So What’s the Point of all this Learning?

For all the bluster about Oxford and libraries and supervisors, I haven’t actually elaborated much on my actual DPhil project. I will remedy that with the following entry.

I have said that this project places me with one foot in the Medieval and one in the Early Modern, straddling that transitional period between 1450 and 1550 that is a source of confusion for many other studies of social and material culture. Actually this project is closer to a tangled game of interdisciplinary Twister where right foot is in Medieval, left hand is in textual studies, left foot-cultural history, right hand-violence and conflict studies. The confusion of disciplines and periods is due to the odd placement of the problem.

Let us begin with an analogy. Richard Kaeuper, who I will always invoke with great reverence, gave us the incredibly useful image of the demi-god prowess, garbed in all the medieval raiment of violence as a morally valuable act of elite privilege. In England, during the last half of the fifteenth century, this god passed out of sight and did not re-appear until after the reign of Henry VIII, now clothed in the fine attire of courtly courtesy and gentle honour. This demi-god is almost unrecognizable from his Medieval form. He was, nevertheless, still the same deity under all the trappings. Elites, and those who aspired to greater social status, never really lost their affection and devotion to prowess, now re-named and re-formed to fit new circumstances in a period where the outlets for elite violence radically changed.

That, at least, is what I see. You don’t get that impression reading the studies of the period. Lawrence Stone wrote of the de-militarization of the elites and Roger Manning and Markku Peltonen both seem to miss any sense of continuity between the Late Medieval and Early Modern conceptions of elite violence or privilege. Instead, they write about the chivalric revival (without establishing its decline with certainty). The Medieval tournament disappears, replaced with something only superficially related. The military revolution deprives the elites of their privilege place in combat and state structures crack down on illegitimate violence. Only when the English import the Italian and French culture of the duel do they rediscover their taste for violence. The impression (usually only implied, not strictly argued) is that there was a break with the medieval ideas of violence followed by a blank period where elites are occupied with other matters, and then they return to violence, but with different eyes.

There are two questions here. First, was there really a break between the Medieval and modern that required a complete re-invention of elite ideas about violence? The second question is dependent on the results of the first. If there was a break, why and how did it occur? If there was no real break, where did all this change come from and how did it work?

Those are the broad strokes but it covers most of the territory I am looking at. Some of the social and cultural developments between 1450 and 1550 are neglected because of the other events that tend to dominate attention. That doesn’t automatically mean that this problem has been intentionally overlooked. It’s quite possible that the gap exists in the studies because there is a gap in the records. The demi-god prowess may have passed beyond our sight, not through our lack of attention, but in spite of it. I’m not sure yet.


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