Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Medieval People and the Bible

The American conquest of the Middle Ages. (Via Joshua.)
The very term “Middle Ages,” in fact, implies that the period is significant merely as an interruption, or at best a transition, between the vital culture of the Greco-Roman world and the “rebirth” of that culture in the Renaissance. When the Middle Ages do come up in popular discourse, the terms are almost never complimentary. Last year, for instance, Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt published his widely acclaimed book The Swerve, which tells the story of the Italian Renaissance’s rediscovery of the Roman poet Lucretius (see “Swerves,”  July-August 2011, page 8). Central to Greenblatt’s argument is the idea that the Renaissance represented a long-overdue return to reason and sanity after the long religious delirium of the Middle Ages, a time of “societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria.”

Clearly, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) has its work cut out for it. Launched last year by HUP under the general editorship of Porter professor of Medieval Latin Jan Ziolkowski, DOML gives the Loeb treatment to classic texts from the Middle Ages, aiming to fill the gap between the ancient world and the Renaissance—both on the library shelves and, if possible, in the minds of students and readers (see “A Renaissance for Medieval Classics,”  November-December 2010, page 64). “For reasons both economic and cultural,” Ziolkowski writes, “the variety and distinction of the Latin literature written in the Middle Ages have yet to receive the recognition they merit….[M]y dream is that this series of publications will help to improve the situation by furnishing prospective readers with both well-known classics and lesser-known mysteries and masterpieces.”

If the Loebs have been around for a hundred times as long as DOML, that seems a fair reflection of the importance of classical versus medieval literature in our culture. This may be especially true for American readers. After all, American civilization never had a medieval period: our country is a product of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment era, when the reputation of the Middle Ages and everything they stood for was at its lowest ebb.

True, the United States has no direct inheritance from the classical world, either—but thanks to the Founding Fathers, we are in many ways Romans by adoption. When the Founders made the American Revolution and framed the Constitution, they had the Roman Republic in mind—just look at the way the Federalist Papers constantly refer to Roman history. And Washington, D.C., is a showcase of neo-Roman architecture; not for nothing is our government run from the Capitol, named for Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Gothic and Romanesque buildings are much thinner on the ground.

The great literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius reflected on this absence in his 1948 magnum opus, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. “What strikes me most is this: The American mind might go back to Puritanism or to William Penn, but it lacked that which preceded them; it lacked the Middle Ages,” Curtius wrote. “It was in the position of a man who has never known his mother.” Yet he saw this lack as an opportunity for American scholarship. “The American conquest of the Middle Ages,” he observed, “has something of that romantic glamor and of that deep sentimental urge which we might expect in a man who should set out to find his lost mother.” That “conquest” began, in his view, with the “cult of Dante” that sprang up among the New England poets of the nineteenth century, above all Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who translated the Divine Comedy. (Read entire article.)

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