“Unsheathe the blade within the voice…”

Is polysemy now unseemly? Two weeks ago, when historian Steve Muhlberger traveled to that great North American ent-moot, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, he found himself in the midst of “a lot of griping and grouching about the misuse and ambiguity of the word medieval.” In a lucid and laudably concise blog post, he calls out the problem behind the problem:

You would think that a bunch of scholars who by their very nature of their discipline are experts in the evolution of the meaning of words would by now have gotten over the fact that though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call “the Middle Ages” by that term, and that coming up with a really good, chronological definition of those ages is impossible, we are stuck with the words medieval and Middle Ages anyway. But no . . .

Steve is a scholar of chivalric tournaments and an experienced combat reenactor, so he knows how to land a disarming blow:

This can be intensely irritating for people who know that certain phrases and analyses lost their cogency back in 1927 and want to talk about what their friends are doing in the field now. Nevertheless people whose business is words should really accept the fact that words like “medieval” have a number of popular meanings, and when one of them shows up in current discussion (when, for instance, a Game of Thrones shows up and is widely labelled as medieval, even though the world of Game of Thrones is not our earth at all), the fact can be dealt with a good-humored way. It certainly would reflect credit on any field where a good-humored approach was the norm.

It would indeed. Off campus, the world blissfully resists more than a century of scholarship—pop culture still depicts Vikings in huge horned helmets, for heaven’s sake—and I respectfully suggest that more scholars contemplate why this is so.

As the rare soul who’s read every volume of Studies in Medievalism, I’ve marveled at the field’s mania for nomenclature. Since at least 2009, contributors to the journal—and its sister publication The Year’s Work in Medievalism, and its annual conference, and a pricey new handbook of critical terms—have kicked around the meaning of “medievalism” and “neo-medievalism” until every syllable simpers for mercy. Because I write about medievalism not as a professional scholar but as a footloose amateur, I miss the many years of meaty articles explaining, say, how boys’ chivalric clubs helped inspire the American scouting movement or why we’re perpetually tempted to make Dante a mouthpiece for generational angst. Forged from an accidental alloy of romanticism, nostalgia, politics, religion, and wishful thinking, medievalism can’t help but have jagged edges. It’s tiring to hone terms of art so finely that they cease to exist in three dimensions; we may as well flaunt the imperfection.

When it comes to the matter of the merely medieval, here’s Steve Muhlberger again:

David Parry made the most sensible remark of the entire week when he pointed out that an imprecise word like medieval has a lot of cultural value for people who make their living interpreting that era. Indeed there is a financial payoff being associated with it.

What’s the worth of a timeworn coinage? Steve’s full blog post answers that question, with the suggestion that settling on terms can pay other, less measurable dividends too.

8 thoughts on ““Unsheathe the blade within the voice…”

  1. Pete: Indeed—look how one popular use of the word can still wipe out the complex historical picture assembled through well more than a century of painstaking scholarship.

    Steve: Thanks for stopping by! You’ve been blogging up a storm lately; good stuff.

    Scott: At first I didn’t see the link on the word “this” and couldn’t imagine why my humble blog would rank so highly in a Google search! The fact that a medieval-themed Predator movie gets so much “buzz” shows just how invested Americans are in using some (highly customized and selective) version of the Middle Ages.


  2. Bridge Street Books recently ordered for me a copy of K.P. Harrington’s Mediaeval Latin to send to a young relative. I did not remove the shrink wrap to inspect it, but saw from the back cover that among other changes, the second edition stops at 1350; the first edition goes on another 300 years to John Milton. (The second edition is also a good deal heftier.) I see that Richard McKeon’s anthology of medieval philosophy runs from St. Augustine through William of Ockham; St. Augustine seems a little early for the Middle Ages, but then without him how could one have a coherent history of medieval philosophy? So I don’t know where one really starts the Middle Ages, but 1350 seems a fair place to end them.


  3. When I taught a course called Medieval and Renaissance British Literature, I’d begin the “Renaissance” portion by informally polling students about when the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance begin. They’d throw out various answers, after which I’d tell them they were all wrong: In England, the Renaissance began on September 15, 1485, in a suburb of London. It was a Tuesday. Around 3:15 in the afternoon. Partly cloudy…and so forth. Soon, amusement dawned and broke into comprehension on most students’ faces as they came to understand something about the arbitrary nature of defining historical periods.

    That was my only classroom stunt of its kind, but it was part of my overall emphasis on continuity. The rise in recent decades of the notion of “Late Antiquity,” although no less arbitrary than any other term, has been really useful. Getting people to think about beginnings and endings (as you have) is enlightening and fun, when it’s more than mere grousing.


  4. Chris: Yes! Exactly right. Wagner gets the credit for bearded, horned-helmed Vikings. Nineteenth-century archaeologists had dug up curving bronze horns and two helmets with what I’ve seen described as “curved appendages.” They were probably for shamanic rituals and they predated by the Viking era by at least two centuries, but they captured the public imagination.

    One historian surveyed people who attended the big Smithsonian show on the Vikings in the year 2000, and she found that most of them were surprised to have learned from the exhibition that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. She also found that horned helmets and swords were the top sellers in museum shops that hosted the exhibition when it went on the road.

    This is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been researching for the book I’m planning to write about American medievalism. At the rate I’m going, my grandchildren will have to finish it…but you can see why it’s such a fun and illuminating subject.


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