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.


Medieval History Geek said...

Should I mention that when I was driving home from Kalamazoo this year I mentally developed a Pseudo Session outline where the summary included a hibachi, a copy of Manchester and lighter fluid?

It would be fun - I doubt the folks who run Fetzer would go for it.

staffordcastle said...

One key statement in the author's note is where he states in a casual manner that all the sources he used were secondary. Red flag!

You may wish to read my review on LibraryThing as well. Such an annoying work!