Why Stephen Greenblatt Is Wrong — and Why It Matters

ONE YEAR AGO THIS MONTH, Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt stepped to the podium at the Cipriani Club in New York City to accept the National Book Award for nonfiction. Greenblatt won for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, a 356-page study of the transformative cultural power wielded by an ancient Latin poem called De Rerum Natura by a first-century BC Epicurean philosopher named Titus Lucretius Caro. Holding back tears, Greenblatt thanked, among other people, his publishers at W.W. Norton for committing to “the insane idea that they could sell a book about the discovery of an ancient poem by a Renaissance humanist to more than a handful of people.” In fact, by the time Greenblatt addressed the Cipriani Club’s gold-domed ballroom, The Swerve already had spent more than a month on the New York Times bestseller list, just as had Greenblatt’s previous book, Will in the World, a Shakespeare biography that came close to winning its own National Book Award (it was a finalist). Five months later, The Swerve won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The book remains a strong seller on Amazon.

Clearly, The Swerve spoke to far more than a handful of people. But as American book lovers gear up for another awards season — the National Book Award this month, followed by the PEN/Faulkner Award in March, then the Pulitzers in April — the acclaim showered on Greenblatt’s book about the discovery of an ancient poem raises profound questions about just what these awards really mean. Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies. That such a book could win two of America’s highest literary honors suggests something doesn’t work in the awards system itself.

The Swerve, in fact, is two books, one deserving of an award, the other not. The first book is an engaging literary detective story about an intrepid Florentine bibliophile named Poggio Braccionlini, who, in 1417, stumbled upon a 500-year-old copy of De Rerum Natura in a German monastery and set the poem free from centuries of neglect to work its intellectual magic on the world. This Swerve, brimming with vivid evocations of Renaissance papal court machinations and a fascinating exploration of Lucretius’s influence on luminaries ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci, to Galileo, to Thomas Jefferson, is wonderful.

The second Swerve is an anti-religious polemic. According to this book, the lucky fate of De Rerum Natura is a proxy for the much more consequential story of how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism. “Many of [De Rerum Natura’s] core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed,” Greenblatt writes in The Swerve. “Almost every one of the work’s key principles was an abomination to right-thinking Christian orthodoxy.” In other words, The World Became Modern when it learned to stop believing in God and start believing in itself. Here’s how Greenblatt describes the epic transformation Lucretius helped bring about:

Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body. […] The transformation was not sudden or once-for-all, but it became increasingly possible to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and immaterial causes and to focus instead on things in this world; to understand that humans are made of the same stuff as everything else and are part of the natural order; to conduct experiments without fearing that one is infringing on God’s jealously guarded secrets; to question authorities and challenge received doctrines; to legitimate the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; to imagine that there are other worlds beside the one that we inhabit; to entertain the thought that the sun is only one star in an infinite universe; to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul. In short, it became possible — never easy, but possible — in the poet Auden’s phrase to find the mortal world enough.

Lucretius’s role in this cultural revolution was to inject, with a flavoring of poetic wonder, the idea that God and religious faith not only are unnecessary for personal fulfillment but in fact are incompatible with human happiness and the pursuit of truth. Among the influential themes Greenblatt finds in De Rerum Natura: there is no God, no gods, no creator of the universe; all religions are invariably cruel; the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain; the chief enemy of pleasure is not pain but delusion.

Prior to the revival of such insights, according to The Swerve, western Europe endured a long, suffocating era dominated by an obscurantist, pleasure-hating religious ideology. Greenblatt’s characterization of the Middle Ages, scattered throughout The Swerve, is summed up in an article he wrote for The New Yorker shortly before the book was published. The article synthesizes various passages from The Swerve:

It is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing. As the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity became ascendant, as cities decayed, trade declined, and an anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the ancient system of education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work, scribes were no longer given manuscripts to copy. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books. Lucretius’s poem, so incompatible with any cult of the gods, was attacked, ridiculed, burned, or ignored, and, like Lucretius himself, eventually forgotten.

The idea of pleasure and beauty that the work advanced was forgotten with it. Theology provided an explanation for the chaos of the Dark Ages: human beings were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. God cared about human beings, just as a father cared about his wayward children, and the sign of that care was anger. It was only through pain and punishment that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation. A hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife: these were death knells of everything Lucretius represented.

This is a powerful vision of the world entering a prolonged period of cultural darkness. If it were true, then Greenblatt’s second Swerve, the anti-religious polemic, also would deserve every award and plaudit it won. However, Greenblatt’s vision is not true, not even remotely. As even a general reader can gather from a text as basic as Cambridge University historian George Holmes’ Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (published in 1988 and still available on Amazon): “Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other substantial portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries.” Greenblatt’s caricatured Middle Ages might have passed muster with Enlightenment-era historians. Present-day scholarship, especially the findings of archeologists and specialists in church and social history, tells a vastly more complicated, interesting and indeterminate story.

I’m at a loss to explain how two distinguished prize juries managed to overlook the fact that The Swerve’s animating thesis is at best “questionable,” and at worst “unwarranted,” as Renaissance historian John Monfasani put it this summer in the online journal Reviews in History. Still, to make clear the extent of The Swerve’s errors, I’ll go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point. First, it may be true that “it is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing.” But that didn’t happen in medieval Europe. Indeed the Middle Ages are considered Europe’s most bookish era, a time when books — Christian, Greek and Roman alike — were accorded near totemic authority. Medieval readers and writers (not just clergy — lay culture was widely influenced by texts and documents, especially following the 10th century) were apt to believe anything they read in an old book just because it was old and from a book. This was especially true if the book happened to be by a writer like Lucretius, a classical author whose words therefore automatically carried the imprimatur of truth.

There are declines in written evidence during the centuries immediately following the wane of Rome but that’s not because medieval people suddenly became illiterate or bullied by Church culture police. Rather, during those centuries Europe was a primary destination for waves of migration from the interior of Asia and regions east of the Baltic Sea. Most of these migratory peoples preserved their cultural memories orally and so they did not pay attention to books while plundering medieval monasteries, where most libraries were located. Nevertheless it did not take long for these peoples to assimilate to written culture. Anglo-Saxon England, colonized from the sixth century primarily by waves of illiterate Germanic tribes was within decades considered Europe’s finest center of book production, home to such gorgeous volumes as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Along these lines it is simply untrue to assert that classical culture was ever lost, ignored or suppressed during the Middle Ages. As Garry Wills noted last month in The New York Review of Books (reviewing the latest publication by Augustine biographer Peter Brown): it is a “discredited […] myth […] that the Roman Empire (but only in the West) ‘fell’ overnight when barbarians invaded and brought it down. The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages.” Writers throughout the medieval period read, copied and were profoundly influenced by texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The earliest manuscript of the Metamorphoses dates from the ninth century, as do the two earliest copies of De Rerum Natura. In fact, as Cambridge classicist Michael Reeve pointed out five years ago in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, scholars have long detected “Lucretian influence in north-Italian writers of the ninth to eleventh century, in the Paduan pre-humanists about 1300, in Dante, and in Petrarch and Bocaccio.” Greenblatt cites the Cambridge Companion numerous times in his endnotes. Did he read it?

Greek learning was similarly influential during the Middle Ages. Greek texts, brought by Muslim and Jewish scholars who had rediscovered thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle in libraries in Mesopotamia, began filtering into Europe almost immediately following eighth-century Muslim conquests in Spain and Asia Minor. By the 12th century, Aristotle was widely known to European scholars, and major theologians such as Thomas Aquinas spent the 13th century attempting to form a grand synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought. Chaucer, at the end of his poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in the late 1300s, sends his poem off to seek its fortune at the feet of “Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Statius.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a weird and wonderful poem written probably by a late-14th-century clergyman for the entertainment of a rural gentry household in the northwest of England, begins with an account of the fall of Troy.

Equally untrue is Greenblatt’s claim that medieval culture was characterized by “a hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage and an obsession with the afterlife.” I know Greenblatt has read Chaucer. He’s quoted from him in numerous books. Has he forgotten the ribald pleasure-seeking in The Canterbury Tales? What about the 13th-century French courtly love epic The Romance of the Rose? The twelfth-century Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes? I find no rage in Dante’s complex vision of human morality and providential grace in the Divine Comedy. Nor do I detect an ounce of asceticism in the ravishing unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters Museum in New York. Or in the rose window in Chartres. Or in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Or in the gracious courts of the Alhambra.

Similarly, it is a gross distortion to describe medieval people as “an anxious populace” scanning “the horizon for barbarian armies.” By “barbarian” Greenblatt presumably means the Goths, Vikings and other non-western-European peoples who migrated out of Asia and the Baltic regions beginning in the first century. Scholars of Late Antiquity know that this process of migration was primarily characterized by gradual colonization and assimilation, not decisive battles fought by bloodthirsty hordes. (The battles get more prominent mention in written sources but archeology tells a different story.) One of those hordes, otherwise known as the Normans (or “North-Men”), migrated from Scandinavia first to northern France, then to England, and finally to Sicily, where beginning in the 11th century they founded a kingdom that went on to become one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan centers. Medieval Sicily was a thriving melting pot of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Along with Spain, Constantinople and the cities of northern Italy, it formed one of the main conduits to medieval Europe for the riches of Islamic civilization, riches that include many of the scientific and cultural advancements Greenblatt erroneously traces to early modern Europe. Perhaps Greenblatt could have written about this Sicilian Swerve. But then of course he’d have had to open up his account of the Middle Ages to a far more complex story of multiple swerves, connections and continuities. He’d have had to find a new name for his book. He’d have had to write a different book altogether.

The Swerve, however, is what we got. And nothing in its depiction of the Middle Ages is as tellingly wrong as its bizarre excursus into the practice of medieval monastic self-flagellation. About a third of the way through The Swerve Greenblatt suddenly begins quoting various passages, mostly from medieval saint’s lives (notoriously unreliable as historical evidence), that describe the kind of self-scourging familiar to viewers of medieval film noir — Hollywood blockbusters such as “The Name of the Rose” or “The Da Vinci Code.” These lurid accounts culminate in the claim that “a vast body of evidence confirms that such theaters of pain […] were widespread in the Middle Ages.” A check of the endnotes shows that Greenblatt cites no such “vast body of evidence” and of course he doesn’t. There is no evidence because self-flagellation was not widespread in the Middle Ages. Not in homes, not in churches, not even in monasteries. In fact medieval monasteries were among the least religious and most worldly institutions of their time. Like modern research universities, medieval monasteries were wealthy centers of learning and power whose leaders rotated into and out of careers in secular government. Waves of monastic reform efforts testify to a perennial complaint in the Middle Ages that religious authorities, far from enforcing an ascetic, pleasure-hating discipline, in fact were too luxurious, too cozy with the rich, too willing to dispense with their religious vows.

I mention the self-flagellants because — in a touch worthy of Greenblatt himself — this particular tic in The Swerve turns out to be key to unlocking both the book’s underlying worldview and the reason that worldview won such praise. Here is Greenblatt on the whippers:

The ordinary self-protective, pleasure-seeking impulses of the lay public could not hold out against the passionate convictions and overwhelming prestige of their spiritual leaders. Beliefs and practices that had been the preserve of religious specialists, men and women set apart from the vulgar, everyday imperatives of the “world,” found their way into the mainstream, where they thrived in societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria. What was once in effect a radical counterculture insisted with remarkable success that it represented the core values of all believing Christians.

Greenblatt, as I mentioned, does not cite any primary sources attesting to widespread medieval self-flagellation, so I don’t know where he got this idea. What I’m more interested in is the notion that such asceticism represented “the core values of all believing Christians” in the Middle Ages. In fact no serious scholar would claim to know what “the core values of all believing Christians” were, in the Middle Ages or in any other period, because historical sources never yield enough unambiguous information to make such overstated claims. And yet it is here, where his evidence is weakest, that Greenblatt lays most stress in his argument. And of course he does, because The Swerve is a story about transformation and triumph. And without a caricatured Middle Ages of self-hating religious dogmatists Greenblatt has no clean-cut transformation and no clean-cut triumph. The complex truth about medieval Europe, indeed about all historical periods — that pleasure and pain, love and hate, faith and doubt, curiosity and stupidity, superstition and rationality, existed everywhere and at all times in complex and varying measure — is not so easily packaged as a narrative and so is less likely to top bestseller lists. But that doesn’t absolve Greenblatt of responsibility for getting his facts right. Unless, of course, that wasn’t his goal.

It wasn’t. If Greenblatt remained one of the “tenured radicals” he once was accused of being (by no less a scold than George Will), The Swerve might have told readers that notions such as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are little better than shorthand for arbitrarily bracketed periods of time in which certain changes in the pattern of human life are interpreted as significant and others are not. It might have enumerated the costs of so-called modernity, and the continuities from the past that sustain it, alongside the justifiably celebrated developments. It might have noted that many of the supposed religious values scorned by Lucretius — faith, self-sacrifice, an identity shaped not by individual desire but by family and community — remain widespread in western and non-western cultures and are in no way inimical to human freedom and progress. A truly radical book might have left readers feeling more challenged by the past, less quick to pass judgment and more able to find value in ways of life alien to their own.

Instead, The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past. It’s no accident, I think, that The Swerve’s imagined Middle Ages bears a strong resemblance to America’s present era of superstitious know-nothing-ism. Or that Lucretius’s secular, principled-pleasure-minded values bear an equally strong resemblance to the values of Greenblatt’s cultural peers — including, presumably, the jurors who awarded him two national literary prizes. The Swerve presents itself as a work of literary history. But really it is a salvo in the culture wars; an effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society.

Writing shortly after The Swerve was published, The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda panned Greenblatt’s book as a shallow, derivative “non-fiction potboiler.” Dirda wrote that he couldn’t put his finger on why exactly The Swerve “rubbed me wrong.” I can think of a reason. Unlike other non-fiction potboilers, The Swerve claimed for itself, and received, huge moral and cultural authority it simply didn’t earn. Armed with that authority, the book went on to fool unsuspecting readers (like a reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who called The Swerve “a chapter in how we became what we are”) into believing that Lucretius, who wrote of placidly watching others suffer secure in the knowledge that all phenomena in the universe are merely a wondrous rearrangement of atoms, somehow symbolizes all that is bright and new in the origin of modern life. (This latter point is developed at length in Morgan Meis’s review of The Swerve in the journal n+1.) Greenblatt obviously admires Lucretius. And, as he wrote in a brief rebuttal to John Monfasani in Reviews in History, “I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance.” That’s marvelous. But it doesn’t give Greenblatt the right to make stuff up. I would like to think that when America’s literary lions gather to award their best and brightest they are looking for robust factual engagement with the messy complexities of human life, not just intellectual self-congratulation. The honors heaped on The Swerve make me wonder.

I once had a teacher at Berkeley named Robert Brentano, a historian of medieval Europe whose mind crackled with all the restlessness and complexity The Swerve lacks. In an afterword to his most famous book, Two Churches, a study of English and Italian churchmen in the 13th century, Brentano wrote of his desire to dispense with narrative in history altogether. The best historical writing, he wrote, can present “a series of images and ideas whole, clear, bright, and let the transition occur, as it should, without the dullness of written words. Without words, transition becomes beautiful. If I ever have enough nerve, I shall write history completely without transition.”

This awards season I’m rooting for ideas whole, clear and bright. Writing with the nerve to say what’s true. History without transition.