WOID XIX-7. The Waning of the Middlebrows.

omewhere in my notes there’s a story about a Jewish woman who owned a bakery in twelfth-century London. That’s not unusual — the woman part I mean, because it was common for widows to take over their husband’s business in the Middle Ages, especially if the business had been their father’s and taken over by their now-deceased husband. If this woman stands out at all it’s because she brought a lawsuit against her Christian assistant. That’s often how we know about people in the Middle Ages: the courts were among the few Medieval institutions that kept those kinds of records.

The Jewish woman and her assistant baker had been having a good time between the sheets or more likely under a big sack filled with straw, until the assistant decided she was his common-law wife and hence he owned the bakery. She took him to court. It’s the kind of story I love to tell my students because it gets them thinking: what were the thoughts and freedoms of a Jewish woman in the twelfth century? How did the law protect her, and what kind of law was that — or rather laws, since the first question to decide was one of jurisdiction: Jewish or Christian? But it’s not a story I’ll be teaching any day soon, thanks to David Brooks of the New York Times and folks like him: there aren’t too many jobs around where you’re allowed to tell that kind of story about the Middle Ages.

Today, while Pennsylvanian-Americans are going the way of raunchy Medieval women and taking matters in their own hands, Brooks ignores them and tells us instead the Meaning of it All:

We tend to see economics and politics as the source of human motives, and then explain spirituality as their by-product — as Barack Obama tried artlessly to do in San Francisco the other week. But in the Middle Ages, faith came first.

And how would Brooks know? How would anyone know? “Did Faith come first?” merely echoes the pop-culture determinism that's usually, wrongly, attributed to Marx. The implication is, that if Marx believed in economic determinism and Obama believes in same — well, draw your own conclusions. Brooks is unqualified in equal measure to do research in medieval archives and to apply theoretical concepts to his research; the one thing he takes over from the Middle Ages is its over-reliance on dubious syllogism. Otherwise, his “understanding” of the Middle Ages is based on a preacher's idea of C.S. Lewis, who was both a serious scholar and a Christian propagandist but had the smarts not to pretend to be both at once. As Brooks points out, “Writers like C.S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism.” And how does that make these fantasies any truer to the Middle Ages? All it says, is that Brooks and Ruskin and Lewis thought if we pretend the Middle Ages was all about those things we’ll make our world a happier place. I believe that's called "clinging"?

Ruskin himself thought England in the Nineteenth Century would be a far better place if the peasants could be taught the proper respect for the gentry, and ended up a raving lunatic, muttering darkly about n*gg*rs and d*m*cr*ac*, which is not too far from what Brooks’ been doing of late. Unfortunately nobody else seems to think like that, even in Pennsylvania, which is why it’s so hard to get a job these days teaching about the Middle Ages: the students aren’t interested in the kind of faith-based narrative Brooks and Ruskin and others want, and the Brooks types who think they can define the Middle Ages as a neo-con’s wet-dream aren’t interested in hiring anybody who’s going to go off about Medieval Jewish women who screw around, or fifth-century cross-dressers for that matter.

Oh — and Huizinga, whom Brooks quotes as his authority the way the Devil quotes Scripture. Too bad Brooks got Huizinga backwards, because that particular scholar’s take on Faith and other things in the late Middle Ages was a hell of a lot closer to Obama’s than to Brooks’: People in the Late Middle Ages clung to their religion and joined the National Broadsword Association, says Huizinga, out of a deep despair. It’s a little odd, when you read Huizinga, to learn about Medieval knights playing at being Medieval knights, but then if you’ve seen your best buddies get wiped out by firearms at Crécy and the only people making money are the merchants while the value of ancestral real estate is plummeting you’re likely to fall back on the old tried-and-true.

Sort of like Pennsylvania rednecks playing at being Bible thumpers: as if that mattered any more. Sort of like a columnist for the New York Times who’s seen his best buddies wiped out by blogs and who sits around making grand statements that nobody reads because nobody gives a Fiery Flying Roll.

[4-21-2008; last revised 8-8-2012]

- PW