensive art books. Who's the better shopper? I think we know:


Kalamazoo is absolutely the best place to buy art history texts. One, you can actually handle the books, rather than squinting at the thumbnail images in the catalog and wondering if it's an actual scholarly work or a glorified coffee table book; and are the images any good? Or were they hurriedly printed out at Kinko's the night before it went to press? (see: my dissertation). At K'zoo, you can browse the shelves, flip through anything that catches your fancy, check the binding, and make sure the images are large enough to be useful. This is heaven.

Second, the books for sale are relevant and useful. There's only so many times you can browse through the publisher's catalog, searching for good medieval art history tomes, and instead finding only northern Renaissance artists masquerading as "Late Medieval," before you just start throwing the damn things out as soon as they arrive. So Kalamazoo is always a breath of fresh air.

Third - Cheap. Used. Books. I'm sold.

Finally purchased this fundamental text, the first and only work produced by the man responsible for my status as a medieval art historian. The Tapestry is a little outside my period, but I'm not sure I can call myself a proper scholar of medieval art without having at least one book about it on my shelf. $35.

This would be one of those glorified coffee table books. But it's pretty! And a great big thick hardcover with wonderful pictures for $12! I couldn't say no.

I am slowly building my collection of Mâle. This probably reveals a great deal about my training and the kind of art historian I am, but I love Mâle. You have to take everything he says with a cup-full of salt, but he was one of the first and still one of the best, considering his time period. I have small, inadequate versions of his 13th century volume (this one is the Late Middle Ages), and very nearly bought a large, shiny version before realizing I should probably acquire all the books I need before upgrading my copies. Still on the look out for the English version of the 12th century volume. This one was half off, Sunday morning: $25.

Probably wouldn't have bought this except that my paper this year dealt very specifically with Autun and its hell scene. (as I bought this two days before presenting my paper, I had nightmares of opening it to discover I had completely misinterpreted everything... or that perhaps my argument had already been made, over half a century ago. Thankfully, neither of these things were true) But again, it's large, hardcover, with 150 very pretty pictures. A steal at $35 (the next stall over was selling it for $75... I literally sprinted back to grab this one).

I'm a sucker for the Yale University Press/Pelican History of Art books. I already had Crossley's revision of Frankl's Gothic Architecture, so it was with sheer geeky delight that I placed this one next to it. Two matching books! More importantly, however, is that there is a distinct lack of surveys on Gothic sculpture. I'd been fighting Google Books over this very text for a full month before finding it on the shelf.* A no-brainer; they could have charged me four times what they did, and I would have bought it. I think I paid $20 for it.

And the crowning jewel of my Kalamazoo purchases. Brand new, discounted to $28, and a veritable who's who in studies of art in the "long 12th century." I spent the two hours driving back across Michigan reading the first few articles - at great risk of car sickness. I'm in love. Did I mention it was only published two years ago? And its companion piece, on Gothic, will be out in time for next year's K'zoo? Bliss.

I restrained myself from purchasing Sauerländer's Gothic Sculpture in France, because while I'm sure it's worth absolutely every penny, I simply don't have $275. Nor could I come up with the $950 required for Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française (especially as it's available in its entirety on Wikisource.) That said, I consider this all a great success.

*Day one: I can read pages 35-36, but not the crucial footnote 81.
Day two: I have page 35, but not 36 or the footnote.
Day three: Page 35 and the footnote are legible; what did page 36 say again?
Day three: Only footnote 81.
Day four: None of the above.
Day five: Lather, rinse, repeat. What did that footnote say again?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Coming Soon

By popular demand (read: some of you lovely readers actually asked us to post more) here's a highlight reel of what we'll be posting over the next few weeks:

- Kalamazoo sessions (favourite presentations, our own papers, plans for the future)
- Kalamazoo acquisitions (books, books, sore posteriors from all the driving, more books)
- A Report on the State of the Dance at Kalamazoo

and to break up the All-Kalamazoo-All-The-Time vibe,

- A New weekly session, entitled "A world lit only by misconceptions"

For now, I'll leave you all with something wonderful: Hugh Jackman

we're back. :D

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Return

Despite a detour to Vellum's Canuckland Hometown, two border crossings and the ungodly traffic in Northern Non-English Speaking City, Vellum and I are successfully back in Rural New England Micropolis. I am back at work; Vellum is taking a sick day to recover from his Tetanus booster, to which his immune system is responding "OH DEAR GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE" and flailing unhelpfully.

Kalamazoo was fabulous. Met many lovely people, some for the first time and some for the first time face to face. My paper went well and was met with helpful questions and comments rather than the dreaded "You have an interesting point, but... [devastating evidence to the contrary of your entire argument]" I call it a success. I'm sure Vellum will have more to say, having organized a panel in addition to presenting, and was offered the opportunity to write an article besides.

We have returned with a renewed dedication to posting. I can't say I will be able to uphold my part of the bargain (my major summer exhibit opens a week from Saturday; it is still uncertain which pieces will be in the exhibit; only a dozen items have yet been hung, and there are no labels or educational material at this time), but expect to see more posts over the next few months.

In the meantime, I'm going back to detaching foam labels from the walls, dragging about large framed bits of artwork, and pondering whether in fact I am insane for thinking this can become an exhibit in 10 days time. I'm guessing yes; time will tell.

- (a rather frazzled) Vaulting