Holding back tears, Greenblatt thanked, among other people, his publishers at W. 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.

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Holding back tears, Greenblatt thanked, among other people, his publishers at W. 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. 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. 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 , stumbled upon a 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. This is a powerful vision of the world entering a prolonged period of cultural darkness. 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.

Present-day scholarship, especially the findings of archeologists and specialists in church and social history, tells a vastly more complicated, interesting and indeterminate story. 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.

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. Along these lines it is simply untrue to assert that classical culture was ever lost, ignored or suppressed during the Middle Ages.

The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages. The earliest manuscript of the Metamorphoses dates from the ninth century, as do the two earliest copies of De Rerum Natura. 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. 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? 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

What was once in effect a radical counterculture insisted with remarkable success that it represented the core values of all believing Christians. 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. 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.

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. Greenblatt obviously admires Lucretius. 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.

Without words, transition becomes beautiful. If I ever have enough nerve, I shall write history completely without transition. History without transition.


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; "When we say It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Some of that is born out of my own ignorance, but the wonderful thing about ignorance is I have the means to dismiss it. I have heard of Hypatia and last year even watched a movie based on her life called Agora starring the lovely Rachel Weisz. I have brushed up against Epicurus and Lucretius, but they are mere footnotes on other files logged sporadically in the dim halls of my memories. Epicurus Lucretius I had no reference to tell me what colossal figures they are, bearing brilliant ideas that give footing to my own paltry concepts of my own life philosophy.



By Dwight Garner Sept. In the mids, when he was a student at Yale and searching for summer reading, Mr. Greenblatt writes. Greenblatt bleat. This is a warm, intimate start to a warm, intimate book, a volume of apple-cheeked popular intellectual history. Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard, is a very serious and often thorny scholar, a founder of a discipline called the new historicism. Greenblatt in his more cordial mode.

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