We hold empty names

“Toen de wereld vijf eeuwen jonger was, hadden alle levensgevallen veel scherper uiterlijke vormen dan nu.”

“When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now.”

Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) in Payton and Mammitzsch’s English translation, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1996).

“Nomina nuda tenemus.” We hold empty names. Umberto Eco quoting Bernard of Cluny.

I’ve been rereading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a novel that when it appeared in William Weaver’s translation in 1983 completely baffled me. I was in my teens and the book was beyond my comprehension. I had had enough Latin to get through the snippets and passages in Latin here and there, but not much else, not until I found Adele Haft’s Key to The Name of the Rose in the late eighties, but even then Eco continued to elude me. Almost thirty years later, Eco holds up, his erudition a challenge still. I remain impressed. His detective novel captivated my imagination, encouraging me to try and understand the Middle Ages.

One of the first things I discovered was that the term “Middle Ages” is a modern, muddy term, and that scholars are divided as to when the period began and ended. The consensus is that the “Middle Ages” began in the late fifth century and ended somewhere in the sixteenth century. I selected the Huizinga quote because Huizinga’s was one of the first books I had read about the medieval period, and also because the first translation of his book serves as a critical warning to readers of translated works, a point that Payton and Mammitzsch make clear in the introductory essay. I’ll add that my own thirty years of further life experience since reading Eco and Huizinga has confirmed for me that no period of time has clear, distinct boundaries. There are no “sharper outlines.” We think that we see them but they’re nothing but an illusion of the intellect: the details are lost in the distance of time.

Huizinga’s volume of medieval studies, Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, appeared in Dutch in 1919 and in English in 1924. The English title was The Waning of the Middle Ages.  Subsequently, translations into German and French were published. A new English translation appeared in 1996, claiming that both the German and French editions were superior to the 1924 English translation, and that the 1924 English edition had been severely glossed and rearranged, thereby altering the original argument. I did not base my understanding of the Middle Ages on one book, but the sin of omission of that first English-language left me feeling misled. The consequences of the shoddy translation and distortion of the author’s ideas are a misunderstanding of cultural history, and a skewed perception of an admirable man and scholar.

Huizinga is considered outdated today. His original contribution to knowledge was his reconstruction of daily medieval life in the Lowland countries, those Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg. The Netherlands was the only other European country that featured a local (and parallel) artistic Renaissance, independent from (or not so dependent on) Italy; the role of the Netherlands was pivotal in the development of modern capitalism, modern science, and the modern idea of a pluralistic society. Somehow that all had ended up lost in translation.

English-speaking readers never knew that a selective translation had altered the history of the period and, consequently, a scholar’s reputation. Unfortunately, it still happens. In Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon a proofreader inserts “not” in proofing a scholar’s retelling of Portugal’s national saga. The rest of the novel is about the untold consequences. Does misunderstanding and mistranslating a work happen often? Since Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) is a perennial favorite for both readers and theatergoers, I’ll point out that both the Charles Wilbour (1862) and Norman Denny (1976) translations are abridged translations, each of which excludes up to 100,000 words of the original text. It is a big deal.

For the record, the Fahnestock and MacAfee (1987) and Rose (2009) translations of Les Misérables for Signet and Modern Library, respectively, are unabridged. Differences in translations aside, English readers from 1860 to 1987 had been at the mercy of publishers and translators, unless they had learned French and read the novel in the original. From 1860 to 1987…that’s 127 years, readers had not read the full-scale epic as Hugo had intended it.

The translators had chosen not to translate Hugo’s commentaries on Waterloo, French currency, and daily Parisian life, because they considered it excessive and distracting, arguing that Hugo’s prolix exposition slowed down the plot. I do not think that Hugo would have thought that his description of the brutality of the cavalry charge and saber- slashing to be superfluous. Jean Valjean’s search for bread happens during an economic depression. It would seem that Director Tom Hooper had indeed read an unabridged text of the novel. A recent entertainment magazine described his adaptation of Les Misérables. The attention to details, to the poverty and stench of Paris, had overwhelmed the actors.

Huizinga would suffer another terrible fate. Readers might appreciate the irony that Huizinga and Marc Bloch, another medieval historian, had both fought against the Nazis. Huizinga had fought with essays and pamphlets. Bloch had been part of the French Resistance. Huizinga had been put into a concentration camp but survived. Bloch did not: a Nazi firing squad executed him. Huizinga was 73; Bloch was 57 years old.

In the Eighties, with both my baffling Eco text and the distortion that was the Hopman translation from 1924 translation in hand, I set about teaching myself what I could about the “Middle Ages.” I had already had a history class, Ancient History, a survey from the cavemen of Lescaux to Galileo. My sophomore year was a dedicated yearlong course, “European History,” which took me from the Renaissance to the “early modern state.” My junior year was “American History.” In my senior year I elected to take “Art History.” It was then, as I studied the art of northern Europe in Art History that I recognized the value of Huizinga’s study, even in its mangled form.

Through my exposure to the Van Eycks, Rogier, Pieter Bruegel,and others, I had begun to get a glimpse at a reality: that the focus on English and French medieval history of was biased and limiting, and that Huizinga’s focus on the Lowlands was not weird, as I had been led to believe and, to my dismay, conclude. I should mention that Professor Catherine Scallen’s Teaching Company course discusses the Art of the Northern Renaissance. I should also mention that Huizinga, like Eco, is difficult reading; both are challenging, for different reasons. Neither author spoon-feeds his reader. The Name of the Rose appeared without a gloss until 1987. Huizinga, for example, assumed that you knew all about the Battle of Crécy.

Not long before I took my MA in Medieval Studies, Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages had been published. Cantor’s book provided readers with an idiosyncratic survey of medieval scholars and their methodologies, along with his poisonous recriminations and remembrances of scholars he knew, admired, or outright disliked. If you are thinking of medievalists as fuddy-duddy cardigan-wearing old men, then think again. Joseph Strayer, under whom Cantor and nearly every important North American medievalist had studied, was an influential architect of the CIA, while Charles Homer Haskins, Strayer’s mentor, had advised Woodrow Wilson on the Treaty of Versailles. Inventing the Middle Ages was, for me, a cautionary candlelit tour of academic politics.

Cantor chastised and dismissed Huizinga. As a result, Huizinga was considered quaint survey reading for learning historiography in graduate school. I suspect Cantor had read the 1924 Hopman English translation, but I wonder whether he had read either of the superior translations into French or German. Had he read those, I think that Cantor’s assessment of Huizinga would have been different. A medievalist of Cantor’s generation would have known Latin, French, and German. I can tell you from personal observation that many post-doctoral students today take their degrees without knowing Latin or supporting languages well.

Middle Ages…What does that even mean? When did it begin and when did it end? Did the Middle Ages begin with Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 A.D. or when Odoacer took the Roman imperial throne in 476 A.D.? Did the Middle Ages end with the Church’s condemnation in 1277 of Aristotle for his having paraphrasing Arab scholars? That was Étienne Gilson’s argument, Haft reminds reader. Did the thousand-year era end with the Black Death (1347-50)? Perhaps, they ended with The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Or did the Middle Ages end in 1544 when the English Parliament had made Henry VIII a “Defender of the Anglican Faith.” Or should we look to the early 17th century, to 1622, with the publication of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore (The Assayer)? The scientific method, together with Descartes’s ‘esprit de finesse,’ is the foundation of the scientific view of reality, as Heidegger would put it.

How do we classify historical interpretation? Is it subjective, objective, or selective? Everybody knows the Battle of Hastings. The battle is important because it set down the flagstones for the future Anglo-Saxon culture that culminated with Elizabeth and Empire. What about the Battle of Legnano in 1167? Without the victory of the Italian Comuni against the Holy Empire, there would be no flourishing of Italian culture (Dante, Boccaccio, Giotto) that made the Renaissance possible. The Renaissance is modern history. The Reformation is the precursor to “modern thought.” But can we separate ‘medieval’ and ‘renaissance’ like egg white from the yolk?

Banks and universities, for example, are only but two of the many medieval inventions that still influence western culture today (and therefore the world’s culture). Although largely flawed in execution, the Italian comuni (and their replicas scattered throughout central Europe, such as Germany’s Hansa free cities) were Europe’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the Roman Republic. There were no communes, or, if there were, they had very limited powers, in the feudal kingdoms of England, France, or Castile.

Another misunderstood moment of critical importance (especially in comparison with the almost contemporaneous discovery or re-discovery of America) is the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 that established a steady Islamic presence in the Mediterranean basin and on European soil (in Greece and in the Balkans, in particular). A by-product of the Fall of Constantinople was the massive exile of Byzantine intellectuals to the West and into Florence, which prompted the rediscovery of ancient Greece – one of the pillars of the Renaissance next to the return to classical Latin language and literature; and to this Christian-Islamic confrontation we should add the Spanish Reconquista, which is similar to Hastings in that it laid down the foundation for the subsequent Spanish Empire and, to a lesser extent, the Norman conquest of Arab Sicily.

As for “selective history” and inherent cultural biases, we know about the expulsion of the Puritans from England, but have we overlooked the significance of Commodore Matthew Perry’s forcing Japan to open her ports to westerners in 1852? Half a century later, the Japanese would defeat the Russians in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war; for Europeans at the turn of the century, this was a profound cultural shock. It was the first time in centuries that a European power had lost a war to a non-white army. Forty years later, Japan would dare challenge the U.S. In continuing the East and West parallel, there is Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign for India’s independence from the British Crown. It was the first war in world history to be won with nonviolence.

That the medieval period was considered “dark” and “ignorant” is wrong on both counts. It was the Renaissance, the era that gave us torture and witchcraft trials, that created the term ‘Middle Ages’, seen as an interval between the brightness of classical antiquity and its restoration in the 15th-16th century. Also belonging to the Renaissance is the reinterpretation of the term ‘Gothic’ as ‘barbarian,’ while the term is better spelled as ‘Gotic’ because it comes from the late Latin ‘Goetia,’ meaning ‘magic,’ and alludes to the esoteric knowledge inherent in Gothic architecture.

In nineteenth-century Europe, Europe was Greece; and America was the Magna Graecia/Rome. The rest of the world was implicitly barbaric. A ‘barbarian’ in antiquity was someone who was not a citizen and who did not speak the language. Today, ‘barbarian’ still denotes someone who is not ‘civilized.’ World War I posters depicted Germans as Asiatic Huns. I would venture to say that what we know today a ‘terrorist’ are the contemporary equivalent of ‘barbarian,’ because they lack rational discourse and choose irrational, political action. The perception is that they are backward, violent, and lacking in sophistication. In the ‘modern’ context a ‘barbarian’ is anyone who does not accept the scientific and technological birthright of the Renaissance and its sociopolitical expression, including financial capitalism.

This may sound far-reaching, but misinterpreting and mistranslating history has dire consequences. The injustice to Huizinga is that his study of the Low Countries was not seen within the context of the development of modern Europe because of the selective translation that shaped the interpretation. Yet, ‘medieval’ remains a disparaging term because it is seen as ignorant, as misogynistic, too religious and therefore superstitious.  Understanding contextual history is crucial. None other than Luther cursed “the whore, Reason,” because Mind can be deceived and it can deceive others through the constructs it creates. Medieval scholarship believed in the authority of texts and in a continuity of tradition. Embedded hyperlinks in online documents is a variation of a medieval text. The internet as a web is a medieval concept realized. The Reformation would revisit this inter-textual tradition but usurp agreed interpretation and replace it with ‘personal revelation.’

It might seem a matter of semantics, but it is more than that. American society, for example, sees democracy as a cultural norm, and as rational as the sun rising in the west and setting in the east. Yet, in the nineteenth century, American advocates for slavery rationalized slavery with equal ease, citing Genesis 9:25-27 for their argument. This argument, in essence, was ‘medieval’ in that it presumed a ‘natural order’ and used the authority of a text, the Bible. Racial differences were God’s proof that men were not equal. The nineteenth’s favorite term for “the other” was ‘savage.’ The ‘natural-order argument’ not only aided and abetted eugenics, laws on racial discrimination and miscegenation, and other injustices; it was the major foundation for Nazi genocide and the defense argument at the Nuremberg trials. Again, mistranslation and misunderstanding.

Mistranslating history is of consequence because more than nuance is lost. Historical distance suggests ‘sharper outlines’ where none existed: Huizinga was wrong about those “outlines.” Mistranslating and misunderstanding should make us think about the words we use daily. In America, we live in a ‘republic’ but call it a ‘democracy.’ Contextually and historically, a ‘Republic’ is an alternative to ‘Kingdom,’ or ‘Empire,’ while ‘democracy’ is alternative to ‘aristocracy,’ or ‘oligarchy.’ A republic may or may not be democratic; a democracy may or may not be a republic. The U.K. and Spain are kingdoms but they are democracies. Most European states are both republics and democracies, whereas Iran is a republic but not a democracy, according to our standards. The U.S. could be interpreted as an aristocratic republic, similar to Venice, and not a ‘real’ democracy, yet Grecian democracy was an aristocratic democracy. The proverbial twist to all this is that Mussolini’s Fascists labeled western democracies as ‘plutocracies’ (governments of money) and tried to implement an alternative model. That should make you wonder why Capitalism allied with Communism to overthrow Fascism in World War II.

‘Medieval’ is still with us and not just in popular culture and cultural institutions and practices. Ending a political speech with, ‘God bless the United States of America’ is ‘medieval’ in spirit and quite antagonistic to the principles of the Enlightenment. Apparently, God did not start showing up at the end of presidential speeches until after FDR. Voltaire and his contemporaries, the philosophes, would have thrown down their powdered wigs and screamed. Jefferson protested too much about God. They hadn’t been mistranslated; they had been misinterpreted. We had misunderstood history. Modern history.

That world power is still predicated on the ideology of images, and alleged divine fiat, is also quite medieval. Thirty years after first reading and struggling with The Name of the Rose, I see that Eco’s rose is about his views on language, the opera aperta, the open work of sense and meaning in the signs around us. In the end, Eco says through his famous concluding quote and its multiple textual associations in medieval texts, we have only the name for the rose and, punning on the Latin word ‘to hold,’ we hold or grasp bare names for the object, the story of history, that we wish to comprehend.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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