At the Origins of Modernity : a Reformation Carrier of Violence

jamessimpsonFormerly based at the University of Cambridge, James Simpson is now Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University (Boston). He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His works concern Medieval and Renaissance English Literature. This interview shows the main stages of his intellectual journey.

Jean-Michel Dufays : In a study published 19 years ago (1), you showed that in the 12th and 14th century, medieval humanism produced very different worldviews. Could you explain your work ?

James Simpson : Depending on one’s definition, medieval humanism is either a very small, or a very large topic. If one works within the definition of Paul Kristeller (e.g. in Renaissance Thought and its Sources (1979)), it’s small. That is to say, if one defines humanism as close stylistic imitation of works of classical antiquity by scholars whose expertise lay in grammar, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy. If, by contrast, one works instead within the definition of R. W. Southern (e.g. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (1995)), it’s a very large topic. It is, that’s to say, an intellectual practice grounded on convictions about the dignity of humanity and the rational intelligibility of the cosmic and natural orders.

If one adopts the Kristellan definition, medieval humanism pales before the breadth, depth and technical accomplishment of its Renaissance counterpart. If, by contrast, one adopts the Southern-definition, medieval humanism outscales its Renaissance counterpart in variety and vigor. This medieval achievement was, however, initially obscured by the stupendously successful self-promotion of Renaissance humanist educators themselves, whose pedagogic self-promotion was successfully pitched in terms of an entire periodic description. By the time professional modern scholarship set to work in the later decades of the nineteenth century, scholars faced two related prejudices about the absence of medieval humanism : the Middle Ages were innocent of the historical sense necessary to mount a project of historical recovery ; and the intellectual culture of the Middle Ages was in any case reliant in revelation, giving a very low place to human reason.

How did medieval scholarship respond ? Either by adopting the Kristellan definition and descrying small pockets of proto-humanism. Or by adopting the broader definition and by looking to pre-Renaissances (e.g. Carolingian ; twelfth-century cathedral schools ; thirteenth-century university scholasticism). My own work in Sciences and the Self was designed to elucidate two vigorous and opposed strands of medieval humanism between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries : a Platonic and an Aristotelian tradition. Both praised reason, classical culture, and human perfectibility ; both recognized that knowing oneself was a matter of knowing the universe and vice-versa.

Thereafter they sharply diverged. I distinguish them with binary oppositions, putting the Platonic before the Aristotelian in each case :

Topics Platonic Aristotelian
Psychology Disembodied Transcendent intellect Embodied Immanent reason
Ethics Mastery of body Dialogue with body
Politics Absolutism Proto-constitutionalism
Historicism Synchronic ecology Practice of reason in time, especially through Prudence
Sociology Elitist appeal to the already educated Educatif ambition
Language preference Mannered Latin Vernacular
Poetic guide Vergil Ovid

J.-M. D. : In your opinion, the first half of the 16th century seems far from being a moment of emancipation of the mind (2). How would the epoch of Henry VIII restrain the potential of English literature of the previous two centuries ?

J.S. : Despite its size, my book Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002) had a very simple, central and consistent theme : that the institutional simplifications and centralizations of the sixteenth century provoked correlative simplifications and narrowings in literature. If literary history and criticism is, as I believe it should be, ancillary to the complex history of freedoms, then the passage from 1350 to 1550 a narrative of diminishing liberties.

The fundamental observation that drives the argument of each chapter is as follows : in the first half of the sixteenth century, a culture that simplified and centralized jurisdiction aggressively displaced a culture of jurisdictional heterogeneity. Many revolutionary moments in European history have effected a displacement of this kind, and the characteristics of such repudiation can be generalised. Sudden concentrations of cultural and political power both permit and necessitate an aggressive physical and ideological demolition of the ‘old’ order. Accordingly, such concentrations provoke cultural practices that stress the values of unity and novelty above all. The fact of a sudden historical break itself presupposes a large concentration of power.

In the shift from ‘medieval’ to the ‘early modern’, until at least the middle of the sixteenth century in England, histories of each of these fields could be written within the following contrasts, with the medieval description preceding the early modern :

  • unresolved generic juxtaposition versus attempted generic coherence ;
  • complicated accretion versus cleanness of line ;
  • development and addition versus conversion ;
  • a recognition of historical totality versus a return to originary purity that involves a rejection of large slices of intervening history ;
  • consensus versus the intelligence of central command.

Blanket terms that roughly cover these opposed sets of practices are ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ respectively. ‘Revolution’ is unproblematic, designating as it does the moment of sudden break by which imagined return to an originary moment is made. ‘Reform’ as a description of medieval cultural practice might seem problematic, precisely because the revolutionary moment claims all power of reform unto itself, committed as it is to describing the old order as immobile. The very term ‘Reformation’ makes that claim. To describe the ‘medieval’ as the culture of ‘reform’ might seem especially surprising, given the very deep-set scholarly commitments, from the sixteenth century forwards, to the notion of a culturally static middle ages. I choose the word, nevertheless, partly to emphasize the ways in which many medieval works do lean into the future with a reformist impulse, but more out of necessity. A cultural field characterized by a diverse and highly segmented set of jurisdictions will, of necessity, be a field in which different jurisdictions speak to, check, and reform others. That will, in part, be their very function.

J.-M. D. : Far from being a founding moment of liberalism, the Reformation, by getting rid of the tradition and based on a personal reading of the Bible, destroys the social and creates violence (3). Could materialist individualism of our time find its roots in the sacred violence of the 16th century ?

J.S. : Why a history of evangelical reading ? Modernity and reading are intimately bound ; the formation of one powerful strand of modernity in the sixteenth-century was, in good part, produced by a profound transformation in the way Europeans read. The simplicity and primacy of the literal sense ; and the right of the individual reader to read canonical books in freedom, without reference either to history or communities: both these foundations of a liberal reading culture, each underwritten by Luther’s conscience-driven and courageous stance against the might of an institution, are taken to be irreversible gains of the Protestant Reformation. Individual reading capacity, liberty and resistance to institutional disciplines are each foundational elements of the liberal tradition’s self-understanding. In that self-understanding, the sixteenth-century Lutheran moment is the turning point that generates what was to become the liberal tradition.

The individual reader’s freedom is so foundational, indeed, that any resistance to the idea that such freedom was indeed a sixteenth century gain is difficult to comprehend. In Burning to Read I attempt to judge the force of these foundational claims. I also seek to understand sixteenth-century resistance to the evangelical culture of the Book. I argue that the reader’s freedom is not among the gains of sixteenth century evangelical culture. What was achieved in the sixteenth century is better characterized as the origin of fundamentalism than of the liberal tradition. Contrary to the liberal tradition’s often complacent assumption that fundamentalism is reactionary and “conservative”, this book will argue instead that fundamentalism is a distinctively modern phenomenon, the inevitable product of newly impersonal and imperious forms of textuality, and of the application of ever fewer textual instruments to ever larger jurisdictions. Sixteenth-century resistance to fundamentalism was, by contrast, a civilized, meditated and partially plausible alternative modernity.

The liberal tradition’s derivation of itself from the sixteenth-century Reformation requires, in short, careful revision. The liberal tradition damagingly traces its origin, I contend, from exactly the source that in fact produced the liberal tradition’s principal enemy (e.g. fundamentalism). I generate this argument not in a spirit of dismissing the liberal tradition (far from it), so much as of provoking the liberal tradition to understand itself better and redraw its own genealogy. I would not be prepared to locate the source of materialist individualism at the door of Lutheran reading, but I would want to encourage liberals (among whom I count myself) to revise their understanding of the liberal tradition’s history.

J.-M. D. : You like shoving commonplaces. According to you, the period of the destruction of images can not be reduced to one century of British history (1538-1643) but extends to the present time at both sides of the Atlantic (4). Why ?

J.S. : The pattern of historically attested English iconoclastic activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exemplifies the unfinishable nature of the iconoclastic process. I refer to this pattern as the “kinesis of iconoclasm.” Baldly, this is how it works. The process begins with some irregular smashing of images. But iconoclasm is inevitably systematic : breaking one image necessarily implies the need to break others. Not only does an iconoclastic act rightly imply that the past had its semiotic system ; iconoclasm institutes a system of its own. So the irregular smashing of images is followed by legislated destruction of specific images to which idolatrous worship is paid.

Very soon after, however, the first legislation is seen to be ineffective, since it’s impossible to distinguish between those images that provoke idolatry and those that don’t. Clerical despair at effective means of detecting idolatry derives from the obvious fact that idolatrous practice is always, necessarily, in the eye of the clerical beholder ; as Voltaire astutely commented, no-one ever confesses to idolatry, and there can be no reliable empirical test for it. So the first wave of iconoclasm is characteristically followed by a second. This subsequent wave commands destruction of all religious images. This second wave of legislation is followed by more irregular breaking, since there are gaps left by the first waves, reminding us of the spectral presence of the image.

This is the stage where the really difficult iconoclasm must begin, once most of the material images have been systematically destroyed : after the material destruction, that is, the committed iconoclast must begin on what Francis Bacon in 1620 called “idols of the tribe,” the idols of every human mind, which by its very nature produces idols. The very intensity with which Reformation evangelicals imagined a transcendent God paradoxically, though perhaps predictably, spawned hundreds of all too material gods and idolatrous goods.

Pursued from material idols and pursued from false imaginations, however, the old gods are not yet exhausted : they now take up residence in ideology, whence they must also be chased by the enlightened critique of ideology. This is the moment at which certain forms of disenchanted art are produced, usually still, either still lives or landscapes, or, perhaps, in the case of eighteenth-century England, innocuous if self-aggrandizing portraits of self, family or horses ; later in the United States, the choice is abstract art, which is not only still but also flat. Images survive the violent passage from church to museum, just, but they bear the scars of the journey.

This apparently final stage, that of abstract art, might look like the end of iconoclasm, when the hot, localized energies of hammer-wielding anger have given way to the cool, managed, even dispersal of iconoclastic energies across space, and the silent, guarded space of the museum. But the job remains undone, since the iconoclasm of abstract, imageless art itself replays the trauma of iconoclasm and thereby reactivates the dangerous enchantment of the image. The museum itself also becomes the space of the sacred, which designation now provokes further licit iconoclasm by artists praised as “iconoclastic”.

In short, iconoclasm tries to stop time and tradition itself, by reverting to an originary, imageless state. But iconoclasm initiates its own tradition ; each attempt to stop the process feeds the process, refreshes energies, and, in many cases, produces new materials for the next iconoclastic wave.

The effects of iconoclasm continue to ripple through Anglo-American culture. Only by traversing boundaries between the late medieval and the Early Modern, and between the Enlightenment and the twentieth century, can we understand how images are capable of activating such intense and violent response, a response that is designed to separate one historical period from another. We remain locked in ignorance or short-sightedness if we remain within any one of these periods.

J.-M. D. : On your classes Website, I read : « Across the period 700-1700, the shapes of British culture were absorbed from different centers of Western Europe. The cultural forms are conflicted among themselves, and conflicted across time »(5). Is 1700 really the limit of a time… before the Enlightenment ?

J.S. : In brief, the cultural forms of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century evangelical modernity are as follows : domination of the positivist, literalist written, universally and evenly applicable across a jurisdiction, however large ; unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects ; correlative surveillance systems ; and the ideal of a laity having universally absorbed punishing disciplines. (The process we label “secularization” is in the first instance a transfer of monastic and clerical religious disciplines to the laity, rather than a process of disenchantment.) All these key features of revolutionary evangelical modernity continued to be characteristic of revolutionary cultures, whether in France, Russia, China, or Cambodia (for example).

In my view these revolutionary cultural forms produced extraordinary and durable revolutionary violence. In the case of England, the Enlightenment is not produced directly out of sixteenth-century evangelical culture, but rather in opposition to it. Protestantism is inherently a dissenting and therefore a dynamic tradition. It dissents even from the idea of tradition itself, forever repudiating its own history, or defining that tradition as a non-tradition of the True Church. One important strand of Protestantism – the one that led to the Enlightenment – is therefore not itself exempt from the dynamic of its own dissent : by 1688 this strand of Protestant culture had, by reversal, dissented the main, original Reformation tenets (e.g. predestination ; denial of free will ; repudiation of reason, scriptura sola ; political quietism) out of all recognition. Real revolutions (e.g. the Reformation in England ; the French Revolution) tend to take 150 years or so to settle down. In the case of the English Reformation, however, the “settling down” consisted of reversal. Another strand of Protestantism – the one of faith alone to Calvin in particular – remained instead true to the absolutist and positivist traditions of evangelical, absolutist modernity.

Many theologians, political theorists, and literary authors could see that the punishing, schismatic, absolutely self-convinced evangelical program was unsustainable in its own terms. Apart from anything else, it produced internal despair and external warfare. It needed resources brought from outside religious discourse to stabilize and transform it. The Enlightenment, in short, comes into being as a contradictory cousin to evangelical modernity. 1688 is a convenient moment in English cultural history to date its beginning, even if its historical roots are much deeper.


  1. « Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry : Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus and John Gower’s Confessio Ammantis ». Cambridge University Press, 1995
  2. « 1350-1547 : Reforme and Cultural Revolution » in « Oxford English Literary History, vol.2 ». Oxford University Press, 2002.
  3. « Burning to Read : English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents ». Harvard University Press, 2007.
  4. « Under the Hammer : Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition ». Oxford University Press, 2010.
  5. Consulted on 11/8/13.