An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 5, 2010

Eisenbichler, ed., Renaissance Medievalisms

Renaissance Medievalisms.  Ed. Konrad Eisenbichler. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Victoria University in the University of Toronto, 2009. 

Reviewed by Jesse G. Swan (

“A Renaissance of Medievalisms”

Speaking medievally, perhaps especially in writing, vexes modern literacy.  Such vexation either closes the mind, by producing responses of avoidance, or opens the mind, by producing responses of engagement.  This polarized set of reactions has characterized the function of medievalism, even as the participative mode of engagement most properly characterizes the affirming effort that promotes historical ideas as helpful or otherwise to be commended because the ideas were and are medieval.  As Leslie Workman puts it, one leans “to the Middle Ages because it is open-ended,” especially if one thinks “in terms of an organic community: a landscape that [has] come to cohere through time.” [fn.1] Softly lyrical in a relentlessly expository age, Workman’s sensibility, like medievalism, appeals to many, including those who wish to explain medievalism clearly, which is to say, in this expository age, objectively.  Clear, objective delineations, unlike some of Workman’s most lyrical illuminations, are articulated in the positivistic and empirical manner of a rational culture that, historically speaking, generated itself, at least in good measure, from its commitment to making itself markedly different from all of pre-modernity, but particularly the medieval.  This current or dominant sense of exposition and clarity is important to foreground, since it is impossible to speak medievally or to follow Leslie Workman, if we do not circumscribe the modern form of clarity by highlighting its historicity, its artificiality.  This is what Workman did much of his life, I believe, even when he may not have appreciated the fact fully, even when he might have actually denied it. [fn.2]

This movement into alternative forms of clarity is also attempted by others who are drawn to medievalisms.  Some of these people came together in the autumn of 2006 in Toronto and contributed to a vibrant “international conference on [the topic of] ‘Renaissance Medievalisms’” (7), a conference that provided the impetus for the 2009 publication of a collection of essays, also entitled Renaissance Medievalisms, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler.  In the book, a particularly remarkable discussion of medievalism in terms other than the strictly modern is that by Brian Gourley, “Carnivalising Apocalyptic History in John Bale’s King Johan and Three Laws.”  In something of a mash up exposition, which makes comprehensible ways of thinking alien to a modern mind, Gourley draws on early modern (apocalyptical), modern (history), and critically modern (carnavalesque) modes of comprehension to speak medievally in several ways, simultaneously and equanimously.  The essay really is so smooth that one might well fail to apprehend the advancement it offers, but this is a shame that cannot be avoided, since to write in ways that more forcibly demand apprehension of literary historiography after the stronghold of stabilizing positivism and objectification simply is to write, at the moment, without clarity.  It is work such as Gourley’s that will bring readers along to our next forms of comprehension and ways of being medieval.

Gourley’s essay is, conceptually, a remarkably simple effort: First, it means to indicate how Bale conceptualized and used his sense of the medieval to advance his sense of the progressive, righteous state, a state that is both personal and national, and, second, it means to indicate how Bale has been used subsequently in a way that precludes apprehension of what he actually thought and accomplished.  This is a nicely humanist endeavor, even as it unabashedly promotes a materialism that is distinctly dependent upon an Enlightenment-inflected hermeneutics.  These features are brought together in many places, but nowhere more concisely than in the conclusion, where we learn that “the Tudor practice of medieval historiography not only serves as an epistemological tool that explains the past, but also becomes, through a frame of apocalypse, a self-sustaining hermeneutic tool through which one can also explain the present and the future” (185).  Unlike materialist history, Gourley further explains, “Revelation exegesis was . . . a contested discourse that could be used to create history in multiple ways” (185).  The difference between materialist and Revelationist interpretation of the past is not that one is a contested discourse, while the other remains uncontested, but that one recognizes that it creates history, while the other believes that it properly or improperly perceives history.

With similar brilliance and even more well-deserved confidence, Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, in their essay, “What Counted as an ‘Antiquity’ in the Renaissance,” further advance our capacity for expansive historiography.  By liberating from “modern scholarship” (70) artefacts, including “not only buildings, but also medieval sculpture thought to be ancient, Byzantine icons, mosaics, floor pavements, and manuscript illumination” (54), Nagel and Wood wish to

go so far as to argue that, strictly speaking, such [chronologically Medieval] monuments ought to be catalogued in the Census of Antique Works of Art known to the Renaissance, alongside Hellenistic sarcophagi and statuary.  The corpus of “alternative antiquities” introduces a stranger antiquarianism, one that does not so much dispel as thrive on temporal confusion.  (70)

An –ism that thrives on confusion is a very different –ism from one that dispels confusion, making the thinker of the –ism responsible for his or her own intellectual ability, be it chameleon-like, as Pico celebrates, or, as Shakespeare contends regarding love, be it ever-fixèd.  My use of the present-tense, with my references to Pico and Shakespeare, is apropos Nagel and Wood, insomuch as the central tenet of their essay is a claim about an un-modern, Renaissance sort of medievalism or historiography:  “The claim of this article,” Nagel and Wood declare so as to be plain and clear, “is that the present-tense authority of many images and monuments, religious or secular, was bound up with some claim to ancient origins; and that that claim was sustained by a notional model of production similar to the one that sustained the sacred portraits or the central plan buildings.  Like the icon or octagonal Baptistery, the artefact either was the original artefact, or was a reliable substitute for the original” (63).  Paying attention to the italics and the import of the word, “substitute,” necessarily makes the declaration hardly plain and clear, to a stabilizing, positivistic form of expository comprehension, such as that of modern historiography.  To follow Nagel and Wood into their best and most rewarding conceptions, we must think otherwise, medievally, as Workman encourages, confusedly, as Nagel and Wood propose. [fn.3]

The unicorn and virgin mother provide further medieval or confused knowledge in the elegant essays by Hans Peter Boedel and Gary Waller.  Boedel fosters an un-modern comprehension by establishing his topic – ostensibly unicorns in natural history, but really the deep topic is existence – according to modern standards against which the latter part of his essay moves.  From the casually magical efflorescence of his title, “’Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Existence of Fabulous Beasts in Renaissance Historiae Naturales,” Boedel, in the body of his essay, treats three early modern writers on unicorns, starting with the one simplest for the modern reader to comprehend, John Maplet, author of A Green Forest, Or a Natural History. [fn.4]  A Renaissance historian of rather limited interests, Maplet is un-medieval by lacking any tendency for generalizations, while he remains pre-modern in his disregard for empirical sorts of evidence.  Maplet decides that the unicorn is a fallacious textual product borne of “philological confusion” and “medieval texts, the work . . . that Maplet most disliked” (291).  By contrast, Wolfgang Franz, in the Historia Animalium Sacra, determines that there are unicorns, and he does so by drawing upon all of the disparate forms of evidence each of his readers most desire, whether the literary desire be Medieval, Renaissance, Reformed, or early modern.  With playfulness engaging Medieval modes of analogy and a certain ambivalence engaging religious and modern modes, Franz “seamlessly integrates his sources of valid knowledge – classical and contemporary authorities, Scripture, and eyewitness testimony – in a way entirely characteristic of Renaissance natural historians” (294).  This Renaissance comprehensiveness is extended with the “far more influential and far more original” work of Conrad Gessner, the Historia animalium. Gessner, unlike Maplet and Franz, is best comprehended by a reader who can imagine various sorts of emotional states of being that Gessner appears to express, in relation to the various topics of his critical and remarkably pleasing encyclopedia.  Understanding Gessner and his Renaissance appeal requires the adoption of an early modern but not modern physician’s adaptability, making Gessner and his Renaissance appeal the most elusive of topics, in Boedel’s essay, for the modern reader to comprehend.  Yet, if the reader follows Boedel with generosity and imagination, he or she comes to understand the profundity and cogency of expositions such as the following:

Gessner was writing during the heyday of Galenic medicine in the sixteenth century and, like other contemporary physicians, was deeply influenced both by Galen and by the current discourse of medical humanism. Although Renaissance physicians respected ancient authority, Galen himself laid special emphasis upon the value of experience in the diagnosis and treatment of disease: physicians were not to let the dictates of learned authority override the evidence of personal experience and eye-witness testimony.  Thus, Renaissance medical humanism combines philological approaches to medical problems with the practical and empirical, precisely as does Gessner’s catalogue of the animal world.  (299-300)

The real world of unicorns that Gessner gives his readers is very much Gessner’s world, at least according to Boedel’s understanding, made remarkably plain and clear, by this essay in a Renaissance Medievalism.

Less demanding than Boedel, because more circumscribed in his reach, Waller employs an agile interpretive mind similar to Boedel’s to indicate the Renaissance power of a comic climax that is lost on readers uncultivated in the multiple historiographies of the Shakespearean stage.  In a milieu comprised of traditional and reformed ideas of the virgin mother competing with the spectacular humanism of the theatre and, to a lesser but not insignificant degree, a skeptical materialism of the burgeoning governmental bureaucracy, the presentation of Helena at the end of All’s Well, That Ends Well operates like unicorns in Gessner:  Helena is and is not a virgin mother, and both statuses are real simultaneously, according to various ways of being.  For theatrical humanism, the experience represented by the characters of the play make Helena a pregnant virgin as does, more importantly, according to Waller, the thematic fact that Helena is placed in the status-defining role for herself, with the assistance of another woman, Diana.  The bed-trick, at once believable because so traditional and incredible because so silly, becomes the locus of the confluence of varying realities, with Medieval senses feeling that every moment before, during, and after the bed trick generates piety by effecting the proper conditions of the sacrament of marriage, and with certain Reformed senses feeling that Helena is righteous by effecting the conditions necessary for her virginal as well as maternal chastity.  Humanists see that this is all the product of humans – and male actors – while nascent empiricists see that this is all how the rational mind is diverted, perhaps pleasantly, perhaps perniciously.   The resolution, the happiness, the laughter, the commoner-class wish fulfillment – in short, the comedy – of the revelation of the pregnant Helena at the end of the play “manages both to look back to a rich intellectual and devotional tradition and to look forward to an emergent role of sexual affirmation and sexual choice that was, in part, developing from the more positive side of the Reformers’ views of marriage.  The play achieves this balance by working both within and against. . . our history” (117).  As with Erasmus, with whom Waller opens and closes his essay, Helena or “Shakespeare’s Reformed Virgin,” as Waller puts it as the title of his essay, needs to be positioned carefully so as to be made to reveal the polysemous quality of a virgin mother at a specific moment in time, “the great transition between Medieval and Renaissance” (117).

If unicorns and virgin mothers allow us to sense movements of what would come to be thought of as Medieval fantasy or idolatry, other concepts felt to be foundationally modern provide opportunities to contemplate the naturalization of perception.  Time, geography, cosmography are three such fundamentally modern concepts that, three separate essays show, were forged from Medieval models.  Using John Duns Scotus as representing a Medieval conception of time and duration in distinction to space and place, the latter set having been produced by more extended authorial contemplation, leaving time and duration to require considerable readerly improvisation, Michael Edwards offers to explain how Renaissance metaphysics generated senses of temporal reality as materially observable, as opposed to theoretical but unobserved possibilities.  This was important, since angelic duration was a central issue.  With an evolving conception of internal and external time and duration, early modern pedagogues developed the new distinction into an elaborated, materialized account and represented the account as Scotism, although “the theoretical spine behind their arguments was not the Subtle Doctor himself, but an argument made widespread by [Francisco] Suárez” (241).  Richard Raiswell, taking up the discussion of space and its early modern English representation, uses William Watreman’s translation of the 1538 edition of Joannes Boemus’s Omnium gentium mores leges et ritus ex multis clarissimis rerum scriptores to show how new and simpler minds reading from printed texts in the vernacular were gratified by “a world that was reassuringly ordered and [because of the kind of order offered] tended to confirm the expectations of its readers” (281). [fn.5]  And then from the earth to the cosmos, Gabrielle Sugar offers an explanation of how Johannes Kepler’s calculated thought – drawn from his conclusion “that God’s nature is mathematical” (313) – was presented and viewed as a merger with Medieval Aristotelian thought.  In this, Sugar presents Kepler as something of the modern, dialectical synthesizer: “As Aristotelian thought mingled with the new astronomical knowledge, Kepler envisioned a cosmos that integrated both, a paradoxical space of both medieval universes and early modern worlds” (317).

This forging of modernity out of dimensions of Renaissance medievalisms was achieved by readers as much as writers.  Examining how Leone Ebreo, the “Portuguese Jew . . . [who] left Spain at the age of 32 in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews . . . [fleeing] to Spanish dominated Southern Italy” (75-76), read and then used Boccaccio’s De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, James Nelson Novoa calls for a more imaginative consideration of Ebreo’s Weltanschauung than has been published, as a way to better comprehend intellectual and emotional trends obscured by medievalisms, particularly Renaissance medievalisms.  Notably, the polarized explanations of Leone Ebreo’s character – the one promoting him as a constituent of “the Jewish philosophical and specifically Sephardic intellectual tradition,” while the other makes “him out to be a child of the Italian Renaissance thoroughly imbued by Ficinean Neoplatonism” (86) – preclude other, more rewarding explanations, particularly, for Novoa, the characterizations made possible by thinking of Judah Abravanel, i.e., Leone Ebreo as named at birth, as produced by “the Iberian vernacular movement” (86).  This vernacular movement, Novoa suspects, in good psychological fashion, must account for “at least part of his forma mentis” that accounts for how he read (86).  Also modernizing the conception of reading, but to a much wider reach, is Donald Beecher, who, in writing a history of the changing interpretive relations to The Fables of Bidpai, means to show how the “Renaissance mind . . . possessed and processed the medieval fable in its own unique way, and largely without changing a word” (105).  The culture of the printed book generated by and generating Renaissance iconography produced a conception of the mind and memory that was foundationally visual, literally and then figuratively, so that those effected by such objectification of thought and understanding, such as the Tudor English translator of the Bidpai tales, Sir Thomas North, would employ a “frame of associations” (98) to indite the tale-within-a-tale amorphous quality of the original in linear, early modern English, an English more akin to the printed book’s woodcut and the protocols of interpretation it elicits, than it was to the “oceans of stories” of the original, pre-modern fables.  Not only North, the translator, but all of North’s readers had to interpret in the new, materializing manner, and the Renaissance quality is that of being the limina by which readers transform the literary abstractions of the Bidpai fables.

The implicit stability of our own reading practices and abilities is not challenged by considering how the Bidpai fables were re-interpreted over a period of years, or by wanting to expand our psychological, ethnic, and social consideration of Leone Ebreo; indeed, these considerations in the essays speak in rather the modern idiom, albeit in ingenious ways.  Similarly, other essays of the collection provide fascinating considerations of features of post-Renaissance personal and social institutions, without challenging the idiom in which those personal and social institutions thrive.  For instance, Philippa Sheppard, Linda Vecchi, and  E. Natalie Rothman discuss aspects of the self.  Unlike previous, Medieval icons of Joan of Arc, Shakespeare’s Joan, as read by Sheppard in “The Puzzle of Pucelle or Pussel: Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc Compared with Two Antecedents,”  has an essentialized self-realized character, “effeminate, superstitious, dishonourable, deceitful, and lascivious,” which is to say, a character that all of Shakespeare’s English audience “would have liked to believe was wrong with France” (208).  The self as written, as opposed to the self as read, is skillfully excavated by Vecchi, in “A Vale of Tears: Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Lamentory Style.”  The lamentation form possessed a “paradoxical nature that led to its reconfiguration in the hands of many Renaissance poets,” Vecchi tells us, and this paradoxical nature is what Isabella Whitney exploits in order to formulate and express her “obvious pride and acceptance of herself as a writer” (218; italics in the original; I might have also italicized and hyphenated, her-self, but this sort of thing can get out of hand) and “the indignation and independent mind of a confident Renaissance woman” (223).  In producing the self through reading and writing, Rothman most thoroughly modernizes the past, so that her subject, the seventeenth-century Venetian diplomatic interpreter, or dragoman, Giovanni Battista Salvago, can be explained in terms of how he read people and texts and how he wrote for specific readers, readers he knew would interpret in certain, highly specific ways.  In Salvago’s Relazioni degli Ambasciatori veneti, which is the basis of Rothman’s elaborations, we are given to see that Salvago, “while evincing an insider’s understanding of Ottoman imperial governance, also betrays [his simultaneous] effort to distance himself from things Ottomans and to establish his unambiguous position as a loyal, useful, and humanistically inclined Venetian subject” (128).  Salvago is able to do this, because his readership is inclined to interpret what he writes in the way “they expected” (137), just as we can be expected to interpret Rothman in a certain, modernized way, and not other ways, such as medieval or variously un-modern.

Also writing in terms of modern literary expectations, Vittoria Feola, Lidia Radi, and Paul F. Grendler detail how institutionalized forms of science, government, and education came to operate differently, even as they continued to appear in remarkably pre-modern form, well past the Renaissance.  In each of these considerations, it is pedagogy that is of determinative significance.  For the mid-seventeenth-century Elias Ashmole, the new methods for educating common people were important topics of debate, particularly in Cromwellian England, so that his curious mixture of alchemy and chemistry, antiquarianism and Baconian style, published in 1652 and entitled, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, is nicely comprehended as one of the  hybrids of literary history: a Renaissance Medievalism in itself.  That is, specifically, the Theatrum is  a text that intervenes in contemporaneous academic hostilities by attempting to celebrate the Medieval against the Renaissance and the Renaissance against the Medieval as a way of diverting attention from the deeper singularization of thought in pedagogical practice developing for use with vernacular studies.  This deeper effect seems to have been what Ashmole thought was realistic and practical.  The realistic or practical, in Guillaume Michel’s Le Penser de royal memoire, published in 1518, seems to have the obverse status from that in Ashmole’s Theatrum; that is, in Le Penser, the rhetorical purpose to get the king to go on crusade turns out to be that which is the diversionary material.  As Radi’s essay shows, what is effected by Michel with his work is the production of the feeling that imagining “material images” (153), such as a woman as Joan of Arc and such as Joan of Arc’s spurs, was remembering, and that associating proper meaning with those images was thought, so that reading a book such as Le Penser was both intellectual training and intellectual exercise.  Pedagogy becomes all, even though it ostensibly was designed to prepare a king for action, such as a crusade.  These sorts of schoolbook decadences and theatre diversions seem to be symptomatic or instrumental of modern higher education, when considered, as in Renaissance Medievalisms, with Grendler’s brief account of how Italian universities of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries changed their curriculum – mostly by adding areas of “teaching and research” without subtracting other activities, especially any activities associated with theology – yet did so while managing to look “almost identical to medieval universities” (48).  We can feel that the university personnel of the period understood that this was what they were doing, if we remember the way a famous modern pedagogue of the Renaissance expressed the advice for the manager of people in changing conditions: videri quam esse. [fn.6]

Whether seeming medieval or being Medieval, Renaissance Medievalisms, like so many other medievalisms, “is an assortment of diverse and fascinating objects” (29).  And while the collection of essays does contribute, as the editor hopes it will, “to current discussions on the relationship between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages” (29), it does so as it also contributes to the greater current of historiographical movement, a movement involving, in good measure, speaking medievally.  As Alice Chandler, one of Leslie Workman’s most revered historians, said of nineteenth-century medievalism, we may say of twenty-first-century medievalism:  “[W]hile we may admire the medievalists . . . or criticize them, . . . we must always consider their ideas as part of a larger social movement still being acted out today.” [fn.7] Even when the editor of Renaissance Medievalisms may not fully appreciate the fact, or even when he might actually deny the fact, the best advancements realized by the book are made when it speaks in un-modern, mashed-up, confused, lyrical, Medieval ways.  In this, we get, in this time of x-modernity, something of a renaissance of medievalisms.  Who could have thought up such thing, but a collective, a collective of handsomely cultivated intellectuals convened in an admirably urbane college?  Leslie Workman, like so many of us, would have been very pleased, indeed, to have been present for the convocation.  We can be happy, as am I, at least to have the thrilling collection of essays.

Jesse G. Swan
University of Northern Iowa

1) “Speaking of Medievalism,” in Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), p. 336.
2) The final paragraph of part I of Workman’s introduction to Medievalism in Europe provides one nice instance in which Workman gestures toward the ethereal (the dream of having with medievalism the sort of “philosophical and critical appreciation  . . . of related fields like Romanticism”), while being pulled toward the figuratively tangible hypostasis of modernity (“Medievalism is a new field of very great scope and significance in which much of the basic exploration is still to be done”).
3) More precisely, I do not use the present tense as much as the subjunctive, in my references to Pico and Shakespeare.  However, modern literacy is impatient with mood, preferring to limit its range to tense in the indicative. Nagel and Wood are better read in the subjunctive, it seems, as is so much that is spoken medievally.
4) The magical aura for the essay is established in the title by the reference to Shakespeare’s romance, The Tempest.
5) There is considerably more slippage in Raiswell’s essay than I suggest in my précis.  For instance, that Watreman uses the 1538 edition of Boemus for his translation is a bibliographical statement implied by Raiswell’s notes 3 and 4, not directly stated by Raiswell or known from bibliographical analysis on my part.  Also, and more importantly, the distinction between Watreman and Boemus is generally elided throughout the essay, so that the representation of Boemus in Watreman’s remarkably distinct rendition is usually presented as not Watreman but as Boemus.
6) This pedagogue is, of course, Machiavelli, and this advice – to seem rather than to be – is given in his schoolbook, The Prince.
7) Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970), p. 11.