“Honey, I shrunk the Middle Ages!"

"An overarching conception of medieval culture has fallen into place since the late nineteenth century, which I will call the diminutive Middle Ages (DMA).  DMA is the internalized and sublimated scholarly consensus of a generation of titanic post-romantic and anti-romantic medievalist scholars, a model that has seeped into and saturated current thinking about the Middle Ages, not only in specialized scholarship.  Like embedded levels of software programs, this model sets and limits what can be thought and claimed about medieval culture, and occasionally overrides empirical observation...

"Viewed through the lens of DMA, the Middle Ages is a period of small, quaint things and people, of miniatures, humble, little, overshadowed by its big neighbors--antiquity in its past and the Renaissance in its future--a conduit between the two; full of ingenious people and little intricate objects; a curiosity cabinet full to overflowing; a treasure trove of folklore, superstition, and weird eccentricities of popular religion with its overheated devotional forms bordering on the fanatical and its transgressive characters and bizarre relics, living and dead.  The forests and castles of the DMA teem with spirits, small and folkloric in contrast to the Pans and Chirons of the ancient world.  The phantoms that haunt these places shrink in the modern imagination when set against the ghost of mighty Ajax or of Hamlet's father...

"The emotional life of medieval people is grotesquely reduced by the DMA, now humble, now strident, often hectic and overwrought, their feelings those of children or dwarves, their anger that of Rumpelstiltskin, not Achilles.  Their capacity to love, being expressed in many cases as sublime and romantic passion, is either quaint and fantastic, or otherwise concocted and out of synch with the real character of emotions felt.  For the DMA, medieval ideas of aristocratic love are pure fantasy and howlingly false when compared with 'the real.'  The intensity and pathos of courtly love was probably [in this view] invented by Richard Wagner and its vaulting chivalric idealism by Walter Scott.  Viewed by modern scholarship, they require shrinkage.

"Outside of the disenchanting spell of the DMA one might well take Gothic architecture as sublime and magnificent, both in its empirical givenness and in its authorial/architectural intention...  But in the nineteenth century, Gothic turns 'gothic'--weird and, in its diminutive way, monstrous, its bigness closer to Grand Guignol than to the sublime and magnificent.  Notre Dame of Paris is peculiarly suited as backdrop for the Feast of Fools, a residence for a shy, sentimental hunchback and a perverse clergy.  Joris-Karl Huysmans gives us a Middle Ages idealized against a decadent present (i.e. the late nineteenth century), but takes a sadistic child-sex-obsessed rapist/murderer/maniac off the shelves of the medieval curiosity cabinet and sets him before us as the object of study to which his hero takes refuge from the decadent present.  Huysman's novel (Là bas) had a strong influence on Johan Huizinga, great cultural historian and vocal spokesman of the DMA.

"In short, for the DMA, debunking medieval conceptions and representations [for example, of the magnificent or the sublime] is the way to historical accuracy."

--C. Stephen Jaeger, "Introduction," in Magnificence and the Sublime in Medieval Aesthetics: Art, Architecture, Literature, Music (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 5-6.  Cited by Paul Binski, "The Heroic Age of Gothic: Invention and Its Contexts 1200-1400," plenary address given at the International Medieval Congress, May 12, 2012.


Popular posts from this blog

Would you sign a letter in my support?

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

Mary and Martha, or What I Did in My Summer Vacation

“Piss Christ” and the Son of Allah

The Old Voice of Glad and Angry Faith