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Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve racked up prizes — and completely misled you about the Middle Ages

The Harvard professor, who just won a major humanities award, revived a caricature of the "dark ages" scholars abandoned decades ago

Last month, Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard English professor, won one of the world’s largest awards for scholarly work in the humanities: the 2016 Holberg Prize, which comes with about $735,000 in prize money from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

Greenblatt received it based on his "distinctive and defining role in the field of literary studies and his influential voice in the humanities over four decades" — particularly in the fields of Shakespeare, 16th- and 17th-century English literature, and the critical approach known as "new historicism."

For literature scholars around the world, he is something of a rock star, whose influence reaches far beyond early modern studies. But one book, more than all his previous publications, propelled Greenblatt to an internationally visible position as public intellectual: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published in 2011. (The UK title is The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

The Swerve won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a top prize from the Modern Languages Association — all of which undoubtedly helped to bring Greenblatt's lifetime of great work to the attention of the Holberg Prize committee.

Yet The Swerve doesn’t promote the humanities to a broader public so much as it deviously precipitates the decline of the humanities, by dumbing down the complexities of history and religion in a way that sets a deeply unfortunate precedent. If Greenblatt’s story resonates with its many readers, it is surely because it echoes stubborn, made-for-TV representations of medieval "barbarity" that have no business in a nonfiction book, much less one by a Harvard professor.

Scholars have spent the past several decades upending the old myths that the Middle Ages were intellectual stagnant, emotionally repressed, and merely masochistic. Unfortunately, The Swerve heartily embraces those myths. In its insistent representation of what Greenblatt wanted the past to be like, instead of what the evidence suggests, it exemplifies that dire trend of "truthy" nonfiction books that present One Theory to Explain Everything. It represents the importation of Malcolm Gladwell–esque yarn-spinning into the academy.

When smooth prose and a punchy story trump the truth

So what is this story that is so seductive but wrong? The Swerve follows Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century Italian employee of the pope, a humanist, and an avid book collector. Poggio travels to faraway monasteries and finds esoteric classical texts in order to recopy them in beautiful humanist script.

He finds a Latin poem by the classical author Lucretius, "De rerum natura" ("On the Nature of Things"), whose argument is handily outlined by Greenblatt in bullet points in one chapter: The universe is made up of atoms that swerve around and collide and create everything; we can’t really control those processes; the gods don’t care about us; souls don’t exist; and so, above all, we should avoid pain — like good Epicureans.

After Poggio’s discovery, "De rerum natura" finally received the reception it deserved and influenced centuries of important thinkers (though exactly how much, and in what ways, remain nebulous in Greenblatt’s telling). This poem, Greenblatt argues, helped people "turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and immaterial causes and to focus instead on things in this world." In other words, the poem helped to swerve Western culture from a blinkered, naive past into skeptical, pragmatic modernity.

"This book is dangerous"

Medieval literature is my field, but I had not had occasion to read The Swerve until I was invited to take part in an event connected with this year’s Holberg Prize. And so, on a recent windy Thursday afternoon, in Bergen, Norway, I sat down to read the book — and found myself totally swept up in the exciting story.

I relaxed and just went along with it; I read as if I were on the beach, not in the library. Great writing style, I thought. There were so many interesting details, the prose was so easy to follow — so self-assured, no pesky footnotes to distract me from the story. The book feels like a great detective story – it reminded me of The Name of the Rose or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code series. Really enjoyable reading.

And as I read, the normal person inside me thought: It is important for academics to write in this accessible style and reach broader audiences with stories about the past! This is the great story of modernity!

When I finished, I put down The Swerve on the table, and the academic side of my brain kicked back in. I had let myself read it as fiction. Yet it was supposed to be not fiction. When I thought of it as a scholarly book, and thought of all those thousands and thousands of people out there who read it and believed every word because the author is an authority and wins prizes, I realized: This book is dangerous.

Every page of The Swerve strives to present the Renaissance as an intellectual awakening that triumphs over the oppressive abyss of the Dark Ages. The book pushes the Renaissance as a rebirth of the classical brilliance nearly lost during centuries mired in dullness and pain. (In Greenblatt's Middle Ages, bored monks literally sit in the dark when not flagellating themselves.)

This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of good guys (Poggio, as well as Lucretius) defeating bad guys and thus bringing forth a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but, more importantly, because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that all too easily excuses the crimes and injustices of modernity.

But history does not fit such cookie-cutter narratives. Having studied medieval culture for nearly two decades, I can instantly recognize the oppressive, dark, ignorant Middle Ages that Greenblatt depicts for 262 pages as, simply, fiction. It’s fiction worse than Dan Brown, because it masquerades as fact.

Greenblatt radically overemphasizes the prevalence of medieval flagellation.

It is enthusiastic, accessible style at a devastating, unethical cost: the misrepresentation of a thousand years of brilliant literature, vibrant culture, and actual people. It’s rewriting history to fit a detective story, and it’s being rewarded both by those who don’t know better and those who should know better.

Some critics have gushed over the book; most of the academic critics have published crippling reviews. I am not going to rehearse all the things you can read in all the specialist book reviews. I am not a classicist or a philosopher, so I won’t go into how actual philosophers point out that Epicureanism wasn’t anywhere as widespread in the classical world as Greenblatt suggests, and that Greenblatt vastly inflates its influence both before and during the so-called Renaissance. I won’t mention that in fact skepticism and Platonism and Neoplatonism are an important part of this history of philosophy, though completely left out by Greenblatt.

It’s not my place to point out that the book conveniently disregards a key part of Epicureanism, ataraxia, that urges us to withdraw from the world and to "be indifferent to suffering and death in other people" — a disturbing apathy at odds with much of modernity, not to mention the civic ethics of the early modern period. "De rerum natura" actually proposes an apathetic, anesthetized calm that is as incompatible with empathy, compassion, affection, bodily pleasure, or joyful happiness as it is with pain. Hardly inspiring, and hardly an improvement on, well, anything.

I certainly could, but I’m not going to, get into the other renaissances ignored in this book: the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century, and the 12th-century renaissance. Sadly, I don't have the space to explain that, no, medieval people were not all obsessed with pain, and, yes, there was widespread, state-sanctioned embrace of enjoyment of the senses.

And finally I don’t have time to balance out the book’s unbalanced exaggeration of medieval self-beatings: Greenblatt focuses on "societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria" in order to make the case that a kind of masochistic asceticism "represented the core values of all believing Christians." Self-inflicted beatings never, of course, represented "the core values of all believing Christians," just as such a sweeping statement about the cultural practices of any religion or period could never be true.

(Wait: Did you see what I just did there? That rhetorical move – occupatio: mentioning by saying I won’t mention — is a classical Latin rhetorical move used throughout the Middle Ages, a move I learned from Chaucer, who wrote when Poggio Bracciolini was a baby.)

What I am going to focus on is two issues: First, contrary to what you might believe after reading The Swerve, the Middle Ages did have a thriving literary and intellectual culture in which monks played a crucial, creative, and engaged role. And second, as readers we should be much more skeptical about this author’s personal investment in his fable.

A caricature of medieval monks no scholar has embraced for decades

The main representation the medieval period extends over about two chapters of the book, starting when Poggio heads off to visit a monastic library. As part of the historical, factual voice of the narrative — more Greenblatt’s lecturing voice, less his novelistic voice — we learn about the dismal life of the medieval monk, an "educated slave" in Greenblatt’s words. We are assured that in this dark, dark world, "Curiousity was to be avoided at all costs."

What happened in this world was "[t]he complete subordination of the monastic scribe to the text — the erasure, in the interest of crushing the monk’s spirit, of his intellect and sensibility. ..."

Greenblatt writes without qualification that "No medieval monk would have been encouraged to read, as it were, between the lines." His monks are lazy, dumb, and apathetic while somehow also hardworking: "Without wishing to emulate the pagan elites by placing books or writing at the center of society, without affirming the importance of rhetoric or grammar, without prizing either learning or debate, monks nevertheless became the principal readers, librarians, book preservers, and book producers of the Western world."

At best this is a bizarre paradox, at worst sheer impossibility.

The Swerve turned Greenblatt from an academic star into a genuinely popular author — for better or worse.

No such gross misrepresentation of monastic scribal production — as in, factually wrong — has been published for decades. These are not just old generalizations about monks; they are outdated by nearly 100 years.

But this caricature that Greenblatt offers as representing all medieval intellectual culture is only part of the problem. Think about what Greenblatt completely fails to mention: all the rest of the vast learning and debate going on inside and outside monasteries.

For instance, universities themselves (a medieval invention)! Scholastic debates! Medieval hermeneutics — at least four levels of textual interpretation available! The commentary tradition — where monks and others wrote extensive analyses literally between and around the lines of texts! Frequent engagements with classical authors! Widespread respect of classical poetry and culture! Lots of classical rhetoric — ask the many scholars expert in it! Huge commercial industries of urban book production! Secular literature — Arthurian romance! All poetry! Courtly literature! Royal patrons and royal literary commissions! Goliardic songs! Lyrics! Drama! Mystery plays! I could go on.

Books were at the center of medieval society, as any amateur history buff could tell you. And I certainly don’t deny that big changes happened in the early modern period, including the invention and adoption of the printing press, and the Reformation, and a fresh wave of interest in classical texts, among other important shifts. A more accurate presentation of the Middle Ages as different but not deeply degenerate would make the story of all these changes even more interesting than Greenblatt’s histrionic cartoon — and have the added advantage of actually being accurate.

So why does Greenblatt present such a skewed version of the facts? Clearly he knows how to use a library – and he’s a brilliant guy. He also happens to have an office right down the hall from some very clear-headed medievalist scholars. No, I think something else is going on here, if I might read between the lines myself. Something ideological, and something psychological.

A fateful merging of author and hero subject

This all makes more sense when in the next chapter we hear about Poggio’s true feelings for monks: He despises them. And he despises that he must deal with them because they are the ones that lock away his precious classical texts. Returning to the novelistic voice, Greenblatt writes of Poggio’s views on monks: "On the whole he found them superstitious, ignorant, and hopelessly lazy. Monasteries, he thought, were the dumping grounds for those deemed unfit for life in the world."

Yet Poggio is forced to reckon with these imbeciles in order to access their manuscripts: "Though he ridiculed what he regarded as monastic sloth, he knew that whatever he hoped to find existed only because of centuries of institutional commitment and long, painstaking human labor." Again, that awkward problem where the caricature doesn’t square with historical evidence.

At another point, we hear that Poggio "was not at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance." And conveniently, when Poggio visits dreadful, rainy England, he doesn’t quite get to Oxford, which lets Greenblatt evade that tricky issue of medieval universities.

Greenblatt is working off Poggio’s extensive surviving correspondence, so I don’t doubt these statements (even though they are not cited). What I do see throughout The Swerve, however, is a conflation of views — of Poggio’s view with Stephen’s view. This is a fatal mistake. Greenblatt the historian seems to let his inner Poggio take over, and thus this nonfiction history takes on the prejudiced slant of a 15th-century anti-religious egotistical humanist and becomes historical fiction. Poggio controls the ideology of this text. Poggio inflects all the voices of this book with a fiercely anti-Catholic polemic.

It is pretty transparent that Greenblatt idolizes Poggio despite (or maybe because of) his shortcomings. They would be best friends, and they both want this moment to be modern so badly. Unfortunately, Greenblatt, against his best training as a historian and critic, allows that personal desire to swerve history into fiction. Instead of pointing out the bias of such views and painting us a more realistic picture informed by decades of scholarship, he adopts Poggio’s view that the Middle Ages was "a sink of superstition and ignorance." And that is exactly what people will learn from this book.

But I think there’s something even more psychological going on here. In the preface, Greenblatt describes his own mother’s deep anxiety about death and how that affected him, and how Lucretius’s poem offered him hope:

She had blighted much of her life — and cast a shadow on my own — in the service of her obsessive fear. Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: "Death is nothing to us." To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed.

Two men flagellating themselves, in a woodcut illustration from 1593
More flagellants, 1593 woodcut.
Getty Images / The Print Collector

I have nothing against such personal anecdotes or emotional connections to history — I love reading about the more individual side of scholars in their criticism and think such moves can be quite illuminating. This one definitely is, though not in the way it was intended.

Coming back to this passage after reading the whole book puts it in quite a different light. We realize that after the preface it becomes the Middle Ages that Greenblatt presents as gripped with anxiety about death, living in obsessive fear, an ignorant, superstitious fear.

The Middle Ages is the return of the repressed, of the mother that must be rejected in order to choose life — in order to choose modernity. Within these dark pasts can be no joy for medieval people, because there was no joy for his mother. Here, the personal and historical narratives have collapsed together, and what results is fiction.

Why oversimplification and cliché-mongering matter

Of course, this is only one book in a lifetime of books by Greenblatt, in a lifetime of undeniably great achievement. But The Swerve draws on the authority of that lifetime of books to perpetuate factual inaccuracies to a far bigger audience than any of his previous books, enjoying weeks as a best-seller.

Regardless of the numbers, it’s definitely more minds unprepared to challenge his authority on the past and willing to swallow his truthiness. In that way, the book represents an abuse of power. It is an injustice to the past, and the mythical invention of modernity is an ethical issue because it sets a precedent for history that ignores complexity in favor of oversimplification.

What if that history had dealt with more than cultural production — genocides or incarceration or forced migration? What if that history had involved painting whole religions as extremist, or as naively superstitious, or as terroristic? In such cases, would we tolerate such simplification and falsification? At what cost comes more viewers or higher ratings or more prizes?

No amount of "humanities advocacy" is worth desecrating the past it purports to promote or undoing generations of valuable scholarly work. Regardless of what knowledge, ignorance, or love for the Middle Ages the average reader begins with, at the end of the book readers know less than before because their heads have been filled with errors. This is a damaging net loss nearly impossible to rectify, as the more complex and interesting truth rarely tastes as good as the oversugared fable that comes before.

I’d gladly assign Greenblatt’s earlier work to my students, if we were reading some early modern poets or Shakespeare. But if I assigned any parts of The Swerve, my students would immediately see the fallacies in this argument because they learn a different story in my classes, from the medieval works I assign them.

In the opening lines of Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales they see so much of what Greenblatt sees in the opening lines of Lucretius’s "De rerum natura" — things he claims were utterly absent in the medieval period. They see: unlimited wonder, a celebration of the interconnectedness of the earth, sky, wind, cosmos, with little birds, the smallest roots, our bodies, our desire to be whole, to be connected to each other, to love and to be loved. More, in fact, than is actually in "De rerum natura" itself.

If my students read about the Swerve’s dour, self-depriving medieval mindset, they would recall Chaucer’s "Miller’s Tale," by far the most hilarious, sensual, naughty text on the syllabus. Nothing else we read delights so explicitly in adulterous sex, explosive farts, and practical jokes involving the anus — all the while critiquing church and society and written by the father of English poetry.

What I teach, what I hope they learn, is that there is always nuance to history. History is paradoxical. It’s the cruxes that make history spark and come alive. And what I hope they take away is that we have an ethical responsibility to respect belief and not to belittle it (especially if we don’t share it), and not write what we want to believe, or, worse, what we think other people will buy.

That so many prize committees rewarded the book despite its deficiencies shows how seductive misperceptions about the past can be. Those awards represent a collective failure on the part of literary critics, historians, and publishers. If scholars are to reach out to the public, we must not swerve from the ethical obligation to listen to what the evidence tells us. We must not shy away from telling the complicated, more interesting stories that are out there waiting to be told. Readers are ready for the truth, and they deserve it.

Laura Saetveit Miles is a professor of premodern English literature at the University of Bergen, in Norway. A version of this essay appeared earlier on the blog In the Middle.