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

February 11, 2013

Petersen, Østrem, and Bücker, eds., Resonances

Resonances:  Historical Essays on Continuity and Change, ed. Nils Holger Petersen, Eyolf Østrem, and Andreas Bücker (Turnhout:  Brepols, 2011).

Reviewed by Karl Fugelso (

As someone writing an article on the role of continuity in medievalism, I came to this volume hoping it directly and thoroughly addresses that relationship.  Unfortunately for me, it’s almost exclusively devoted to cases that only touch on portions of this theme.  Nevertheless, that’s more than can be said for many other studies of medievalism, and all ten essays offer other valuable insights on their particular subjects and on the field in general.

The collection begins with an eighteen-page introduction by Petersen that briefly lays out the parameters of the project, even more succinctly describes how it came about, and then elaborates on two transformations of discourse.  The first pertains to how the Church has treated Transubstantiation, especially as manifest in post-medieval practices associated with the Eucharist.  The second revolves around scholarship on dialogical texts that are connected to the devotions of the medieval Church and are now subsumed under the heading “liturgical drama.”  Though the reader might have been better served by direct discussion of how continuity and change relate to each other in historical discourse, particularly as the latter pertains to the historiography of medievalism, both of Petersen’s examples are informative about their particular subjects and indirectly shed light on how he and his fellow editors arrived at their general approach to, and parameters for, the project.

As Petersen notes more directly at the end of his introduction, he and his colleagues perceived their overall theme as having three foci:  long-term historical continuities, specific moments of historical change, and the problematization of historical understanding.  These are, of course, far from mutually exclusive and make for rather artificial, often incorrect, and sometimes awkward distinctions when translated into the section headings “Continuity,” “Change,” and, especially, “Permanence.”  But, fortunately, the essayists do not allow themselves to be bound by such constraints.

In “Martyrdom in the West:  Vengeance, Purge, Salvation, and History,” which is the first paper in the collection and the first of the three essays under the heading “Continuity,” Philippe Buc does indeed concentrate on the continuing vitality of a theology and ideology of martyrdom that is thought to be able to move History forward and provoke God’s transformative violence.  And though he is careful to note that this is a very broad motive that may not be confined to a single trajectory, and though he bases his argument on just three instances of martyrdom, he makes a strong case for the relevance of this motive to his evidence.  Yet even if the hanging of John Brown (1859), the trial and execution of Nikolai Bukharin (1938), and the many deaths on the First Crusade (1096-1110) do represent stations along a single path of development, they, like all catalysts, also represent moments of change, for, at the very least, they alter the momentum of the narratives in which they participate.  They foreground an inherent tension that in many, and perhaps all, instances of this distinction may fatally undermine it.

That would certainly seem to be the case in the next essay, “From ‘Theotokos’ to ‘Mater Dolorosa’:  Continuity and Change in the Images of Mary,” as Miri Rubin traces medieval transformations in the portrayal of the Virgin Mary.  Though her material is well-known and her basic narrative is not far from that of Marina Warner and others, she is, as far as I know, the first to concentrate on the points in these transformations at which change becomes alienation and at which such distinctions lose value.  With an approach that is itself a change in the treatment of this material, she pauses in her narrative to analyze changes that are some of many gradual shifts in the seemingly continuous transformation of Mary from poised Mother of God to overcome mother of Christ.

A different version of this same tension is also behind Martin Wangsgaard Jürgensen’s “Altering the Sacred Face.”  In examining how the original meaning of the Volto Santo transformed as it spread from Lucca and became ever more intertwined with the figure of St. Kümmernis, Jürgensen joins Rubin in bringing a new concern to well-studied material.  But where she describes a single trajectory, he, like Buc, allows for a multiplicity of developments.  As Jürgensen attempts to locate this example within the late-medieval cult of saints, he concludes that the transformation in this instance, and perhaps many others in which the central figure is as generic and bland as St. Kümmernis, is not and cannot be clear at this historical distance.  The changes associated with her in this context may represent either a single process or continuous reinterpretations of some undefined religious raw materials, but, he argues, any further attempt to pin down her identity would undermine the very genericness that made her such an adaptable and enduring figure.

In “Historical Discourse in Renaissance Italy,” which is the next essay and the first of the four under the rubric “Change,” continuity is relegated to little more than a foil, but it is nevertheless present as Peter Burke analyzes the first insertions of formal speeches (orazioni or discorsi) into Renaissance histories and the abandonment of that practice two centuries later in approximately 1600.  As he brings out what he describes as a “zigzag” of historiography, he very appropriately departs from a single vector in his own organization and opts instead for a structure he compares to Chinese boxes, which begins with an attempt to define historical discourse and then moves to Renaissance examples, Italian examples, and finally the speeches in Francesco Guicciardini’s Storia d’Italia.  Along the way, he touches on so many contexts from which these insertions spring and so many forms of response to them, that this piece feels like a prolegomena to a much larger work that seeks continuities among a far larger cosmos of examples.  And his closing claim to have attempted a reconciliation between, on the one hand, Mikhail Bakhtin’s description of language as a collective creation in which individuals simply appropriate, re-employ, or quote words that have often been heard in the mouths of others, and, on the other hand, Roman Jakobson’s suggestion that whenever we quote, for our own purposes and in our own situation, we necessarily make the quoted words our own is a bit too grand and opens the paper up far too much from where it began.  But like the many points at which his narrative zigs or zags, not to mention his starting and ending points, that remark does invite fuller responses to important issues that he is only able to touch on in this brief but important essay.

Many a zig and zag are also charted in Stephen Bann’s “Reproducing the Mona Lisa in Nineteenth-Century France,” which is the second essay under the heading “Change,” but these shifts are so slight, numerous, and close to each other, that they have often been mistaken for a continuity.  Bann concentrates on particular prints as he argues that they helped transform Leonardo’s portrait into an icon even as they were involved in a complex process of aesthetic and cultural validation.  But, of course, much of these developments took place in the gaps between the prints and involved other reproductions and/or descriptions of the Mona Lisa.  That is to say, a grand change did indeed occur in the course of this process, and it comprised many small changes, but the prints are signposts of those changes, rather than the changes themselves, and they would seem to represent such a long and slow transformation that the latter could be seen as having a great deal of continuity about it.

Nor does the third essay under the rubric “Change,” Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger’s “Kneeling before God--Kneeling before the Emperor:  The Transformation of a Ritual during the Confessional Conflict in Germany,” address merely one, unalloyed shift.  Though Stollberg-Rilinger is primarily concerned with the end of genuflecting before the Holy Roman Emperor, which undoubtedly represents a major change in socio-political relations, she admits that she cannot be certain when this cessation occurred.  And as she expands on the last known examples of the practice, she is not very convincing in presenting them as a “moment” in history, for she describes multiple transformations in the spirit, practice, and purpose of this gesture over the multiple locations, years, and occasions of the end of the Schmalkaldic war in 1546-47 and the imperial diet of Augsburg in 1548.  In other words, she, too, describes events that constitute stations along a single trajectory with many characteristics of continuity.

As does Mette B. Bruun in “‘Un autre Saint Bernard’:  Representing Bernard of Clairvaux in the Age of Louis XIV.”  She concentrates on the ways in which the Bernardine figure is modulated between Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s Panégyrique de Saint Bernard (1653) and Pierre le Nain’s Vie de Armand-Jean de Rancé (1715).  But in charting that transformation, she brings in other stops along the way, most notably Rancé’s De la sainteté et des devoirs monastiques (1683).  And while convincingly demonstrating how Bernard is adapted to the genre, aim, and structure of each text, she allows that he remains “a beacon of unwavering sanctity in a more or less tumultuous discourse of confessional conflict and monastic upheaval” and compares him to a resonance in the “key” of Vita Prima that functions as an “organ point” over which Bossuet and le Nain play out the dissonances and harmonies that make their composite portraits of an actualized Bernard and Rancé as un autre Bernard respectively.

A far more direct discussion of this tension between change and continuity, indeed, perhaps the most direct in the entire volume, comes in M. B. Pranger’s “‘Quod infixum manet’:  Perseverance in Augustine and Heinrich von Kleist,” which is the first essay under the rubric “Permanence.”  In concentrating on how the theme of the transformation of discourse manifests itself in the discourses of Augustine and Kleist through the “guise of immobility,” Pranger frames the relationship between these two forces as paradoxical.  He argues that, at least in this instance, the ostensible polarity of the two is complicated by considerable overlap and sometimes even complete interphasing, by “the impossibility of grasping, in terms of discourse, the immobility--or is it flow?--of permanence and perseverance.”

Rob C. Wegman’s “Blowing Bubbles in the Postmodern Era,” on the other hand, takes a very different, self-consciously and emphatically less theoretical position in arguing that permanence has existed all too independently of change in historical understanding.  He claims that our treatment of the past is framed by outworn models and narratives because of later fears that the likelihood of interpretive error, prejudice, and distortion is directly proportional to the amount of history one covers.  His own essay moves quite nicely through examples of this stasis as he loops back around to a personal note like that with which he began the essay.  But his examples of ossification seem somewhat cherry-picked and ignore many a text that resists his conclusions, particularly apart from the world of introductory textbooks and populist histories.  That is to say, while he progresses through a series of static examples that he treats as continuous to a fault, he ignores the continuously great changes that frame and, to a greater degree than he allows, actually influence their more superficial cousins.

Finally, in “History and Humour:  ‘Spartacus’ and the Existence of the Past,” Eyolf Østrem uses a 1960 film to argue that the continuity between various historical narratives is what makes historical writing meaningful and saves it from being ridiculous.  Beginning with Arthur Koestler’s definition of humor as arising “from the bisociation of an item in respect of two different and incompatible reference frames or interpretive matrices at once,” Østrem argues that the ability to provide compatibility and predictability, to establish association rather than bisociation, is what distinguishes the historian from the comedian.  Of course, this may involve additions in the form of links and/or changes in the narratives being joined within the historian’s metanarrative, but they are embedded in a continuity that may project permanence onto what are ultimately, of course, transient, subjective reading of incomplete and often quite fluid data.

Appropriately enough, nothing permanent is decided in that or any of the other essays.  Indeed, the main continuity among these papers is their willingness to allow for a great deal of flexibility in the paradox at the core of the relationship between continuity and change.  Though I and other readers may have appreciated a more consistently direct discussion of this relationship, we should be grateful for the many insights that the authors provide on their particular subjects and for the enlightening and entertaining ways they not only portray but also enact the volume’s central themes.

Karl Fugelso
Towson University