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The Medieval New

The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation

Patricia Clare Ingham
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Medieval New
    Book Description:

    Despite the prodigious inventiveness of the Middle Ages, the era is often characterized as deeply suspicious of novelty. But if poets and philosophers urged caution about the new, Patricia Clare Ingham contends, their apprehension was less the result of a blind devotion to tradition than a response to radical expansions of possibility in diverse realms of art and science. Discovery and invention provoked moral questions in the Middle Ages, serving as a means to adjudicate the ethics of invention and opening thorny questions of creativity and desire.

    The Medieval Newconcentrates on the preoccupation with newness and novelty in literary, scientific, and religious discourses of the twelfth through sixteenth centuries. Examining a range of evidence, from the writings of Roger Bacon and Geoffrey Chaucer to the letters of Christopher Columbus, and attending to histories of children's toys, the man-made marvels of romance, the utopian aims of alchemists, and the definitional precision of the scholastics, Ingham analyzes the ethical ambivalence with which medieval thinkers approached the category of the new. With its broad reconsideration of what the "newfangled" meant in the Middle Ages,The Medieval Newoffers an alternative to histories that continue to associate the medieval era with conservation rather than with novelty, its benefits and liabilities. Calling into question present-day assumptions about newness, Ingham's study demonstrates the continued relevance of humanistic inquiry in the so-called traditional disciplines of contemporary scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9123-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction. Newfangled Values
    (pp. 1-20)

    “The New is not a fashion,” writes Roland Barthes, “it is a value.”¹ Referring to novelty as a feature of the pleasure of the text, Barthes casts the new as discursive value rather than empirical fact. This seems both undeniable and counterintuitive. From the “New World” to the “latest iPhone,” newness stakes its power on the side of the event, unpredicted and unlooked for—on surprise and discontinuity as empirical fact. Yet our attraction to gadgets, fashions, or breathtaking discoveries exceeds utility, as a variety of scholars have shown.² Take, for example, medieval historian Lynn White’s controversial “stirrup thesis” (1962)....


    • Chapter 1 Scholastic Novelties
      (pp. 23-47)

      In the final paragraph ofMont-Saint- Michel and Chartres,¹ Henry Adams draws the complex oscillations of human history to a fine point. The book that begins, as John P. McIntyre points out, with the heights (its opening sentence, “The Archangel loved heights”) ends buried in the earth. The Gothic cathedral, its soaring vaults now “restless,” its ingenious buttresses now “vagrant,” expresses, “as no emotion had ever been expressed before” or since, the “haunting nightmares of the Church” as a “cry of human suffering.” Medieval philosophy’s drive toward universal oneness is nobly undone: its logic uncertain, its syllogisms unequal, and its...

    • Chapter 2 Conjuring Roger Bacon
      (pp. 48-72)

      In the popular imagination Roger Bacon remains the romantic figure of scientific genius that he once was for John Matthews Manly. Readers today imagine the thirteenth-century scholar as a radical innovator, “one of the most significant and irreplaceable figures in the history of science”;¹ he features prominently in Donald Sharpes’sOutlaws and Heretics: Profiles in Independent Thought and Courage(2007); English editions of Bacon’sSecrets of Art and Natureremain in print thanks to popular presses specializing in “Alchemy and Hermetica,” or in the occult. Bacon continues to be, as William Newman puts it, “a name to conjure with.”²



    • Chapter 3 Ingenious Youth
      (pp. 75-111)

      “The world of the romances,” writes Richard Kieckhefer, “seems at times a vast toy shop stocked with magical delights.”¹ Kieckhefer’s popular history of magic in the Middle Ages casts the enchanting pull of romances as a fantasy associated with childhood. The toy shop metaphor may seem odd for the medieval context, however. Following the work of Philippe Ariès,² social historians had long surmised that childhood did not properly exist during the Middle Ages, a hardscrabble time (apparently) when people were little able to afford the trifles of childhood play.³

      This assumption has come again under revision, thanks in part to...

    • Chapter 4 Little Nothings
      (pp. 112-140)

      Long before the advent of modern aeronautics, crackpot inventors, artists, romancers, mythologists, and philosophers envisioned the possibilities of taking flight. Horses with wings, like Pegasus, and with pins, like Cambyuskan’s magical horse in Chaucer’sThe Squire’s Tale; ornithopters, or mechanical hybrids described in the works of Roger Bacon; the glider tested by Spanish Arab scientist Abbas Ibn Firnas (c. 875); and the bird-man experiments of Eilmer, as told by William of Malmesbury (c. 1140), all constitute a medieval prehistory for the modern glider, helicopter, and airplane. Throughout the early periods, flying machines delighted speculative thinkers, natural philosophers, and readers of...


    • Chapter 5 Suspect Economies
      (pp. 143-166)

      Traditional accounts of technological innovation privilege productive economies, often in explicit contrast to markets for luxury items like those recounted in theSquire’s Tale. Weberian sociology generally reserves technological advance for those things associated with production, not leisure, for usable, not “frivolous,” items.¹ Histories of medieval technology have accordingly stressed the innovative power of flying buttresses, windmills, or cannons, and until quite recently ignored the drôleries associated with medieval romance, the automata or mechanical gadgets known from accounts of the garden at Hesdin, or the flying horses described in verse. Such luxuries, like the delicate ceramic glazes or Ming vases...

    • Chapter 6 Old Worlds and New
      (pp. 167-193)

      The year 1492 stands first among the liminal markers of historical rupture, popularly understood as the harbinger of a new Humanist age enthusiastic about novelty, a new time of technological interest and advancement. According to the persuasive narrative advanced most famously by Anthony Grafton, data mined from Columbus’s “New World” shattered medieval strictures against the impiety ofvitium curiositatis(the sin of curiosity), and revolutionized bookish medieval geographies, granting empirical force to a Christianity driving toward the Ends of the Earth. A new empiricism, with its attendant possibilities for human achievement, apparently inspired Europeans to embrace novelty as an unquestioned...

  7. Afterword. An Age of Innovation
    (pp. 194-198)

    In the breathtaking illumination of Fortune’s Wheel found in BN manuscript FR 1586 (an early manuscript of Guillaume de Machaut’sRemedy of Fortune), blind Fortuna turns her majestic wheel as figures clamber up, topple down, or rest briefly on the heights in the usual cycles of ascent and decline (see Figure 4). Familiar as a traditional, even standard, example of “medieval” iconography, Fortune’s Wheel is usually taken as evidence for the old, outmoded, medieval notion of time. More a throwback than a view of history pertinent to the current century, Fortune’s Wheel may seem an odd choice for the cover...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 199-250)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-268)
  10. Index
    (pp. 269-274)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 275-280)