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IlyaP

Literature of Antiquity, aka Middle Ages Literature

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Do we have posters here with scholarly backgrounds in Middle Ages literature / writing / comparative literature? Or fellow history grads such as myself? 

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On 12/30/2019 at 8:25 AM, Zorral said:

Combined Lit and History Ph.D, and Information Sciences Ph.D.

Beautiful - that's (sort of) what my undergraduate degree is, though I tend to call it (as I mention below) a degree in 'intellectual history', because we also had classes (all in tandem) in art/science/history/literature/music.

Now what's prompted me to ask about this? Here we go. It's a bit ramble-y as I'm still sorting out the thought structures in my mind, so my apologies for any digressions or wanderings off the beaten path.

At the moment, I'm reading Christopher Tyerman's How to Plan a Crusade, which makes allusions to assorted poetic works and tales. And it's causing me to have recollections, if not outright flashbacks, to the classes the head of my faculty taught at my alma mater (happy to go into detail re: the university and faculty). 

The head of my faculty (and one of its founders) specialised in Renaissance art and literature (ditto his amazing academic wife). 

One oddity that stuck out as being odd, which I never understood, was his sort of...I hate to use the word "dismissal" of, but it certainly felt like a dismissal or disdain of the post-Roman and pre-Renaissance world - what contemporary historians now call 'Antiquity', but which then was still referred to as 'the Middle Ages' (or Early/Mid/Late Middle Ages - I'm not going to split hairs). 

In particular, I recall him making the claim that between the "collapse" of the Roman Empire (which he talked about in a disappointed tone) and the rise of the Renaissance, the development of literature and non-religious writing all but halted for nearly 1,000 years. Yes, of course, there was Beowulf, and The Lays of Marie de France, but even now, 13 years after I graduated, looking at the syllabus for the literature component of the faculty, it jumps from teaching Virgil, Ovid, and St. Augustine to Beowulf and then: Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, etc. 

This strikes me as fantastically weird.

Now, during my time at this [legitimately amazing!] faculty, I was taking literature classes external to the faculty, and so was fortunate to be exposed to the writing that was going on in England from about 400 C.E. onward (Michael Alexander's The First Poems in English, which covers a pretty fertile history between approximately 500 and 1400 C.E., obviously contradicts the above posit about the post-Roman world). Yet I can still recall this particular professor exclaiming that the first post-Roman novel (in "the west") was Cervantes' Don Quixote. (My faculty had a very strong "western" bent, which somehow excluded Moorish Spain, because apparently Muslims aren't western, or...something.) 

I know that Roman scholarship is in a state of change (as exemplified by Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History and Jonathan Theodore's The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and not writing about the subject with the same romantic-tinge that past scholars have. 

What, then, am I trying to ask, you wonder? 

I'm interested in understanding this need among some academics to vilify the period we now more sensibly call Late Antiquity. I know scholars such as W.P. Ker, as well as publishers such as Brill, have put work into enriching our understanding of that 1,000 year period, yet despite this, as I mentioned above, my alma mater still mostly ignores any of the literary work produced over this (roughly) 1,000 year period. 

I find this incredibly weird. And I don't understand the logic behind it. Particularly because Komnene, Mandeville, Caedmon, Rustaveli, are just a few of many voices that were producing interesting works that were not theological tracts, but in fact, creative works. 

My internal logic system suspects that academics of the previous few generations have been fed a romantic mental image of the Roman Empire and a negative image of the so-called "dark ages", and that this false mental model has resulted in the above approach to teaching the topic (at least, perhaps, at the undergraduate level). 

Thoughts? 

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But isn't Antiquity another name for the Classical Era (ending in the fifth century A.D.), rather than the Middle Ages?

BTW, on a relevant note, I've literally just finished reading Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

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16 hours ago, The Marquis de Leech said:

But isn't Antiquity another name for the Classical Era (ending in the fifth century A.D.), rather than the Middle Ages?

Possibly? 

I've come across different positions on this. Some interesting questions have been raised around the logic of referring to the Middle Ages by that moniker, as it logically suggests it's in the middle of something, but what that even means is unclear. (I briefly flirted with the idea of doing my PhD in this area, but after ten years of life in academia, I'd had my fill.)

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Antiquity is the ancient (and first) historical period of recorded history before the Middle-Ages. Middle-Ages are basically called that way because they're the middle period between Antiquity and Renaissance and modern times. Antiquity is usually considered from a European point of view, but even then it still means that Mesopotamia and Egypt are included, so it's very far-reaching and definitely covers a wider set of times and cultures than the later eras - and of course, it doesn't mean shit when it comes to the Americas, South and East Asia or most of Africa. (there was quite recently a thread about Latin and Greek literature; I expect there was one about Medieval literatures, or possibly several on different topics, but couldn't remember what or where it was)

On the other hand, the usual view that accompanied this distinction - that Middle Ages were a time of backwardness with illiterate peasants eating barely better than dirt - is going away.

Not to deny some things went terribly wrong, a lot of things were forgotten, a lot were destroyed. But first of all, there were progress, research and creations in some fields during the later centuries. Also, the process of ending of the previous era, the Classical Age with its own culture, literature, values, references, that eventually totally left place to the Chritisan world of, say, year 1.000, wasn't clear cut in 476 - one can argue it began during the crisis of the 3rd century and lasted for centuries - at least to the 6th century, if not the 7th depending on places. It's basically impossible to pinpoint a precise time, and it's only if we compare how things were in 20 AD and in 9200 AD, that the huge differences clearly signify that major upheavals occurred and we're dealing with totally different eras in most aspects - differences between Southern Europe between 430 and 530 AD wouldn't be that glaring, I'd say.

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It's times like this when I imagine the ghost of Oswald Spengler muttering from the sidelines, that Ancient Greece and Rome were their own thing, entirely separate from the later civilisation that got going in the West after A.D. 1000.

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15 hours ago, Clueless Northman said:

Antiquity is the ancient (and first) historical period of recorded history before the Middle-Ages. Middle-Ages are basically called that way because they're the middle period between Antiquity and Renaissance and modern times. Antiquity is usually considered from a European point of view, but even then it still means that Mesopotamia and Egypt are included, so it's very far-reaching and definitely covers a wider set of times and cultures than the later eras - and of course, it doesn't mean shit when it comes to the Americas, South and East Asia or most of Africa. (there was quite recently a thread about Latin and Greek literature; I expect there was one about Medieval literatures, or possibly several on different topics, but couldn't remember what or where it was)

On the other hand, the usual view that accompanied this distinction - that Middle Ages were a time of backwardness with illiterate peasants eating barely better than dirt - is going away.

Not to deny some things went terribly wrong, a lot of things were forgotten, a lot were destroyed. But first of all, there were progress, research and creations in some fields during the later centuries. Also, the process of ending of the previous era, the Classical Age with its own culture, literature, values, references, that eventually totally left place to the Chritisan world of, say, year 1.000, wasn't clear cut in 476 - one can argue it began during the crisis of the 3rd century and lasted for centuries - at least to the 6th century, if not the 7th depending on places. It's basically impossible to pinpoint a precise time, and it's only if we compare how things were in 20 AD and in 9200 AD, that the huge differences clearly signify that major upheavals occurred and we're dealing with totally different eras in most aspects - differences between Southern Europe between 430 and 530 AD wouldn't be that glaring, I'd say.

I imagine that living in Britain between about 450 and 600 AD would have been like living in a Mad Max film.

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2 hours ago, SeanF said:

I imagine that living in Britain between about 450 and 600 AD would have been like living in a Mad Max film.

Gildas notwithstanding, I'd take Britain in that period over Italy. 

(I do love how Bede's complaint about the period is that the Britons never tried to convert the Saxons to Christianity. The man had his priorities...)

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6 hours ago, SeanF said:

I imagine that living in Britain between about 450 and 600 AD would have been like living in a Mad Max film.

That would be Germany during the 30-Years War, I think.

I'm not sure Britain was worse during this time than during the later Viking era. Way messier and dangerous than during the Roman times, obviously, but I agree with Leech that other places in Europe were arguably worse - Italy between the death of Theodoric and the rule of the Lombards had it very rough indeed. Frankly, for the 450-600 period, the Eastern Empire was probably the safer bet, and Wisigothic Spain a decent option; France would be ok, once Clovis had conquered it all, so the first third of this timeline would be quite tough. Of course, if you planned to live beyond 600, then I would stay clear of Byzantium or move West and shift allegiance - things went downhill quite fast without Justinian.

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4 minutes ago, Clueless Northman said:

That would be Germany during the 30-Years War, I think.

I'm not sure Britain was worse during this time than during the later Viking era. Way messier and dangerous than during the Roman times, obviously, but I agree with Leech that other places in Europe were arguably worse - Italy between the death of Theodoric and the rule of the Lombards had it very rough indeed. Frankly, for the 450-600 period, the Eastern Empire was probably the safer bet, and Wisigothic Spain a decent option; France would be ok, once Clovis had conquered it all, so the first third of this timeline would be quite tough. Of course, if you planned to live beyond 600, then I would stay clear of Byzantium or move West and shift allegiance - things went downhill quite fast without Justinian.

I expect the Middle East was a hellhole, from 600 - 750 or so.  By 750, there were only five cities left in the Eastern Empire.  

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On 1/2/2020 at 7:34 AM, Clueless Northman said:

Antiquity is usually considered from a European point of view, but even then it still means that Mesopotamia and Egypt are included, so it's very far-reaching and definitely covers a wider set of times and cultures than the later eras - and of course, it doesn't mean shit when it comes to the Americas, South and East Asia or most of Africa.

This is part of, I think, my thesis: there's something incredibly Eurocentric about the concept, and exclusionary towards the rest of the world. And also it just doesn't make any sense in 2020 to refer to it by that moniker. 

Also, to speak about in broad, generic language, as though the lived experience of someone in the eastern portion of the Holy Roman Empire was the same as someone in Londinium or in Aix or in Troyes or in Prague over the span of 1,000 years. The decontextualisation that's necessary to make such sweeping assumptions and statements bothers me. 

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Posted (edited)

Well, until this changes ....

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literae_humaniores

Quote

The University of Oxford's classics course, also known as greats, is divided into two parts, lasting five terms and seven terms respectively, the whole lasting four years in total, which is one year more than most arts degrees at Oxford and other English universities.

And moderns are works in European languages that aren't greek, latin or old anglo saxon, if I have that right.  As well as i n the undergrad English, i.e. Lit programs such as Modern Languages and English.

Edited by Zorral

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Ph.D. in (late antique) history here.

In these parts, antiquity is generally defined in terms of Greek and Roman antiquities (ca. 800 BCE - 700 CE or so, including the 'archaic', 'classical', 'Hellenistic', 'Roman', and 'late'), and does not include ancient history. No doubt that's mostly due to its origin within a Eurocentric historical tradition, hunting for a glorious past (semented disciplinary boundaries and source materials also play a part).

Still, I don't think the term 'antiquity' in itself promotes a Eurocentric worldview. Even in its original meaning it did - in principle - cover areas from North-Africa to Anatolia and the Levant, whose local cultures have received more attention from sholars in recent decades, and today it is often applied to areas outside the Graeco-Roman sphere, which have likewise gotten more attention. A minor example: my own Ph.D. dealt with Manichaeism, a religion that emerged in Sasanian-held Mesopotamia, and its presence in the Egyptian countryside. One could probably make a good case for this periodisation (in a loose variety) in fact having relevance in most of Asia, as the religious and political trajectories of the Mediterranean, India, and China were similar in many ways. At least some recent comparative works use 'antiquity' and 'late antiquity' in the relation to both ends of the continent (e.g. the volume edited by Scheidel on Rome and China from 2009).

The term 'Late Antiquity', by the way, became popularised in the 60s and 70s, notably by Peter Brown, in order to improve the image of what was previously termed the 'dark ages' (or merged with 'Byzantine'), by stressing continuity with 'antiquity'. Most scholars today, I think, are fully on board with that today. Generally, though, they would probably restrict it to the period 300-700 CE (such boundaries are of course always fuzzy, some argue for a start ca. 200 or 250, or for a stop at 500, 600, or 800, although only a very few have argued for extending it to 1000, afaik).

Won't quibble on the quality of Medieval literature though - a big fan of the Shahnameh, and some of the best Scandinavian prose can still be found in the Norse Sagas.

Edited by FalagarV2

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To be fair, there are solid reasons for having some emphasis on Roman and Greek times, not only because they're the forerunners of Western/Christian societies, but also because we've kept a lot of their writings around, and only ancient Indian and Chinese literatures are vast. And that's despite having lost 90% of Greek and Roman non-Christian texts, and despite a sizable chunk of what's been preserved being about Law, Medicine or commentaries on ancient Classics and ancient philosophers. It makes things easier to work with when you have a good chunk of what they wrote and thought about themselves lying around - compared to Celts who didn't write, or Mayas whose works were systematically burned during the conquest.

There's also plenty of good literature in Medieval times as FalagarV2 said- as long as the writers were writing about non-religious themes (as in not about Bible or Quran), but alas, the amound of religious writings massively dwarf the other works, which thankfully wasn't the case with the Greeks and Romans. Not that religious writings are shit per se, it's just tha when you have 100.000 pages about the Gospels or about the Quran, it tends to become quite repetitive and a good deal of it isn't really inspired or inspiring.

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