The Medieval New: Ethical Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation

The Medieval New: Ethical Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation

The Medieval New: Ethical Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation

The Medieval New: Ethical Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation


Despite the prodigious inventiveness of the Middle Ages, the era is often characterized as deeply suspicious of novelty. But if poets and philosophers urged caution about the new, Patricia Clare Ingham contends, their apprehension was less the result of a blind devotion to tradition than a response to radical expansions of possibility in diverse realms of art and science. Discovery and invention provoked moral questions in the Middle Ages, serving as a means to adjudicate the ethics of invention, and opening thorny questions of creativity and desire.

The Medieval New concentrates on the preoccupation with newness and novelty in literary, scientific, and religious discourses of the twelfth through sixteenth centuries. Examining a range of evidence, from the writings of Roger Bacon and Geoffrey Chaucer to the letters of Christopher Columbus, and attending to histories of children's toys, the man-made marvels of romance, the utopian aims of alchemists, or the definitional precision of the scholastics, Ingham analyzes the ethical ambivalence with which medieval thinkers approached the category of the new. With its broad reconsideration of what the "newfangled" meant in the Middle Ages, The Medieval New offers an alternative to histories that continue to associate the medieval era with conservation rather than with novelty, its benefits and liabilities. Calling into question present-day assumptions about newness, Ingham's study demonstrates the continued relevance of humanistic inquiry in the so-called traditional disciplines of contemporary scholarship.


Le nouveau n’est pas une mode; c’est une valeur.

––Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte

Novelty- mongering does not necessarily reflect novelty, much less

––David Edgerton, “Innovation, Technology, or History”

“The New is not a fashion,” writes Roland Barthes, “it is a value.” Referring to novelty as a feature of the pleasure of the text, Barthes casts the new as discursive value rather than empirical fact. This seems both undeniable and counterintuitive. From the “New World” to the “latest iPhone,” newness stakes its power on the side of the event, unpredicted and unlooked for—on surprise and discontinuity as empirical fact. Yet our attraction to gadgets, fashions, or breathtaking discoveries exceeds utility, as a variety of scholars have shown. Take, for example, medieval historian Lynn White’s controversial “stirrup thesis” (1962). White’s ground- breaking account of the instrumentality of the lowly stirrup to the dramatic rise of feudalism was, of course, mostly wrong about feudalism; but this has not blunted the significance of his imaginative method to the History of Technology, a field still oriented around the inestimable value of small inventions. Yet if the full measure of our fascination with new things, new discoveries, or new events is on display in narratives like White’s, the process by which the new affects the movements of history and culture is not adequately described by them. Whatever the new is or means at its broadest, it is not the stirrup (or any other single invention, discovery, or mode of thought), no matter how seductive or ingenious such arguments may be.

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