The Clare Spark Blog

May 30, 2013

Nostalgia for the “Middle Ages”

old tapestry(Update: there is a big fight among academics as to whether or not the late Middle Ages were not the true originators of science and great art. New Left and Catholic scholars seem to be in the vanguard of this move. The arguments are very heated, and suggest many persons reject modernity/mass politics/technology/machines, unless they can be reconciled with religion, particularly Catholicism or its hybrids. The Greens, who merge with Nature (as opposed to modern domination of Nature) might be considered as romantic medievalists.)

New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier was quoted in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, May 29, 2013 as “Notable and Quotable.” These excerpts were taken from the commencement speech delivered by Wieseltier at Brandeis University on May 19, which warned students not to yield to the blandishments of science and technology.: “There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the two imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted , now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.  …You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality….Perhaps culture is now the counterculture. “

Wieseltier believes that this “saving remnant” will protect us against “the twittering acceleration of American consciousness….” [What on earth does he mean by that?]

This imprecation to drastically sever the link between the study of man with the study of nature, coupled with his nod to “religion” rhymes very well with the occasional turn to medievalism at such bastions of ex-leftist or populist thinking as Pajamas Media (see, seen also on the Dennis Prager “university” These videos are based on the work of Anthony Esolen:   It has been my position as both a student of intellectual history (with a strong interest in art and literary history), that the freethinking individual was unknown and often burned at the stake for daring to deviate from the rules laid down by medieval and even Renaissance priests and monarchs.


The Promethean impulse was sorely punished before the Enlightenment, and even Voltaire had to publish anonymously. And that pioneer Spinoza was hounded as a heretic for his materialist philosophy that joined Man with Nature and for his support of the short-lived but pathbreaking Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

But what is most disturbing, almost laughable, is Wieseltier’s posture as a revolutionary naysayer to the most advanced democracy in the history of our species, when he comes out as a diehard reactionary. Perhaps he likes girls with long tresses. The Middle Ages lingered into the 19th century with the vogue for William Morris craftsmanship, or before his ascendancy, the prestige of the Pre-Raphaelites, now in revival as a protest against the “desecration of nature.”

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

The real Middle Ages were a period of anarchy and arbitrary authority, localism,  interminable warfare, short life expectancy, institutionalized Jew-hatred, material deprivation, and slavery to powerful overlords, whose control over the lower orders was reinforced by “religion” that Wieseltier lauds as the proper study of his new counterculture (note that he does not distinguish between religions at odds with each other and with secularism. Such vagueness is typical of the moderate men who do not want anyone to be angry with them).  The centuries of struggle and sacrifice that brought us to pluralist, secularized modernity should not be so casually overturned by Brandeis University and its supportive media institutions. As for the study of cultural artifacts that Wieseltier recommends, it is not so easily accomplished as he imagines. Art works do not speak for themselves: they are always positioned against competing ideas and rules: look to their patrons and you will find the key to their artworks. Indeed, one of the great neglected themes in Melville scholarship (and the same might be said for his contemporary Victor Hugo) is ambivalence, as artists struggle with themselves either to accept or reject their freedom to write as they feel, for social cohesion is at stake, including their own interior conflicts that they imagine can hurl them into the abyss of poverty and artistic failure. (Melville’s father-in-law was Lemuel Shaw, a conservative Whig and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, also his patron.)

There is much to be criticized in this modern world, but its defects are not traceable to the “imperialism” of science and technology, but to the reactionary forces that thought that the transition from feudalism to capitalism could be managed without quality mass education and the preservation of the individual conscience and its rights as institutionalized in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. I remember Dr. Henry A. Murray, mind-manager extraordinaire, complaining about religious pluralism because the very fact that some had different belief systems suggested that one’s own religion  might be fallible. Such self-doubt (often described as ambiguity) fostered social division, not the desired social cohesion. (See, or, or Is it any wonder that so many artists and writers must write under a mask, simply to express their inner selves?Mask-SuttonHoo7thC


  1. What I think is missing from your list of the Middle Ages is the development of Law in England, which had a profound effect in enabling resistance to autocratic monarchy.

    Comment by wien1938 — June 11, 2016 @ 12:05 am | Reply

    • The Late Middle Ages had many innovations, but wasn’t the development of the Common Law associated with the early modern period, say, under the Tudors?

      Comment by clarelspark — June 11, 2016 @ 12:51 am | Reply

      • Yes and no. The Common law as a alternative source of law was developed, I think, in reaction to the Tudors. Law itself was elevated by that dynasty but because they used the law as a weapon in politics to disarm the nobility. But the roots were much older and also tied in with the coronation oath.
        However, my original comment was about Law as concept. English law is inherited, whereas Roman law is promulgated. Law comes to be a part of English political identity as it also becomes a focus of legal resistance to autocracy.

        Comment by wien1938 — June 11, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

  2. […] earlier (see or, is not nostalgia at all, but a sign that capitalism, individual opportunity, self-reliance, and […]

    Pingback by Multiculturalism and the persistence of feudalism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 2, 2015 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  3. […] to authority are believed to have been alleviated by the Good King or “the King’s touch.” See Another feature of the Middle Ages was the absence of feminism, for birth control in its modern […]

    Pingback by Culture wars, religion, and the (neurotic?) historian | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 13, 2013 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  4. […] It is so ironic that during last year’s Tony Awards (referring to 2011 productions), members of the Broadway musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, presented themselves as revolutionaries and republicans singing “One Day More” (  as if the author, without ambivalence,  favored republican principles and the mass politics that enabled them in Europe and America.  Hugo was no Marat, no ami du peuple. Rather, the escape artist was torn between his parents whose politics were opposed to one another. But don’t tell that to the post 1960s back-to-nature generation, like Victor Hugo, those stalwart enemies to “jewified” modernity, held to be masked and unintelligible (with the exception of geniuses like himself). For many, Les Misérables is the Communist Manifesto of social democracy, but with a variation. It appears that God and the State have merged. The State, assuming the status of a deity, is the author of human events. The Good King is back. (For a related recent blog see […]

    Pingback by The politics of family vs. mass politics, altered | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 16, 2013 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

  5. Interesting. I’ve noticed an upsurge in medieval-type TV, movies, programming (Game of Thrones, Pillars of the Earth). I think the Middle Ages is newly popular because of fantasies about gender roles. Many screenwriters for TV and movies use the Middle Ages (or any historical period, really, i.e Mad Men) to create a utopia of male power and female submissiveness; in any of these shows, plays, or movies the Middle Ages is recast as an era where you could arbitrarily kill anyone who annoyed you, literally piss on anyone you disagreed with, and have sex with anyone you wanted, anywhere you wanted, at any time you wanted. (The “anyone” is usually a beautiful woman, consenting or not, and the “anywhere” is usually in bucolic, unspoiled Nature; this is a remarkably hetero-normative fantasy). Then, according to this same narrative, male viewers are supposed to idealize this era of male dominance and pontificate over a few beers with their buddies about how great Life was before those pesky feminists got all up in everyone’s face and started demanding their pesky rights.

    Of course, such narrative as presented is a gross oversimplification of the actual historical period. It overlooks the fact that there were powerful noblewomen and nuns like Clare of Montefalco, Hildegard of Bingen, Princess Esclarmonde of Foix, and Heloise the lover of Abelard, and that women did all the work while men were out on Crusades or whatever, but this is basically the essential narrative I see being shown.

    I always was fascinated by the Middle Ages because it seemed like an era of genuine piety, despite its flaws. I do desire to be deeply religious and I feel that puts me at odds with my era. If I had gone into the forest to be a hermit or a monk back then, I’d have been revered. Nowadays such people are called anti-social and pelted with medication.

    Of course the Middle Ages was a horrible era in which to live, particularly for Jews, what with blood libel and stuff. And I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but I sort of have a “Jewish consciousness” now that I’m studying to be a convert to Judaism and what happened to my Jewish ancestors during the Inquisition (another part of the medieval era). I cannot read a Christian text without wanting to know the author’s attitude on Jews or what the “Jewish backstory” was to a Christian event. (Like, oh hey, the massive destruction of Jewish communities during the Crusades, or the association between German flagellants and anti-Semitism). There are also interesting parallels between Muslim and Christian practices of prayer because of Saint Francis of Assisi’s trip to Muslim lands- he invented the Rosary after seeing Muslim prayer beads, and the Angelus after seeing Muslims in thrice-daily prayer.

    Comment by Yitzhak — June 6, 2013 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  6. […] who often drops into pantheism.  (See Leon Wieseltier’s commencement speech quoted here: Wieseltier draws a sharp line between Man and Nature and laments the period when the two were […]

    Pingback by Hair and Make-up: Megyn Kelly smackdown | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 2, 2013 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  7. […] It is curious that nowhere in his book, does DH look at economic history or the conflicting models for wealth-creation offered by Keynesians as opposed to the followers of Milton Friedman, Hayek, et al. Nor does he get down and dirty in exploring generational conflict of the [Freudian] kind so tellingly explored by Herman Melville and a host of other authors. For that would be dipping into materialist history, facing “things as they are,” and perhaps delineating too disruptive, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic views of how we got into this mess.  (For a related blog see […]

    Pingback by Materialist history and the idea of Progress | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 31, 2013 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  8. I have a “conservative” friend who has advocated a return to the “Middle Age” construct where (Catholic/Universal) Church authority reigned. He mildly scolded me for referring to that period as the “Dark Ages”. On talking with him further, he thoroughly disdains the Protestant Reformation and considers the whole thing (and their adherents) heretical. He also expressed a desire for Knights (of that/the “realm”) to be re-instituted to defend the faith. Yet, he has a Phd in one of biological sciences. It’s as if the invention of the printing press, translation of the Bible into the local vernacular (a crime for which people were killed — Wycliffe, Tyndall), temporary – apparently – physical defeat of the Muslims, and opening of the “New World” were so many speed bumps or just a diversion from a (his) desired Middle Age political and cultural schema and seeming lack of ambiguity.

    Comment by Mark Ward — May 31, 2013 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  9. I once heard it said that some ideas are so ridiculous only an intellectual can believe them. The bafflingly long career of Wieseltier (among many others) lends credence to this.

    Comment by Bob Ennis — May 30, 2013 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  10. Interesting, many chords. I’ve recently read CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” that cites the same false dilemma, although Snow takes the side of science and technology. OTOH, does it not trouble you that the medieval period is looked upon with nearly complete disdain, as if the founding ot the modern University dropped into our laps from outer space 100 years ago with Dewey? I’ve looked at the period from 400-1400 as a slow recovery from the devastation of culture that was Imperial Rome during which the three great religions were forged; Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. One might consider that period the “Age of Faith” rather than the Dark Ages. And in rejecting that period, do we not indict ourselves as antagonistic to the religious enterprise? I think one feature of the Renaissance very much was an intentional move away from medieval christian worldview, with the Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities as an example of the tensions of the time. I’d love to hear your take.

    Comment by Terbreugghen — May 30, 2013 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

    • I know of no intellectual who looks upon “the Middle Ages” with total disdain and ignorance. But you can’t defend the autocracy of that period. And I hardly began to list all the awful features of that period, many of which linger into the present. No medieval-minded thinker could have come up with the religious pluralism we enjoy today and which is a great contributor to social peace.

      Comment by clarespark — May 30, 2013 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

      • If anyone has seriously suggested that we reorganize society along Medieval lines, I’ve missed it completely. Wieseltier identified something that is pernicious and wrong. Modern science does not make the intellectual and artistic life that preceded it irrelevant, but this is an increasingly unpopular view. He is not urging literature students to arm themselves and seize control, A significant part of our civilzation is being trivialized and belitlled as being superceded by the rationalism of science.. No “scientific” evidence of something called a soul? Well then, no such thing exists, and only fools and eccentrics would think of using the concept to understand their experience of life. One can read The Divine Comedy without altering one’s modern astronomical beliefs, but many people don’t think so. Much will be lost if this body of experience continues to be arbitrarily dismissed by poorly read “educated” people, and Wieseltier correctly assigns the responsiblity of disseminating this fact to his liberal arts students. I think that you and Mr. Wieseltier are on the same side, and I mean that as a compliment. Yet again.

        Comment by Erik Anderson — June 4, 2013 @ 7:47 am

      • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, but I believe that Wieseltier believes in masterpieces, ripped from their historical context and ideological context, whereas I do not. I did not quote that part of his talk. To imagine that science and technology are imperialistic (his word) gives the game away. Perhaps he did not mean to align his opinions with others recalling the Middle Ages, but it certainly sounded that way to me. For the complete text of his speech, see He is dead set against the French “mechanical materialists” like La Mettrie, perhaps because they are believed to have given rise to the French Revolution. I am not a Marxist, but the materialist approach to literary texts is still the major quiver in my arsenal of textual criticism. Not a mystic. But I do love the arts, and no one who has read my book on Melville would deny it.

        Comment by clarespark — June 4, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

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