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The Shock of Medievalism

The Shock of Medievalism

by Kathleen Biddick

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In The Shock of Medievalism Kathleen Biddick explores the nineteenth-century foundations of medieval studies as an academic discipline as well as certain unexamined contemporary consequences of these origins. By pairing debates over current academic trends and issues with innovative readings of medieval texts, Biddick exposes the presuppositions of the field of


In The Shock of Medievalism Kathleen Biddick explores the nineteenth-century foundations of medieval studies as an academic discipline as well as certain unexamined contemporary consequences of these origins. By pairing debates over current academic trends and issues with innovative readings of medieval texts, Biddick exposes the presuppositions of the field of medieval studies and significantly shifts the objects of its historical inquiry.
Biddick describes how the discipline of medieval studies was defined by a process of isolation and exclusion—a process that not only ignored significant political and cultural issues of the nineteenth century but also removed the period from the forces of history itself. Wanting to separate themselves from popular studies of medieval culture, and valuing their own studies as scientific, nineteenth-century academics created an exclusive discipline whose structure is consistently practiced today, despite the denials of most contemporary medieval scholars. Biddick supports her argument by discussing the unavowed melancholy that medieval Christians felt for Jews and by revealing the unintentional irony of nineteenth-century medievalists’ fabrication of sentimental objects of longing (such as the “gothic peasant”). The subsequent historical distortions of this century-old sentimentality, the relevance of worker dislocation during the industrial revolution, and other topics lead to a conclusion in which Biddick considers the impact of an array of factors on current medieval studies.
Simultaneously displacing disciplinary stereotypes and altering an angle of historical inquiry, The Shock of Medievalism challenges accepted thinking even as it produces a new direction for medieval studies. This book will provoke scholars in this field and appeal to readers who are interested in how historicizing processes can affect the development of academic disciplines.

Editorial Reviews

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“Biddick injects the reflexivity of postmodern critics into a field that clings to traditional notions of historiography and history, demonstrating that it is possible to read differently and with wonderful results: these essays are original and imaginative readings that open up whole new ways of understanding how history might be written.”—Joan Scott, Institute for Advanced Study

“Deeply researched, imaginative, nimble, and energetic. . . . The Shock of Medievalism is an innovative project that cuts across several disciplines whose borders are not usually breached, and does so in sophisticated and profound ways.”—Carolyn Dinshaw, University of California at Berkeley

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The Shock of Medievalism

By Kathleen Biddick

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7902-7


Gothic Ornament and Sartorial Peasants

Gothic Ornament Then and Now

What does it mean to practice a discipline whose designs on the life and death, the pleasure and suffering of the body, however often effaced or repressed, are nonetheless a central part of cultural work?

—Louise O. Frandenburg and Carla Frecerro, "The Pleasures of History"

Embedded in the "oppressed past" of Gothic Revival ornament is a traumatic allegory of critical theory in medieval studies today. The ornaments fabricated during the Revival substantially materialized the built space of the "professionalizing" British university of the nineteenth century and still bear witness to the work of disciplinary architecture in extant monuments to be found from Oxford to Bombay. Particularly telling is the proliferation of popular "guides" to Gothic architecture and the very popular pattern books of ornament (with page upon page illustrating fragments of moldings, tracings, and other Gothic detail) that brought the Revival to those Victorians who consumed a literature of "taste." In their dream-like condensations of the unstable sites of the artisanal hand, the steam engine, the factory worker, the Indian villager, the connoisseur, the Regius Professor, the Anglican churchgoer in the metropolis and the colony, these guides and pattern books participated in a "Gothic" economy of excess. How do these "grammars of ornament" (as these pattern books titled themselves), which once inflected Victorian "taste" wars, continue to inflect contemporary debate over theory in medieval studies?

The Case of the Missing Hand

Such as the hand is, I looked for its fellow. At first I thought it had been broken off, but on clearing away the dust, I saw the wretched effigy had only one hand, and was a mere block on the inner side.

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice

John Ruskin was writing this famous anecdote about the sculptured hands of the Vendramin tomb in Venice for The Stones of Venice just as Londoners streamed to the Crystal Palace in 1851. Not only did the Great Exhibition display the "manufacture" of industrial countries (the Illustrated London News dubbed the Medieval Court designed by Pugin "the most unique and best harmonised display of art and skill" [20 September 1851, 362]); it also exhibited colonial "handicraft." The India Exhibit caused nothing less than a scandal. The Victorian intelligentsia split over the question of "taste" in Indian handicraft in a way that oddly anticipated the case of Governor Eyre (discussed in the introduction). Their contempt for the vulgarity of European manufacture was unanimous; all agreed that its workmanship showed a "disordered state." The nub of the debate lay with interpretations of the beauty of Indian handicraft. To supporters, it represented "a people faithful to their art and religion." To denigrators, such as Ruskin, it failed to represent a "natural fact"; for him, the "art whose end is pleasure is pre-eminently gift of a cruel and savage nation."

In all corners of the debate, whether it be from the anti-manufacture advocates or the denigrators of Indian handicraft, the question of the "hand" comes to the foreground (and, as Ruskin so acutely observed, the hands of the Vendramin tombs). Owen Jones, who included a guide to the India Exhibit in his sumptuous, color-illustrated The Grammar of Ornament (1856), described one of the most popular pieces of the India display, an embroidered saddlecloth, as "beyond the power of a European hand to copy it with the same complete balance of form and color." George Birdwood, who published a guide to the Indian Court at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, introduced his reader to a village full of Indian "hands" by conjuring up a tour of handicraft production in an Indian village. For Birdwood, the aesthetic failure of British manufacture lay, not with British taste ("no people have by nature a truer feeling for art than Englishmen and Englishwomen of all classes"), but with a crisis of the hand. It is as if the battle over English and Indian ornament became distributed over a body part. The Indian hand could produce plenitude and beauty; the British hand, cut off by the epistemology of industrial labor, failed and touched all with dead imitation and vulgarity. Gothic ornament worked as a kind of skin marking the border between hand and machine, labor and slavery, nation and colony, presence and loss, history and memory.

The debate over ornament forged links between ornament, a body part (the hand), the social grouping of the village, and the moral injunction that Indians should not "hybridize" (i.e., they should wear only clothing and ornaments of "native manufacture and strictly native design"), and much could be said about an imperial ideology developing around ornament. At this juncture, however, the hand is a convenient way into understanding why ornament had become a center of debate by the 1851 exhibition and how the hand is used in that debate to figure historical change in the very conceptualization of tactility and visibility, change that is crucial to understanding what ornament meant in the Gothic Revival and what critical theory means to medieval studies today.

Sleight of Hand

I address the problem of the hand in the Gothic Revival by comparing the frontispiece of two books on Gothic architecture published within six years of each other: Attempts to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation (1819), by Thomas Rickman, the textbook for Gothic architecture for the next half century, and the earlier, large-format, and lavishly illustrated Essay on the Origin, History and Principles of Gothic Architecture (1813), by Sir James Hall. Although close in time of publication, these two books come from different epistemological worlds. Hall is able to join hand and vision through a notion of a pregiven world of nature; in Rickman, the hand has been cut off from vision, and the act of seeing has become an optical discipline of discerning difference without any system of referentiality incarnated in tactile space. The epistemological differences between the two texts radically influence the readings of the architectural fragments they illustrate.

The frontispiece (fig. 1) to Hall's volume depicts a Gothic cathedral constructed from wicker and thatch that Hall erected on his estate as a scientific experiment. Hall relates that, during a trip to Europe in 1785, his Vasarian attitude toward the Gothic as a monstrous and barbaric architecture changed as he made his way north through France. He came to appreciate the intimate link of Gothic ornament with "utility" and noticed that the tracery, capitals, and vaulting of Gothic masonry resembled the craft of wickerwork that he saw in production and use among local peasants. He then subjected his ethnographic thesis—that Gothic building developed out of this wicker tradition—to an "experimental test," the "construction of a wicker fabric now standing in my garden, a view of which is given in the frontispiece." He reported the results to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1792 and published his lavishly illustrated volume two decades later.

It is worth thinking about the content and arrangement of the books engravings in relation to Halls frontispiece. The engravings mix wickerwork architectural details (windows, tracery, roof vaults, spires, etc.) with examples of generic masonry details and sometimes with "historical" details drawn from specific cathedrals, mostly English. Both historical and generic details of Gothic structure and ornament are used as models to refer back to the organic wickerwork. Hall thus insists on an organic origin for ornament. He also mediates his aristocratic relations to Gothic ornament through the medium of a peasant ethnography (paradoxically in an English economy that had deterritorialized its peasantry and was in the process of relocating part of its labor force into factories).

Six years after Halls Essay appeared, Thomas Rickman, a Quaker accountant living in Liverpool and a member of the Liverpool Philosophical Society, published an essay on Gothic architecture at a size and at a "price that shall not present an obstacle to extensive circulation." Rickman's book constituted an optical tool to train the eye to make "such clear discriminatory marks on the buildings now existing." His frontispiece (fig. 2), a "composition" showing the style markers of a "Decorated" (one of his subdivisions of English Gothic) interior, illustrates a virtual space that bears no relation to any tangible "historical" perceptual space that would join vision and touch. The engraving, drawn by Rickman himself, refers only to the internal criteria of his definitions of style. These criteria he has built from "scientific" observations of details of architectural fragments.

Figure 3 reproduces another plate from Rickman's work. Here, organized within one frame are seventeen architectural fragments, ranging from bits of moldings to mullions, that Rickman used to illustrate the traits of various styles. Three of the architectural fragments in this plate render pieces from actual Gothic buildings; the rest are virtual designs. Like the frontispiece, these fragments, too, refer only to his system of stylistic classification. This system has no origin in "nature" or ethnography, as did Hall's, nor does it have any anchor in what readers today might regard as "history" since Rickman is interested only in the details of the fragments. For Rickman, there is no "whole" building of which the fragments are a "part." His engravings for the 1819 edition are also exceptional for including no human beings whose presence would suggest some kind of inside to the space he is depicting, who might serve as a relay between a notion of part and whole, inside and outside. In other words, Rickman has dissolved the inside/outside distinction of ornament and building that Hall tried to preserve through his ethnographic fantasy of wicker origins for Gothic ornament. With Rickman's system there is now only ornament, which works like a skin. If there is any referent, it is the disciplined eye of the observer, which is trained through viewing ornament.

How might we think about the ways in which Rickman's "Gothic" breaks with Hall's "Gothic"? Jonathan Crary, who studies the new techniques of the observer emerging in scientific discourse on perception in the early nineteenth century (these being instantiated in the newly invented, popular optical devices such as the kaleidoscope, the diorama, and the stereoscope), can help us understand the difference between Rickman's eye and Hall's hands. Crary argues for a radical relocation of vision in this period. A model of vision that had constructed itself through the medium of the camera obscura, in which the observer is "inside" the viewing apparatus that frames and projects for the observer the "outside" of a pregiven world, relocates itself to the eye of the observer. Vision itself is redefined as "a capacity for being affected by sensations that have no necessary link to a referent, thus imperiling any coherent system of meaning." These new models of vision cut the sense of touch off from the sense of vision and "industrially remapped the body." Thus, according to Crary, new techniques of the observer produce subjectivities working as cameras before the invention of the camera.

The epistemological contrasts between Hall's and Rickman's concepts of ornament exemplify Crary's argument. Another project of Rickman's can further elucidate this transforming empire of the senses and the changing categories interior, exterior, and surface in the early nineteenth century. During the 1830s, Rickman contributed to a publication that gathered together views of Norfolk architectural antiquities drawn by John Sell Cotman from 1812 to the 1830s. Cotman had a local antiquarian, Dawson Turner (the father-in-law of Sir Francis Palgrave, deputy keeper of the Public Record Office), provide commentary for the first set of views. When Rickman joined the project, he added his own commentary, set off by the publisher in brackets to distinguish it from Turner's.

It is instructive to compare the two commentaries. Turner belonged to the epistemological world of James Hall. He describes the buildings through their family or institutional histories, through a genealogy of antiquarian texts that reference or illustrate them. Thus, the architectural view is entangled in a description of both family history and textual genealogy. Turner also frequently comments on the overall condition of the architectural monument at the time of his writing. Cotman's engravings also come from Hall's epistemological world. They are picaresque and almost always include some ethnographic depiction of "locals" and their everyday life amid the monuments. Vegetation and shadowing are devices used to insert the architectural etching in some real time. In sharp contrast, Rickman's commentary works like a studio camera, deterritorializing the antiquarian grid of family and textual genealogy. It focuses strictly on architectural detail and is limited to instructing the disciplined and discriminating observer how to differentiate between the various architectural styles.

Take as a case in point Rickman's commentary on panels from a tomb in Hunstanton Church, Norfolk:

The variations between the parts of this monument, which at once shows to the practiced eye the difference between decorated and perpendicular work, is a matter of nicety, and at first not easy of acquisition, but when it is in constant exercise and sharpened by frequent discrimination, not only between the styles, but the earlier ones also, it is a sort of faculty most useful to the antiquary, and which he should take every opportunity to exercise and keep in constant employment. In this monument the variety of forms merely but not quite alike is very visible.

Here we see illustrated his emphasis on the disciplining techniques that the observer must follow in order to reconstitute himself or herself as the kind of studio camera that Rickman has become. Rhetorically, its "cut-up" quality also reminds us of the optical effects of the fragments represented by Rickman in his engravings. With the development of this "camera eye" before the actual invention of the camera, there is no place for touching!

Rickman's Gothic ornaments become the site of discipline; they are "useful" for training the eye. Not only do they break with any notion of an "organic origin" for ornament, but they further break links between peasant handiwork and ornament, as imagined in Hall's thesis on wickerwork. In the back of his 1819 edition, Rickman produced a gazetteer of English Gothic architecture organized by county. Here, his succinct descriptions of churches once again isolate them as ornamental fragments (the fragment is the structure). The impact of his guide was enormous. It chased other books out of the market and continued to be revised and reissued at more or less regular intervals until the 1880s.

I do not think that it is incidental that ornament is so important to Rickman. The study of ornament constitutes the new observer desired by an array of scientific and technical discourses under production in the early 1800s. As the eye became a surface that could be investigated (measured, graphed) like any other physical phenomenon, Rickman searched for a way to reinvent "humanness" in this new epistemology, which disincarnated historical relations of touch and visibility. He mapped Gothic ornament as English and Christian. But, since the ornament is the structure, then Englishness and Christianness are ornament. The ornament then must be a white skin, but its gender and sexuality have to do with the eye of the observer, not with the hand. Rickman's work, by implication, poses the question, What are the sex and gender of this eye produced by scientific discourse in the early nineteenth century and disciplined through such techniques as the discrimination of style in Gothic ornament?

Gothic ornaments seem to break off at the question of gender and sexuality, just as the hand broke off from vision in the new techniques of the observer. It is in such a gap, I believe, that the "history of sexuality" in the nineteenth century can be read against its grain. A study of the Victorian "attachment" to ornament can help us understand "how the production of sexualities came to look like repression." Rickman wanted to create a traffic in Gothic ornament and, in order to do so, translated what was historical into what was optical. It is the instability of this translation, the historical and the optical, that would haunt Gothic ornament.

The project of Rickman and his colleagues deterritorialized architecture and reterritorialized it as ornament. This act cleared the space for an intensive and ubiquitously material internal colonization of England, its Gothicization. To understand how the "English"-came to imagine and sustain a vision of the nation as "progressive," it is important to understand the crucialness of internal colonization through its own Gothicization during the Gothic Revival (between 1820 and 1870, over nine thousand churches underwent "Gothic" restoration in England, and the Gothic style proliferated, being applied to domestic structures, universities, hospitals, prisons, banks, railway stations, and the Houses of Parliament). Gothic ornaments also reproduced themselves in colonial channels.

It is interesting to note here as well that Rickman first circulated his essay one year after the appearance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1816), a creature noted for its sutured skin. In the same year, Scott published Ivanhoe, in which the veil of the Jewish Rebecca, her "second skin," is so crucial. These experiments in skin—the skin of the ornament, the skin of the monster, the second skin of the Jewish woman—may actually inform each other.


Excerpted from The Shock of Medievalism by Kathleen Biddick. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Kathleen Biddick is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Other Economy: Pastoral Husbandry on a Medieval Estate.

Joan Wallach Scott is the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advance Study. She is the author of several books, including The Politics of the Veil, Gender and the Politics of History, and Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man.

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