Historicism: Six Theses /Larry Scanlon


Historicism: Six Theses

Larry Scanlon, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ


I generally agree with Paul Strohm’s critique that new historicism ‘was not . . . nearly historical enough’ (Strohm, 2010, 380). However, I want to add a small complication for the purposes of taking this point in a slightly different direction. Critiques of historicism have been circulating in Middle English circles for quite some time (a decade at least, arguably longer than that). In these critiques, the term historicism typically does double duty. It describes both the newer sociohistoricisms that came to dominate the field in the 1980s and 1990s and the more philologically oriented historicism that has constituted something like ‘normal science’ in medieval studies since the middle of the nineteenth century.1 As a result of this conflation, the newer historicisms have often been criticized for assumptions more proper to the older one. While the newer historicisms may well have retained some of these assumptions in residual form, focusing on them alone meant the critiques generally missed sociohistoricism’s most challenging and provocative features. These were its engagement with politics and theory, followed by its attempts to rework the interpretive protocols of formalism to fit the ideological and philosophical temper of the later medieval culture. Strikingly, the return to history among medievalists was driven from the beginning by a robust and unprecedented attention to the formal specificities of later medieval poetry. (Here Strohm and I may somewhat disagree: see his remarks on Nolan and Wolfson in Strohm, 2010, 384.) Poetry long treated as simple, transparent vessels of self-explanatory medieval traditions — be they the works of Gower, Hoccleve, Lydgate and others, or the less celebrated works of Chaucer — were finally accorded the nuanced interpretations their complexities warranted.

As Strohm aptly notes, the newer historicisms have now begun to falter, and now are ‘getting the unceremonious bum’s rush’ (Strohm, 2010, 380). The irony is that in Middle English studies they have faltered largely because they have proved so easy for the older historicism to assimilate, and it has assimilated them precisely by eschewing their political and theoretical imperatives and reincorporating everything else as its own. If anything, this older mode of historicism is stronger than it’s ever been. Most of the recent critiques of historicism fail to recognize the specificities of this older mode, and have little to say to it. In that sense, they fail to be anti-historicist enough. That also means that for those still interested in the medieval past as a political and theoretical problem, there is still plenty left to do, whether one decides to label such work as historicist or not. Here follow some of my own suggestions. For the sake of brevity, I put them in the form of theses rather than a sustained argument:

1. Literary scholars too often conflate historicism with the discipline of history, or, even worse, with history itself as an object of study.

Obviously, these are category mistakes. Historicism as practiced in literary studies consists of a highly particular set of themes and procedures largely specific to the discipline of literary studies alone. In this sense, historicism has only tangential relations to the discipline of history. More importantly, the privileged access to historical realities historicism often claims is by no means self-evident.

2. Historicism without theory tends to disintegrate into antiquarianism.

In its resurgent form, historicism in literary studies typically consisted of an eclectic mix of philology, formalism, and theory, generally accompanied by episodic, highly mediated forays into social and intellectual history. As the theory itself was typically politically inflected it provided a crucial counterbalance to formalism’s idealizing tendencies. Theory forced formalism to engage once again with the protocols of philology, an interlocutor formalism had long considered entirely superseded. The problem is that as the influence of theory has waned, the philological strain has taken the theoretical deconstruction of formalism for granted without bothering to offer anything in its place, returning us in some cases to the worst conceptual incoherences of philology in its original, late Victorian form. To make in different terms a point made long ago by Wimsatt and Brooks: philology is an extremely rigorous form of thinking within the confines of manuscript study, where it depends on compelling and counterintuitive principles like shared error and difficilior lectio. But when it moves beyond those confines it exchanges the rigorous for the simplistic and obvious. It has no coherent theory of representation and only the most naive account of authorial intention.

3. As an interpretive practice located in a single discipline historicism cannot avoid literary scholarship’s object of study. That object is the canon.

The basic question for the historian is ‘what happened?’ For a literary scholar, the basic question is ‘what is a particular text trying to say?’ Obviously, as basic questions go this one is highly mediated and must assume judgments of value and significance even to be asked. Melancholy as it might seem, for literary studies a shared canon is a structural necessity. One might continually contest a canon’s scope or its boundaries or even its constitution but I don’t think one can ever evade its necessity. For that reason current complaints about the hegemony of Chaucer or Middle English poetry itself, in the name of some more equitable, more representative cultural reality, whether that be less ‘literary’ texts like hagiography or the liturgy, or Anglo-Norman or Anglo-Latin tradition strike me as self-defeating.

4. Any historicism that seeks to subordinate its interpretive practices to a text’s immediate historical context, or to the ideology of the text’s historical moment, will always end up chasing its own tail.

This point seems so obvious to me as to need no further elaboration. Or — to put the matter in slightly less confrontational terms — to the extent that it is not obvious, it would require a demonstration well beyond the limits of this response. So I will move on to a corollary.

5. Any historicism which makes historical plausibility the central criterion in evaluating interpretation implicitly declares that the author or text in question has nothing to teach us.

Historicists are caught in a double bind. They want to know how a particular text relates to its historical moment. That requires them to have some notion of the range of the possibilities which the moment allows. Yet what if the text seems to operate beyond that range? To reject this new possibility in the name of the plausible is to make the plausible the certain and to make medieval culture all center with no margin.

6. Historicism is a hermeneutic, not a mode of historical analysis.

This proposition is meant only to make the obvious point that historicism is a form of interpretation and not a unified methodology. I use the term hermeneutic to remind us of the religious past that haunts all literary interpretation and whose specter must loom particularly large for literary medievalists. Interpretation has a freedom that methodologies don’t. But freedom also means responsibility. If historicism really is facing its end, what are its responsibilities: to seek to know with certainty the alterity of the past, or to seek to encounter that alterity precisely in its uncertainty?


1.Readers will note that after the first sentence I have studiously avoided the term new historicism, at the risk of a certain amount of terminological awkwardness. The fact is few if any of the Middle English scholars generally considered new historicists actually claimed that label. For a representative discussion see Patterson, 1990, 1–14.


Patterson, L. 1990. Introduction. In Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380-1530, ed. Lee Patterson, 1–14. Berkeley, CA,: University of California Press.

Strohm, P. 2010. Historicity without Historicism? postmedieval 1(3): 380–391.


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