The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory

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The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory


Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith, eds. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. 276. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4644-9. $ 23.95

Scholars devoting their work to the Middle Ages have had to make some noise of late to remind modernists (and particularly theorists) that medievalists have been part of the conversation about modernity for a long time--as long as it has been going on, in fact. Often demonstrated, this fact has not been easy for those working beyond the Middle Ages to notice. Medieval studies occupies the middle ground upon which any view of the antiqui and moderni is taken, even as medieval thinkers took themselves for the moderni that first made this recognition. Collecting essays from a number of literary medievalists who have lately made some noise of their own, Cole and Smith lay claim to the medieval purchase on modernity, arguing from a particular disciplinary position and in a highly abstract philosophical register for their stake to these claims. At this historical moment, therefore, we can read The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages as a work of consolidation (in a number of ways). The collection not only advances the theoretical priority of philosophy in critical discourse, consolidating claims to speak for the vanguard of medieval studies from this position and in this language, but its essays also lay claim to the inheritance of a theoretically rich Marxist historicism in medieval studies--all of which centers on intellectual alignments at Duke, which has exerted a palpable force over Medieval studies for some time. Here lies a partially seen connection among contributors and editors, commentators and press readers, intellectual and idealist authorities.

Where Legitimacy works to remind us again that many of the most important thinkers about history and modernity have been serious scholars of the Middle Ages (Heidegger, Marx, and Hegel as well as Kristeva, Bataille, and Lacan), this collection also seeks to demonstrate that medievalists still produce theory and can contribute to current discussions of history and modernity. Examining various instantiations and interpretations of the secularization thesis and the origin of modernity, the collection charts the disavowal, distancing, and dependence of modernity upon the Middle Ages. I will not summarize the individual essays in the collection. Not only do editors Cole and Smith offer an introduction that situates the essays in a larger conversation about secularization, legitimation, and modernity, each cluster of 3 essays is followed by a summary response by a non-medievalist--not to mention the collection's salutary afterward by Fredric Jameson himself. In much the same way that the collection's essays take up a high level metaengagement with the medievalism of contemporary thinking about time and history, politics and historical action, so this review will engage with the metadiscourse of the book's relation to the fields it addresses.

Legitimacy puts the Middle Ages on the reading lists of those interested in materialism, periodization, and modernity as it also posits an important new reading list for medievalists (while reviving a very old and doctrinaire set of medieval texts--the once reviled scholastics as well as Augustine--to be considered in new ways). Excavating a long history of scholastic reading and medievalist scholarship too long taken for granted as outside the concerns (or conditions) of modernity, the collection offers a variety of welcome remediations. But it is no easy read. Legitimating their own claim on theory, the contributors to this volume demand their readers work hard, whether it be to understand the philosophical concerns of Heidegger and Hegel or the logic of supercession, sacramentalism, and secularization that have been too neatly conflated to generate moments of radical temporal split between medieval and modern worlds. These essays insistently trouble where those lines have been drawn, when, and for what (then) "present" purposes, as well as their lingering effects. …

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