Time is a bastard

5 04 2010

I can’t think big without thinking small.

Okay, so not strictly true—I can aggrandize with the best of ’em—but I do have to gather enough nails before I can be confident of a structure holding.

So in attempting to come to terms with medieval thought-modernity-post-modernity, I want to make sure I get the timelines right, even if, in the end, it’s really not about the dates at all.

It’s a litt. . . a lot embarrassing how poor is my knowledge of any pre-twentieth century history. I picked up bits here and there as a background to understanding certain contemporary conflicts, but I had no sense of how this tied into that—hell, I had only the thinnest sense of this and near-none of that, much less of any ties.

I am therefore now engaged in the process of infilling 500 or so years of European history, beginning around 1200 and heading into the 1700s.

Lotta shit happened; who knew?

I don’t want to go too far back into medieval times, because, again, I’m interested in the transition, but the 13th century seems a reasonable spot into which I can row my boat: It’s  in this century that the  papacy achieves its greatest power (only to see it begin to decline as kings begin to accrue and guard their increasing territorial power), as well as the century of the Inquisition.

Perhaps I could have begun with the First Crusade (Pope Urban II, 1095), or even further back with the split between the eastern and western Christianity (1054). Or I could have gone the other way, and begun with the first Black Death pandemic in 1347.

But the 13th century seems right: that monarchs began to assert themselves against the claims of the Vatican augured the beginnings of the nation-state (not to arrive fully until the dissolution of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires in the early 1900s), which carries its own moral and political claims. It was also during the 1200s that the earlier re-discovery by Christians of classical texts became integrated into various university curricula; Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, published late in the century, is the apotheosis of Aristotelian Christianity.

Can I tell you that before I began this project I knew almost none of this?

I swore after I took my prelims, and then again after I finished my dissertation, that I was done learning.

Hah. And I thought I was so smart. . . .

Friday poem (Monday): An Anatomy of the World

29 03 2010

Tuesday update: Sorry for posting a naked poem—Wordpress was all wonky last night.


I have, of late, become preoccupied with the medieval period in Europe history, or, more accurately, with the intellectual history of that long moment of transition between medieval times and modernity.

The ‘whys’ of a such a preoccupation I’ll save for another post. But given my current backward glance, a poem from that moment seemed appropriate.

John Donne is not, strictly speaking, a medieval poet: He was writing at the turn of and into the 17th century, a time which might be pegged as ‘early modern.’ But he fits into that long moment of transition during which old certainties about the place of God in nature were crumbling under the onslaught of observation and a kind of deistic theorizing. 

Three centuries later Yeats noted that ‘the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, but the intellectual revolutions of  the 17th century were in many ways far more unsettling than the political revolutions of the  20th: How was man to know who he was if his God were pushed into the recesses of the heavens, and mere mechanism replaced divinity and grace?

The section, below, from Donne’s elegy for a friend’s young daughter allows us entry into that disorienting new world—the world we now take for granted as our own. Reason and science and deduction will lead us forward, it was argued then (and now)—nevermind the past.

In mourning this young girl, however, Donne shows that a world without a past is a world without meaning; to take things apart may yield a new kind of knowledge, but it may also leave us dismantled.

from An Anatomy of the World

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no-man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, . . .