Enchanted Historicism /Tara Williams


Enchanted Historicism

Tara Williams, Department of English, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR


Most of us — whether old, New, or post-historicist — would agree with Paul Strohm and the scholars he cites on two of their shared claims. First, we cannot do without history — both in the sense that we, as medievalists, cannot operate without it and in the sense that other scholars cannot do without literary history, including the Middle Ages. Second, history is complex. Yet even as we agree, we might realize that these points feel familiar: the idea that history is crucial but also more contradictory, fragmentary, and multidimensional than we have previously allowed echoes early New Historicism.

We are caught in a cyclical process: each time we thoroughly survey one layer of history, a new one is revealed beneath (and others behind, above, and adjacent to it). The complexities of history are infinite, and we cannot design a theoretical approach that will account for all of them. Rather than continuing to make that attempt, then, I want to suggest a shift in perspective. What if, instead of revising our idea of history, we revised our attitude toward it? What if we cultivated a persistent sense of curiosity that would allow us to remain open to possibilities beyond our current understanding?

This interest in the enchanting possibilities of medieval texts and cultures is another thread connecting Strohm and his review texts, although it may be less immediately obvious. Maura Nolan suggests, ‘[W]hat will work after historicism is a reading practice that allows for the strange, the exceptional, the weird, and the outsized, and accepts the notion that such oddities are endemic to art’ (Nolan, 2009, 84).1 Strohm concurs: ‘Interesting ourselves in the past, we find repeated occasions of wonder’ (Strohm, 2010, 388). He invokes an address by Caroline Walker Bynum, who suggests that wonder leads historians to better scholarship: ‘we write the best history when the specificity, the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our sources render up bowls us over with its complexity and significance’ (Bynum, 1997, 26).2 We might say the same about the best historicist work across disciplines.

Still, wonder may imply a fascination or astonishment that is inspired especially by the strange or unusual.3 I want to make the slight shift to enchantment, which Rita Felski defines as ‘intense involvement’; building on her concept, I use this term to indicate a deep curiosity that is broader and more active than wonder. Enchantment is a state of being rather than a reaction; it is a perspective that we can cultivate and bring to bear on any text, object, or event.4 Felski concedes that it now holds ‘precious little currency,’ but suggests that enchantment ‘may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory’ (Felski, 2008, 54, 76). Indeed, one of theory’s most important contributions has been to prompt questions about textual elements that we have overlooked or dismissed, and about the new angles from which we might view them — a process, one might argue, of re-enchantment. Far from being sentimental or naïve, then, this approach squares with calls for a more theoretical historicism.

Jane Bennett has argued specifically for ‘the ethical potential of the mood of enchantment.’ While she identifies ‘everyday marvels’ in a postmodern context, we can extend her point to see how enchantment could function as an ethical mode of engagement with the past  (Bennett, 2001, 4). An enchanted historicism would be speculative and open-ended, recognizing assumptions (about genre, periodization, aesthetic or historical value, etc.) as enabling fictions but treating them as open to revision. It would encourage scholars to consider new contexts and juxtapositions (across temporal, geographical, disciplinary, theoretical, or thematic distances of any size) while allowing them to be guided by their own sense of engagement, by what strikes them as marvelous or troubling. By embracing engagement and avoiding shared assumptions, it would produce widely accessible and relevant scholarship.

Most importantly, an enchanted historicism would keep history continually beyond our apprehension. We would never operate without that ‘refined appreciation of the unruly multiplicity of ways in which history can manifest itself within a text’ (Strohm, 2010, 382), and we would always anticipate a new vista of multiplicities to be just over the critical horizon. I hope this description sounds like the kind of work that many of us are already doing (and that postmedieval is publishing). I propose, however, that we adopt enchantment as an explicit methodology, practicing the same insatiable curiosity that we hope to provoke in others — our students, our colleagues in other literary periods, a general audience — about the Middle Ages.

In our attempts not to fetishize or ‘Orientalize’ the past, we have gone too far in the opposite direction — which explains why history can surprise us anew with its complexities. New Historicism helped us shed any delusions of objectivity but allowed us to believe that we might develop an understanding of the relationship between history and text that was paradoxically more complete because it was more limited. Now we can step over those limitations, pursuing all the possibilities we can imagine while acknowledging that we can only imagine a fraction of them from our own position (in temporal, theoretical, and disciplinary terms). We can see the complexities of history and text not as surprising or overwhelming, but as enchanting.


1. As Strohm notes (Strohm, 2010, 388), a number of the essays in the Scala and Federico (2009) collection — by Nolan, Jeffrey Cohen, Aranye Fradenburg, and George Edmondson — examine such objects. Mallette considers ‘wonder’ (Mallette, 2009, 583–591) and Lochrie addresses marvels (Lochrie, 2009, 592–599).

2. See Bynum’s discussion of how wonder is integral to historians’ work (Bynum, 1997, 1–2, 24–26). She also finds wonder itself to be a productive subject of inquiry, as does another scholar who looms large in New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt.

3. For example, Bynum remarks on historians’ ‘capacity to be shocked by the singularity of events’ and describes wonder as ‘a response to something novel and bizarre’ (Bynum, 1997, 3, 24).

4. Bennett sees enchantment as both ‘something that we encounter, that hits us’ and ‘a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies’ (Bennett, 2001, 5).



Bennett, J. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bynum, C.W. 1997. Wonder. American Historical Review 102(1): 1–26.

Felski, R. 2008. Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Greenblatt, S. 1991. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lochrie, K. 2009. Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandeville’s Cosmopolitan Utopia. PMLA 124(2): 592–599.

Mallette, K. 2009. Beyond Mimesis: Aristotle’s Poetics in the Medieval Mediterranean. PMLA 124(2): 583–591.

Nolan, M. 2009. Historicism after Historicism. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. E. Scala and S. Federico, 63–85. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scala, E. and S. Frederico, eds. 2009. The Post-Historical Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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


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