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Kant in King Arthur’s Court:
Charges of Anachronism in Book Reviews
Michael Johnston and Alex Mueller
Foreword: This blog post arose out of a series of conversations between the authors, which took place over several years (at seemingly every Kalamazoo, NCS, or MLA we both happened to be attending). Mike served as Book Review Editor for Arthuriana from 2008–2011, when he passed the baton to Alex, who still holds this position. Our experiences reading several reviews that bordered on mean-spirited and unfair, and our guilt for having commissioned them, brought us to lament the review process and to seek, over the course of these discussions, a better way forward. And then, as our own monographs and edited collections appeared in print and were subsequently reviewed, our desire for a more dynamic and dialogic, to say nothing of generous, review process was felt all the more acutely. What follows, then, is the result of our reflections on this process, with a particular focus on the charge of anachronism—a charge that was leveled recently at an essay Mike wrote, and one that is frequently used in what we have found to be an undertheorized way in numerous reviews of scholarship on the Middle Ages.
We are anxious as hell about anachronism. And for good reason. The charge of anachronism is so common and so promiscuously leveled in book reviews that just about any work of historical scholarship is vulnerable to it. By anachronism, we don’t mean the creative kind, such as Dante being quoted within the Arthurian age of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. We mean the sort where reviewers accuse reviewees of the “mistaken” use of a modern term for a medieval phenomenon or of making an “armchair” judgment about an ancient form of xenophobia. It is, after all, the hallmark of the reviewer’s expertise to be able to identify something out of joint and censure its presence as the result of uninformed, amateurish, or shoddy research. And while we believe it can be productive to question a scholar’s imprecise use of modern terminology to characterize premodern behavior or concepts, the charge of anachronism is often made in the name of indifferent moral evaluation. Rather than, for example, going so far as to label medieval accusations of host desecration and well poisoning as “antisemitic,” this modern condemnation of hate speech can be dismissed as “unknowable” to medieval people like Chaucer, leaving him and his contemporaries inculpable for their indulgence in this common fourteenth-century discourse.
At its core, this position of indifference is situated within a well-studied philosophical debate about making moral evaluations, particularly about cultures that are geographically or temporally distant from us. As a well-known critic of moral relativism, Bernard Williams qualifies his position in favor of making moral assessments to account for what he calls a “relativism of distance,” in which moral appraisals should not be made about the practices of ancient cultures operating within completely different and temporally distinct moral paradigms. To emphasize what he feels is the absurdity of such moral evaluations, he asks, “Must I think of myself as visiting in judgement all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical or political thought?” These rhetorical questions are particularly compelling for those of us who work in medieval studies, especially the audience for this blog, which has long embraced such critical anachronisms in scholarly work, from postcolonial critique to queer theory to posthumanist analyses. Yet, this hasn’t stopped many of us from exclaiming “ANACHRONISTIC!” whenever we catch someone using “hacking” to describe medieval textual appropriations or whenever we sniff out some feminist critique of the misogyny of the “heroic ideal” of the Middle Ages. As readers of this blog well know, scholars who pursue the latter are additionally accused of being caught up in the dreaded “femfog” – a kind of anachronistic feminism that has confused their judgment about pre-feminist medieval values.
We therefore want to examine two kinds of charges of anachronism, which paradoxically view our scholarly relationship to the Middle Ages from opposite angles. Both of these will probably be familiar to most medievalists. The first rebukes scholars who fail to imagine themselves in the Middle Ages, failing to constrain themselves to only those terms and concepts of which Augustine and Boethius would approve. When faced with an act of compilation, we better call it compilatio, and God forbid we call it a remix. The second criticizes scholars for arrogantly imagining themselves in the Middle Ages, condemning any medieval practices that offend their modern scholarly sensibilities. We can’t be Kants in King Arthur’s court, making judgments about ancient cultures that operated within different moral contexts. And while we believe the ubiquity of these two charges of anachronism could be demonstrated within many scholarly venues, including conference papers, articles, and monographs, we want to call attention to their persistent presence within book reviews. We have both served as book review editors and remain frequent reviewers ourselves, so we are acutely sensitive to the difficult task of reviewing books, which is often thankless, gut-wrenching, and uncompensated work. Despite its low status and priority within our profession, we both believe strongly in the importance of book reviews, particularly those that engage with the arguments of books and offer challenging, which sometimes means highly critical, assessments that continue the scholarly conversation at hand. Yet, we have become discouraged by how often reviewers engage in dismissive critiques of risk-taking books, too often tossing them into the dustbin of “anachronistic” work. We think it’s in all of our best interests to stop doing this.
To test our hunch about the invocation of “anachronism” in book reviews, we set our sights on our favorite, and arguably the most widely read, venue for reviews of monographs and edited collections on medieval topics, The Medieval Review (TMR). After reading through a number of recent reviews and encountering “anachronism” and “anachronistic” as often as we suspected, we ran a simple search on the journal website for all instances of “anachronis*,” which resulted in 241 hits. While many instances of anachronism are not used pejoratively – sometimes it is even used positively – its prevalence nevertheless reveals the hold it has on many reviewers’ lexicons. Among the numerous reviews we could discuss in this regard is Richard Raiswell’s review of Kathy Lavezzo’s book, Angels on the Edge of the World. Raiswell offers a number of engaged critiques of Lavezzo’s book, but nearly all of his objections constellate around the use of modern terminology and concepts to describe medieval phenomena, in this case literary interpretations of mappae mundi. The danger of this approach, he contends, “is to impose an exclusively post-Enlightenment reading on them, and, by extension, to court anachronism.” While we think all medievalists would agree that we should be as precise as possible in our analysis of medieval practices, which often means distinguishing the premodern from the modern, we also question our capacity or desire to vacate our own particular historical moment. During what epoch exactly does Raiswell expect us to be reading these things? To read it in the “now,” Raiswell seems to suggest, we are doing something invalid, “court[ing] anachronism,” a charge he levels twice. Raiswell’s complaint seems to be that anachronism per se is to be avoided, and that modern theoretical constructs can only be applied to understanding the Middle Ages if the constructs themselves would have been intelligible to people in the period. This leaves little room for theory’s real work—unpacking a text’s tacitness and gestures, while helping to elucidate what the text itself is unable, or unwilling, to say. If we believe that Lavezzo fails to consider important medieval contemporary contexts, then we should, of course, lodge that complaint, but this critique in itself does not negate or undermine the significance of using modern theories of the nation to enrich our understanding of the function or interpretive work of medieval maps.
To browse other instances of “anachronism” in TMR or other journals that host reviews is to find similar objections to scholarship that allegedly fails to repress its modernity. Two recent books that have boldly thrown anachronistic caution to the wind are Kathleen E. Kennedy’s Medieval Hackers and E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots. In a review of both of these books in Medievally Speaking, Robin Wharton evaluates these monographs on their own terms and then broaches the subject of anachronism in a refreshingly productive and inquiring way: “[B]y deliberately embracing anachronism in their terminology, Kennedy and Truitt more clearly announce the immediate relevance of their projects beyond medieval studies. Further, the juxtaposition enacted in both titles between modern technology and the qualifier ‘medieval’ insists on difference, even as it leverages analogy. I did often question whether the implicit analogy between pre-modern and postmodern ‘hackers’ or ‘robots’ or ‘automatons’ was actually useful. To prompt such a reaction, however, may have been precisely what Kennedy and Truitt intended.” Rather than simply dismiss these books as irredeemably anachronistic, Wharton offers a challenge to the reader, one that asks us to grapple carefully with the relationship between current practices and terminology and those of the distant past. Some of us may indeed end up deciding that some of these terms dilute or collapse important distinctions between the medieval and modern, but do we really want to use anachronism per se as a litmus test for evaluating scholarship? Is it even possible to avoid anachronism in our work? Or do we want medieval studies to recognize anachronism as a necessary, and often even a productive, element of our investigations of the past?
While we are discouraged by how often we encounter objections to terminological anachronism, we are more disturbed by the second objection to anachronism, which condemns, ipso facto, moral evaluations of medieval practices. For an example of this, we turn to a critical response to a recent essay of Mike’s, “Constantinian Christianity in the London Manuscript: The Codicological and Linguistic Evidence of Thornton’s Intentions,” which appeared in a volume he co-edited with Susanna Fein, Robert Thornton and His Books: New Essays on the London and Lincoln Manuscripts (York Medieval Press, 2014). The vast majority of Mike’s essay consists of a linguistic analysis of the opening texts in the London Thornton Manuscript (London, British Library MS Additional 31042), which opens with selections of the life of Christ from Cursor mundi, which is followed by the Northern Passion, which details Christ’s crucifixion. Thornton then copied The Siege of Jerusalem, which details the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, painting this event as the Jews getting their comeuppance for having killed Christ. And then, finally, Thornton included two Charlemagne romances (around which he placed two short religious lyrics), in which the Muslims are defeated like their Jewish forebears had been. At even a cursory glance, it is clear that Thornton’s series of texts narrates a Christian historiography founded on the subjugation of the non-Christian Other. In his essay, Mike sought to ferret out, using the dialect layers of each text, how many different exemplars lay behind this series, and thus how much responsibility Robert Thornton had, as the manuscript’s compiler, for actualizing this particular literary sequence.
It turns out, Thornton was largely responsible for this sequence, and this struck Mike as significant, not only in terms of codicology and the history of the book, but also as a noteworthy example of a flesh-and-blood fifteenth-century English reader whose Christianity and historiography were predicated on supersession. So, as a parting shot in the essay, Mike cited Cornel West’s admittedly potted history of Christianity from Democracy Matters, in which West sees the Church, after Constantine marries it to the State, as being complicit in a host of oppressive and reactionary measures against various minorities. In this vision of salvation history, Rome neutered Christ’s radical egalitarianism, turning religion into just another institutional arm of the state. Mike cited only West in this regard, but it is worth noting that West did not coin the phrase “Constantian Christianity,” nor is he alone among modern scholars in using this as a heuristic. Such august theologians as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas (the latter arguably the most influential theologian of the last fifty years) have gotten great mileage out of it. In our neck of the woods, it underpins much of the scholarship of David Aers. So it did not strike Mike as particularly controversial or outlandish to use this category as a way to frame Thornton’s efforts to create a particularly anti-Jewish and -Muslim historiography.
But one reviewer did not see it this way, remarking that
Upset by Thorton’s anti-Semitic polemics, Johnston comes to the awkward and anachronistic conclusion that “Thornton crafted his own unique combination of texts, one that speaks to the very worst impulses of medieval Christianity: the denigration of the non-Christian Other” (199). Johnston admires Thornton’s efforts, but at the same time calls his output a “morally retrograde product” (200). The absurdity of transferring our own moral values and our own concept of tolerance onto medieval individuals culminates in Johnston citing Cornel West’s complaint of what “Constantian Christianity” did to “women, people of colour, and gays and lesbians” (ibid.). It is really a pity that Johnston’s deserving investigation of Thornton’s editorial and scribal achievements results in such an arrogant and anachronistic assessment of Thornton’s personality.
In the space of a few sentences, the charge of anachronism pops up twice, and we see this particular review as a perfect crystallization of what we are here identifying as the second form of anachronism, one that rejects the very idea of standing in ethical relationship to the past. The reviewer contends that it is anachronistic for Mike to have labeled Thornton’s anti-Jewish and -Muslim sequence as representing the worst parts of medieval Christianity. But surely, medieval Christianity had a virulent strain of anti-Judaism, and surely we find this repugnant. This is not to say, of course, that medieval Christianity, any more or less than the Christianity of today, was doctrinally, liturgically or intellectually monolithic. But surely it is well within the scholar’s remit to note when a historical figure went out of his way to draw liberally from the available well of anti-Semitic thought.
Such sentiments as this reviewer expressed would effectively erect a barrier between past and present, forbidding any sort of reflection on how our morality has developed over time. This is not a scholarly practice we would endorse, and it’s not the world of scholarship we would like to live in. But more to the point, we think such attitudes to historical judgment are undertheorized and unreflective. There is, after all, a large body of philosophical literature on this question, most of which has met with a resounding silence among medievalists at large, but particularly those among us who throw down the gauntlet of anachronism. And while space prohibits an extensive lit review, it is worth drawing attention to a few major voices in the philosophical debates about the justification of passing moral judgments on the past. No less than Hegel wrestled with this question, insisting that while ethical systems of the past can be valid for their time, it is a separate matter altogether as to whether they are rational. Opening up a space between a past action’s validity and its rationality places a large burden on the moral judgment of the philosopher commenting on an ethical system’s rationality. In a different but related vein, Miranda Fricker concedes that we cannot morally evaluate the actions of individuals who lived under entirely different systems of thought. But in place of the sorts of moral agnosticism towards the past that we find subtending most book reviews in medieval studies, Fricker proposes “a kind of critical judgement I call moral-epistemic disappointment. This style of critical judgement is appropriately directed at an individual agent whose behaviour we regard as morally lacking, but who was not in a historical or cultural position to think the requisite moral thought—it was outside the routine moral thinking of their day.” Fricker’s suggestion offers a sort of middle-ground, one that respects the fact that ideology provides limits to what is thinkable, while simultaneously allowing us to register discontent with those who failed to see beyond the limitations of their day. Both Peter Singer and Steven Pinker ground notions of moral progress in evolutionary psychology. For Singer, the history of human evolution has been one of an ever-widening circle of concern, from kin altruism to group altruism all the way to today’s standard of universal human rights. One of the effects of the evolution of reason within human societies is the development of a moral sense, particularly putting the concerns of others on an equal footing to our own. Likewise Pinker argues that violence has declined precipitously across human history, thanks to a combination of the still-evolving moral capacity within the very structures of our brains, alongside the development of human institutions (e.g., government, democracy) that facilitate cooperation. Both Singer and Pinker unapologetically contend that humans have become morally superior as history has progressed.
We offer this brief foray into moral philosophy and evolutionary psychology not as an endorsement of any of these positions, but rather to underscore that the question of how we ought to view the past is more complex than reductive charges of anachronism would admit. How to judge the past has been a live question in philosophy for a number of years, and we in the world of literary studies would be well served to listen to their debates. But perhaps we medievalists didn’t need to look so far outside our discipline, for one of the gems of medievalism, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has been underscoring the message for us since 1889. Most of us will no doubt know the story well, but the point we wish to raise here is simply that Hank Morgan recognizes the absurdity of a good deal of medieval life, and he points it out to great comic effect. He is not afraid to engage in the sorts of moral evaluations of the past that many critics today would find anachronistic. But Twain never lets us forget the opposite side of that coin, for Hank’s own blindnesses and unthinking cultural chauvinism remind readers that 1880s America was in need of moral evaluation, as well. And perhaps a fear that we have our own moral blindspots and are thus in no position to be standing in judgment of other times and places is why, in the end, we cry “anachronism” when we encounter scholarship making evaluative claims. But perhaps the final lesson ought to come from Twain, who would license us to comment on the moral systems of the past, provided we remain open to an entirely different set of moral failings of the present. Both are necessary, and Twain would wince at the thought that we must remain silent about the ethical ideals of the past. As critics who engage with cultures of the past, we remain convinced that we are justified in labeling anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or whatnot, when we see it.
A WAY FORWARD: A PROPOSED SOLUTION
In conclusion, we are not going to be so bold as to offer a new scholarly methodology as a buttress against often reflexive charges of anachronism in reviews. Instead, we wish to close with some reflections on the process of reviewing in general, which we hope might remedy our current critical moment. In this moment, it is all too often that the charge of anachronism emerges when theoretically inclined work ends up in the hands of a less theoretically inclined reviewer. The less theoretically inclined reviewer ends with the final word, and we as scholars read far more reviews than actual books—using, that is, reviews to help us decide in which books we should invest our time and expendable income. We believe that, were the review process to be fixed (and it is currently broken, in our humble opinions), we could create a space for actual dialogue about the ideas in scholarship. Such a dialogue would, for example, allow scholars like Lavezzo, Kennedy and Truitt to engage their critics in a dialogue about anachronism. And it would, of course, allow all scholars to engage with critiques of any sort that might be leveled against their work. We believe that charges of anachronism, so often reflexive and undertheorized, have proliferated and become the fabric of reviews because the review process largely does not allow for such allegations to be challenged. As book review editors, we have published reviews that we thought merited responses, and as regular readers of book reviews, we have encountered reviews that we considered to be unfair, but the current format of most journals does not provide a forum for such a dialogue.
After the publication of a particularly mean-spirited and dismissive review of his book Translating Troy, Alex wrote to the journal’s book review editors to request the opportunity to respond. The editors refused, offering no other justification for their refusal other than “the journal has never published a response to a review in its entire history.” Alex explained that the review contained obvious mischaracterizations of the contents of his book, but to no avail. The very fact that the journal had never allowed for it in the eighty-plus years of its existence was reason enough. Mike, happily, reports a more positive experience, one that, we believe, points the way forward towards a more dynamic and positive engagement between reviewer and reviewee, and offers the chance for a more fruitful dialogue about the nature of anachronism. In Mike’s case, “Reviews in History,” an online review venue published under the auspices of the Institute of Historical Research, commissioned a review of his Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England. In their review process, the editor of the journal sends a pre-publication copy of the review to the author, offering him/her a chance to write a response. Both are then published simultaneously on the site. What results is no longer the standard monologic, authoritative diktat of the reviewer, who issues forth his/her judgment in isolation, forcing the reader to rely on the auctoritas of the reviewer in abstraction. When the author can respond to the review, a dialogue—incipient and abortive, to be sure, but a dialogue nonetheless—begins to emerge.
What would happen, we wonder, if the book review process were opened up to include more than just one reviewer’s voice? We believe efforts like “Reviews in History” are steps in the right direction, but we think more could be done. After all, many author-responses come off as sour grapes, and journals usually allow such responses on an ad hoc basis, typically when passions within a review have run high or the review was particularly salacious. More important than the author’s reply, we feel, is response from the larger scholarly community invested in the work. This commitment to including the voices of all invested readers, after all, is consistent with calls for opening up peer review more generally, a topic that Alex has addressed in a recent essay in InsideHigherEd.com. Most print journals would not be able to accommodate the sprawling format of multiple reviews and responses, but we can imagine open online formats, in which multiple reviewers could offer opinions of the book, either though annotations on open access works or through separately published reviews that would be open to commentary and response. Such a forum could also release the pressure placed on individual reviewers, distributing the responsibility to a larger number of readers. And given the current gift economy of the reviewing business, we believe such formats could relieve, rather than increase, the current burden for reviewers.
Perhaps we have failed to convict some of our readers that charges of anachronism in reviews shut down conversation precisely where it should be opened up. If that’s the case, we remain confident that a different bugbear has become problematic in the world of reviews as you see it. In other words, insert your pet peeve about reviews here, and it, too, could likely be disappeared by allowing multiple voices—including the original author’s—into the review process. Thus, it remains our hope that many, if not most, of us want to take part in a conversation about how to improve the post-publication review process. No matter what we do, we would urge all of us to recognize that we are working both within and without the Middle Ages, to embrace the delicate dance of historical scholarship, and to consider more carefully the inherent role of anachronism in our work.
Michael Johnston is an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University.
Alex Mueller is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
 Bernard Williams, “Human Rights and Relativism,” in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 62-74, at 62.
 Ulrike Schenk, Review of Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston, eds., Robert Thornton and His Books, in Anglia 134.1 (2016): 162–67, at 165–66.
 One recent exception to what we here term a resounding silence is James Simpson’s very recent and very provocative, “Not Yet: Chaucer and Anagogy,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015): 31–54. Here, Simpson proposes that we widen our sense of historicism to include not only the synchronic moment of authorship and publication, but also what Simpson terms diachronic historicism, looking at how texts are actualized in future historical unfoldings.
 Mark Alznauer, Hegel’s Theory of Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), chapter 5.
 Miranda Fricker and Michael Brady, “The Relativism of Blame,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 84 (2010): 151–77. Note that, although this essay is co-written, the part from which we here draw is authored solely by Fricker.
 Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, 2nd ed. (1981; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
 Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011).