Modern Theory Goes Medieval (or Tries)

A while back I mentioned that I have a problem with applying a lot of contemporary literary theories to medieval literature. Now, I’m going to explain why in more detail. The major problem with most contemporary literary theories is that they are not text-based; rather, theories like feminism, psycho-analysis, post-colonial, deconstruction, etc., are based on current culture, sociology, psychology, etc. Why is this a problem for application to medieval literature? All that remains of the medieval time period is text. So, in order to apply a more modern theory to a medieval text, you either have to bend the theory itself (meaning apply it in ways that might be contrary to the theory itself) OR risk serious argumentative fallacies like reversing the burden of proof or assuming an unproven – untested premise.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by a medieval scholar who considered himself an eco-critic.

I now interrupt this reasoning for some theoretical definitions.

Ecocriticism is relatively new, having developed as a literary discipline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the definition can vary depending on who you ask here’s a few of the key points, courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. One of the editors of an influential collection on the subject, Cheryll Glotfelty, defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment {taking} an earth-centered approach to literary studies”.  Ann Milne adds that often ecocriticsm contains a degree of activism and advocacy for awareness and change. A third scholar, Lawrence Buell, defines the theory as “the relationship between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis”. Buell adds that, in order for text to be considered ecocentric, it must meet the following requirement: “that the “non human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence”.

Back to my argument.

This talk I attended discussed a set of three vitae of a particular saint written within about 50 years of each other. The earliest is anonymous, the other two are by Bede. Bede likely knew the first anonymous text, as his first vita of the saint was a continuation or companion to the earlier version. Bede’s second text, the presenter argued, was intended as an update or replacement. The key difference in Bede’s new version of the Vita was that Bede removed several of the place names, and instead used generic location descriptions. The argument of the talk was that Bede likely made the alterations in order to account for leadership and power-political changes in the bishoprics the saint visited or lived in.

The talk was interesting and founded on good scholarship, but the label of ‘ecocriticism’ does not work for me. First of all, the evidence is almost purely textual. The geography involved did not focus as much on nature or even place, as it did on name (a textual feature). Second, the focus was not on human interaction with the land other than naming areas. Lastly, according to the definitions cited above, the argument does not qualify as ecocriticism on the grounds of 1) not featuring any kind of advocacy and 2) not containing ‘nature’ as a distinct presence (in this case, only places names and frame-setting).

Another general problem I have with theories like eco-criticism and medieval literature is that the core concepts, like “Nature”, had very different meanings in the Middle Ages. Ecology was less a factor in the use of the term ‘nature’, and nature was more often thought of in terms of ‘human nature’. While anthropomorphizations, allegories, and frames involving the natural world abound in medieval literature, ecocriticism’s focus on activism and non-textual meaning and relationships are nearly impossible to establish for texts from a time and place like the saint’s lives considered in the talk.

I liked the talk and found it interesting, but I disagree with the scholar’s appraisal of the theoretical approach. Ecocriticism and theories like it are not helpful (in my mind) in determining how the medieval thinkers and writers saw themselves, their history, or their world. Ecology as we now consider it implies understanding, values, and science beyond what was known or even accepted between 1066 and 1500. What modern theories like ecocrticism can do in terms of medieval literature is help current students and scholars understand how we view the medieval thinkers and writers.

The problem is that most modern students, and literary theorists and critics aim for the former rather than the latter.