Should historians read literary scholars?

I’ve been wondering again about the question because I’ve just read Peter Haidu, The subject of violence: the Song of Roland and the birth of the state (1993), which I thought was going to prove an interesting literary take on the political significance of the chanson de geste. Haidu starts by suggesting the need for interdisciplinary study in a way that seems promising:

The literary scholar or student, asked to read extensively in the kind of writing produced by members of departments of history, economics or sociology, feels unquestionably displaced and imposed upon. In such readings the ‘literary’ person is dispossessed of the controls and references which provide his or her own mode of power/knowledge. Submitting to the discomfort of this temporary disempowerment is the cost of re-knitting what the institutionalization of our episteme has sundered: the (partial) identity of text with its alterities (p 12).

He goes on:

If the literary scholar and reader must recast the image of the text as ineluctably historical from its very beginning, the historian is required to grasp the complexities that attend contemporary notions of ‘textuality’. It is only in so far as the historian goes to school at the modern critic’s table that he or she can begin to make full use of the so-called ‘literary’ text’s historical potential (p 13).

Haidu’s work, then, is he claims, nourished by ‘extensive reading of medieval history’. though he admits that the historian reader ought to find his views ‘somewhat reductive, and at least mildly out-of-date’. The problem is that in practice his views on twelfth century history are in fact not only seriously out-dated but often fairly ludicrous. Essentially his main argument is that the Chanson de Roland shows how the ‘subject (monarchy) must dispose of the anti-subject (feudal class) with the least possible overt acknowledgement possible.’ (p 175). In other words, we’re back to king v barons and feudal anarchy again.

You can, I suppose, slightly excuse Haidu in that he was writing pre ‘Fiefs and Vassals’; on the other hand other works of Susan Reynolds’ work were already available (and Haidu even refers to Elizabeth Brown on the tyranny of feudalism as a construct). But perhaps worse is that ‘feudalism’ doesn’t make sense as an answer to what is actually happening in the Chanson. Haidu is correct to say that the Chanson shows the structural weaknesses of knighthood itself as the cause of the disaster of Roncevaux (p 84) But he doesn’t demonstrate that ‘feudalism’ itself (as opposed to monarchic rule) is seen by the poet as a problem, partly because of the inevitable vagueness about what feudalism is. Haidu seems to be equating it at times with a culture of vengeance, at times with a social theory (which the poem doesn’t support) that the king is merely first among equals, at times with a distinction between royal judgement and baronial arbitration.

Is it worth, then, a historian reading a book like this? It doesn’t help that the book is prone to jargon and reluctant to explain it; not even my dictionary was much help on ‘actantial’ or ‘designator’. There are some good points lurking, which I think a literary scholar is better at picking up, for example, the way Roland himself seeks to make his dead body into a signifier and the phantom nature of the troops that Charlemagne uses to defeat a large Saracen army to revenge Roland’s death. But my overall feeling is largely that the effort involved in reading the book is barely justified.

The same, of course, could be said about a number of history books (and I’m conscious that some historians, have for example, taken an attitude to the Latin poem Waltharius that would make a literary scholar weep). So why do I feel so frustrated about trying to get to grips with literary scholarship? I think because I find it so tricky to assess the usefulness of specific books easily, which is a combination of several problems.

One is the need to pick up the vocabulary and intellectual framework of not just one discipline but a variety of them. Literary/critical theory isn’t just using literary frameworks, but a variety, drawn eclectically from sociology, politics, linguistics, psychology, philosophy and goodness knows what else. So even if you’ve read quite a lot of literary criticism, it won’t help you if you encounter someone following a different critical guru. (Whereas, if, for example, you are a historian interested in using archaeological sources, once you understand the basic techniques and vocabulary, you’’e more or less able to cope with most reports you come across). It doesn’t help that some scholars are peculiarly bad at explaining both the theories there using or even telling you their sources for them. It was only when I looked up the ‘actantial mode on the internet, for example, that I realised the key role of Greimas’ theories in Haidu’s book; in the introduction Haidu only mentions him in footnotes, which I had missed. (Similarly, one of the many maddening things about Judith Butler’s work is that she devotes an entire chapter to discussing the film ‘Paris is Burning’ without ever making any attempt to explain the plot to those who haven’t seen it).

My second problem is that literary criticism often combines historically useful modes of analysis with historically useless forms. Broadly speaking, a historian is interested either in an author’s original intention (however pre-post-modern this may be) or its reception/audience reaction in a particular era. A fair amount of literary theory, however, focuses on how someone today could understand a particular text in the light of modern concerns, which is entirely irrelevant to a historian. In some cases it’s easy to separate out modern from possible medieval responses. For example, I regard most psychoanalytical readings as a waste of time: they are only valid for the Middle Ages if you regard the views of Freud, Lacan etc as expressing universally applicable truths, which they quite clearly aren’t. (On the other hand I regard materialist readings of literary texts as always potentially historically valid, because it’s hard to think of a period when economic/class interests don’t affect literature in some way). But often scholars will combine aspects from several theories together, making it hard to split off the useful from the irrelevant in this way. There are also some theoretical standpoints that can be used in either a historically useful or useless way. For example, there are scholars who apply queer theory to medieval history in useful ways (I’m thinking of people such as Stephen Kruger, Robert Mills and Mark Jordan). But there are also others who either come up with historically implausible examples of queerness or just want to discuss Chaucer’s Pardoner yet again.

What this means, I find, is that I have no easy way of knowing at a glance whether a book on medieval literature will be useful to me. The ratio of jargon to intelligible text, can’t, because of my particular historical interests in gender, be a sufficient guide. Instead I find myself ploughing through dense verbiage and referring back to my cribs to postmodernism in the hope that somewhere an inspirational idea is lurking. It’s this lucky dip aspect to my reading of literary scholarship that I find so frustrating. If anyone can tell me some good shortcuts (whether it is ‘never read anything published by Indiana University Press’ or ‘this is who is worth reading on Occitan literature’), I’d be grateful.

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One thought on “Should historians read literary scholars?

  1. I read Haidu (Brian Stock does the same thing in his Listening for the Text) a while ago and was thoroughly disillusioned by their attempts at “interdisciplinarity.” Mostly, as you say, it just meant reading some really out of date stuff, then saying historians have no idea about how to do interdisciplinarity.

    I’ve always liked Gabrielle Spiegel’s work (though an historian, she knows her theory). Other than that, my mind is kind of blanking about what’s good. If you find something, let me know too…

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