Jim Hinch argues that Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, deserved neither accolade:
I’m at a loss to explain how two distinguished prize juries managed to overlook the fact that The Swerve’s animating thesis is at best “questionable,” and at worst “unwarranted,” as Renaissance historian John Monfasani put it this summer in the online journalReviews in History. Still, to make clear the extent of The Swerve’s errors, I’ll go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point. First, it may be true that “it is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing.” But that didn’t happen in medieval Europe. Indeed the Middle Ages are considered Europe’s most bookish era, a time when books — Christian, Greek and Roman alike — were accorded near totemic authority. Medieval readers and writers (not just clergy — lay culture was widely influenced by texts and documents, especially following the 10th century) were apt to believe anything they read in an old book just because it was old and from a book. This was especially true if the book happened to be by a writer like Lucretius, a classical author whose words therefore automatically carried the imprimatur of truth.
Click here to read the full piece.
Greenblatt apparently is one of those timeless and glorious scholars arguing that— hold on, I have this chart nicely bookmarked—
I spend a lot of time talking about how this is bullshit in re the rest of the world but let’s not overlook how it is bullshit in re Europe.
Greenblatt, as I mentioned, does not cite any primary sources attesting to widespread medieval self-flagellation, so I don’t know where he got this idea. What I’m more interested in is the notion that such asceticism represented “the core values of all believing Christians” in the Middle Ages. In fact no serious scholar would claim to know what “the core values of all believing Christians” were, in the Middle Ages or in any other period, because historical sources never yield enough unambiguous information to make such overstated claims. And yet it is here, where his evidence is weakest, that Greenblatt lays most stress in his argument. And of course he does, because The Swerve is a story about transformation and triumph. And without a caricatured Middle Ages of self-hating religious dogmatists Greenblatt has no clean-cut transformation and no clean-cut triumph. The complex truth about medieval Europe, indeed about all historical periods — that pleasure and pain, love and hate, faith and doubt, curiosity and stupidity, superstition and rationality, existed everywhere and at all times in complex and varying measure — is not so easily packaged as a narrative and so is less likely to top bestseller lists. But that doesn’t absolve Greenblatt of responsibility for getting his facts right. Unless, of course, that wasn’t his goal.
Seriously, I hate this. I hate it enormously. I can’t believe people still seriously think that for hundreds and hundreds of years, people stopped being people and became herd animals.