The Swerve is really a full-frontal crash.

Today  we have a new guest post from regular commentator and Renaissance Mathematicus fan Baerista. Whereas I am an Englishman living in Germany who blogs in English Baerista is a German living in London who normally blogs in German. Today he has delivered up a post in English explaining why he thinks the highly praised The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt ought to be viewed somewhat more critically

Marvelous Distortions: Greenblatt and the Transmission of Lucretius

For all the obsessive preoccupation with classical antiquity that has characterized our modern culture, it is at times disconcerting to see how little the average aficionado of Greece and Rome knows about the way his beloved classics have reached his modern bookshelf. This general ignorance is well exemplified by the frequently heard statements to the effect that “we owe Islamic civilization the preservation of Greek literature, which would have otherwise been lost during the Dark Ages.” The problem with this claim is not that we owe nothing to Islamic civilization (we certainly do), but much rather that the people who make these pronouncements are usually fully cognizant that textual editions from the whole gamut of Greek literature in their original language are easily available at the local library (in the case of the Loeb series, they are recognizable from afar by their green covers). Do they really think that these are all re-translations from Arabic?

I suspect that one factor that makes it hard for the average observer to get a clear grasp of the transmission of classical texts, be they Greek or Latin, is the ubiquitous use of the term “Renaissance,” which essentially transports a skewed view of cultural history. The implication is that, when antiquity ended, classical culture went to sleep and lay dormant in a cigar box for a good thousand years, until it was re-discovered by a bunch of Italian bonvivants, who thought it would be a neat idea if everyone spoke like Cicero again. Historians who are wont to counter this view are often eager to point out that there has been not one, but many “re-births” of classical literature, one of which took place in the late eighth and early ninth century and is known as the “Carolingian Renaissance.” In a nutshell, the “Carolingian Renaissance” denotes a general revival of intellectual culture in the Frankish empire that had its epicenter in Charlemagne”s court in Aachen. Besides giving rise to the direct forerunner to most Western styles of handwriting, in form of the Carolingian minuscule, this early medieval “rebirth” of European learning also led to a greatly increased rate of manuscript production and dissemination, which included many important works from classical antiquity.

Among the ancient Latin jewels that were thus saved from oblivion is the poem De rerum natura by the Roman poet Lucretius-a comprehensive description of the “facts of life” as seen from an Epicurean point of view, which spans some 7,400 hexameters. As is well known, this philosophy was strikingly at odds with the Christian worldview that dominated the Middle Ages, in that it emphasized the pursuit of earthly pleasures, denied the immortality of the soul and reduced the universe to an infinite number of atoms that randomly moved through empty space. According to Epicurus and Lucretius, the way these atoms collide and hook together accounts for the creation, growth and decay of all material things, including human beings. On the surface, DNR thus comes across as a remarkably “modern” piece, which helps to explain its ongoing popularity in the twenty-first century. One of the many modern fans of DNR is Stephen Greenblatt, a literary critic and professor at Harvard, who makes Lucretius”s masterpiece the protagonist of his latest book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which has already earned its author both the 2011-National Book Award for Nonfiction and, more impressively still, this year”s Pulitzer Prize in the same category.

What is this “swerve” all about and how did it make the world modern? As it turns out, one of the big problems with this book is that the second part of this question is never sufficiently addressed. At its core, The Swerve tells the story of the Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who, in 1417 visited the libraries of several Southern German monasteries on a hunt for “lost” texts from classical antiquity. One of the manuscripts he happened upon during this book-hunt contained Lucretius”s DNR, which was soon re-copied multiple times and caused a sensation among the reading public of the Italian Renaissance. Greenblatt makes no bones about the fact that he himself regards the Epicurean philosophy of radical materialism combined with unapologetic hedonism that is encoded in DNR as the best thing since sliced bread and one of the defining sources of our modern way of thinking.

His idea that Epicureanism was present at the birthpangs of modernity is far from original and has only recently found a vocal defender in Catherine Wilson”s confidently titled 2010-book Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity. As with most attempts to reduce complex historical phenomena to monocausal explanations, Wilson”s book has not been everywhere well received, as can be seen from this scathing review by Margaret J. Osler (1942-2010), a widely respected expert on early modern science. Given these very recent discussions among historians, it is very disappointing to discover that Greenblatt”s own “defence” of the mentioned proposition consists of little more than a series of brief excursuses on figures such as Thomas More, Michel de Montaigne and Giordano Bruno, who all read DNR and therefore…what? However the world may have become modern, The Swerve definitely is not the book to turn to if you are interested in an answer.

Realizing that the original subtitle was a misnomer, the book”s publisher in the United Kingdom (a Random House imprint named “The Bodley Head”) went for a little more understatement and retitled it as The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, not realizing that this technically makes things even worse. While the assertion that the re-discovery of Epicureanism is at the sole root of modern science and philosophy is certainly dubious, it at least makes some chronological sense. By contrast, to declare DNR the source of Renaissance humanism puts the cart entirely before the horse. The very fact that Poggio Bracciolini discovered DNR on a book tour through Germany, undertaken to satisfy the ever-growing desire of Italian courts and scholars for ancient texts, should alert us to the fact that Poggio and his discovery were products of the Renaissance and not its cause. While Greenblatt rightly focuses on Petrarca as Poggio”s most important fourteenth century predecessor, some modern historians would be inclined to trace the beginnings of the Renaissance “movement” even further back-to a growing interest in the classics that already started in the second half of the thirteenth century and that had some of its early proponents by English friars such as Nicholas Trevet (c. 1257-c. 1334), who had ties to Italy and produced commentaries on the whole corpus of tragedies by Seneca the Younger at the instigation of his patron, Nicholas of Prato, cardinal bishop of Ostia (1303-21).

I have deliberately mentioned Trevet, a theologian and member of the Dominican order, because he is a good example for the kind of scholar that, according to the picture of history presented in The Swerve, should not have existed. In Greenblatt”s worldview, which is a disconcerting throwback to the heyday of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, the protagonists of Western intellectual history always appear on stage clad in white or black robes, depending on which team they support. Needless to say, Epicurus and Lucretius, as the fragile heroes of “team reason,” are constantly at the brink of destruction thanks to the malicious interference of “team Church,” whose intrinsic evilness is evident from the fact that Jan Hus and Giordano Bruno were burnt at the stake-episodes on which Greenblatt dwells for several pages (pp. 166-72, 233-41), despite their being only tenuously related to the subject of his book.

Neither does he forget to slip in an account of the library of Alexandria, the destruction of the Serapeion and the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria, which is essentially a rehash of old Gibbonian (and Saganian) tropes that have been debunked so well by Tim O”Neill over at Armarium Magnum. True, Greenblatt”s account of these events does contain some hints that he did enough research to realize that Hypatia”s death was probably just the result of partisan politics and that no ancient account mentions the destruction of books when the Serapeion was sacked. But, as if to honour the principle of “never change a winning story,” he goes on to blabber: “The murder of Hypatia signified more than the end of one remarkable person; it effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life and was the death knell for the whole intellectual tradition that underlay [De rerum natura]” (p. 93). I am not sure whether Greenblatt simply never heard of people like Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae, Hermias, or the woman philosopher Aedesia (who managed to pursue her philosophy without being physically harmed) or whether they were not intellectual enough for his taste, but if I was a representant of fifth and sixth century Alexandria, I would doubtlessly be pissed at his lack of consideration.

Another group that would not have been pleased by the way they are depicted in The Swerve are the men and women of the medieval monasteries, whose manifold cultural achievements are largely ignored in favour of the practices of self-torment and asceticism, which Greenblatt imagines in irritatingly lurid detail. The resulting caricature of medieval monastic life was rightly criticized by Anthony Grafton in an article for the New York Review of Books, who very appositely calls it a “a curious blend of Gibbonian irony and Sadean relish,” only to later remark with a brief, but audible, sigh: “The Swerve is not always as accurate as one would wish.” From a world-class scholar like Grafton, who is widely known as an extremely generous man, always careful to wrap even the faintest criticism in a wadding of praise, such clear-cut words can be taken as the verbal equivalent to a bitchslap.

Without wanting to get into a prolongued critique of Greenblatt”s many distortions of medieval and Renaissance history, I shall presently focus on what is arguably one of the most annoying of all the misrepresentations in his book annoying, because it is ostensibly there for no other reason than to furnish his narrative with additional momentum: as it turns out, the book”s title The Swerve alludes to the English equivalent to the Latin word clinamen, which Lucretius used to describe the erratic and unpredictable movement of atoms in the void. According to Greenblatt, the textual history of DNR was itself marked by a remarkable number of unexpected “swerves” that, taken together, supposedly account for its “miraculous” survival:

“It was by chance that a copy of On the Nature of Things made it into the library of a handful of monasteries, places that had buried, seemingly forever, the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. It was by chance that a monk laboring in a scriptorium somewhere or other in the ninth century copied the poem before it moldered away forever. And it was by chance that this copy escaped fire and flood and the teeth of time for some five hundred years until, one day in 1417, it came into the hands of [Poggio].” (p. 109)

As becomes clear from this and other pages of his book, Greenblatt wants his readers to believe that the manuscript discovered by Poggio in 1417 contained the only surviving copy of DRN and that the text would have doubtlessly been lost forever, had it not been for this one serendipitous discovery. Furthermore, he heavily implies that the text”s survival was constantly endangered, not just by “fire and flood and the teenth of time,” but also by malignant monks and churchmen, who despised pagan learning and all too often destroyed ancient texts by turning their manuscripts into palimpsests (e.g. pp. 42-44). How realistic is this account?

The situation concerning the manuscript transmission of DNR can be roughly summarized like this: the text today found in critical editions rests chiefly upon two ninth-century manuscripts at Leiden”s Universiteitsbibliotheek, which are both products of the aforementioned “Carolingian Renaissance”: Voss. Lat. F. 30, known as the Oblongus (O) due to its format, which was copied shortly after 800 at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen and is the ancestor (direct or at one remove) to the manuscript later discovered by Poggio; and Voss. Lat. Q. 94, the so-called Quadratus (Q), which derives from north-east France. A further ninth-century copy from south-west Germany is attested by two fragments of only a few leaves each, now housed at libraries in Copenhagen and Vienna (a second Viennese fragment may have sprung from the same book or from yet another ninth-century copy). The fact that only three or four manuscripts from this period are still attested in the flesh need not and does not mean that they were the only ones copied. Our preserved number of early medieval manuscript is generally only the tip of a lost iceberg. Indeed, stemmatic analysis (the construction of a family tree for manuscript copies on the basis of discrepancies and scribal errors in the preserved copies) postulates not only a late antique (fourth or fifth century) archetype in rustic capitals, but no less than three further medieval copies that came before O, Q and the fragments.

Moreover, it is simply not true that this text had lain “dormant and forgotten for more than a thousand years” (p. 13) and was never read or used during the Middle Ages until Poggio happened upon it: from excerpts in a variety of medieval manuscripts, especially from the ninth and tenth century, we can tell that Lucretius was no stranger to scholars in the Low Countries, northern France and the Rhineland area. In about 825, Mico of Saint-Riquier, a scholar at Reichenau, an island monastery in Lake Constance, put together a metrical florilegium contaning lines from DNR. Lucretius is also present at the monastery of St. Gall, where he is quoted around 850 in a letter written by Ermenrich of Ellwangen and also appears in another florilegium produced there in c. 900. Another famous scholar from this period whose works contain citations from DNR is Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), who, aside from being a prolific writer, also served as the archbishop of Mainz. For the rest of the history of the Middle Ages up until Poggio”s time, the textual history of Lucretius admittedly becomes more sketchy. From medieval library catalogues we know that copies were held in the north Italian monastery of Bobbio in the ninth and at the abbeys of Lobbes (Belgium) and Corbie (Northern France) in the twelfth century, while a gloss that references Lucretius appears in a work of Sigebert of Gembloux (c. 1030-1112).

Unsurprisingly, Greenblatt suppresses almost all of this fascinating information, despite the fact that it is very readily available in the standard hand books such as L. D. Reynold”s and N. G. Wilson”s Scribes and Scholars (1968/1974/1991) and L. D. Reynold”s Texts and Transmission (1983) as well as Michael Reeve”s article in the relatively recent Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (2007). The latter rightly points out that the fate of DNR (being copied several times during the “Carolingian Renaissance,” followed by a largely dormant tradition between the ninth and fifteenth century) is shared by so many other classical texts that there is no reason to suppose this had anything to do with deliberate censorship, motivated by”Christian scruples” about Lucretius”s a-religiosity.

The fact that an essential research aid like the Cambridge Companion appears nowhere in Greenblatt”s bibliography may be telling, but not quite as telling as the fact that the former two books are in fact listed. With other words: there is every reason to assume that Greenblatt knew fully well that he was distorting the facts when he decided to contruct a whole sweeping narrative on the motif of DNR”s “miraculous” survival. He therefore ended up telling the story the way he did not (simply) because he is a poor scholar, but because of the nature and purpose of his book, which is not an offering on the altar of truth, but a carefully calculated “bestseller,” whose author had some very precise ideas of what his readers would expect-and reward.

It is indeed worth observing that Greenblatt”s book comes to us at the height of a “renaissance” of general interest in Lucretius”s work, not just on the part of scholars, but also and especially among lay readers, many of them members of a large social movement that is very active on the internets and that can be roughly categorized as “secularist” or “new atheist.” This movement attracts a great deal of young people, who use the world wide web as their main resource to increase their intellectual standing in what they perceive as a daily struggle against the dark forces of religious obscurantism. Unfortunately, the sources they avail themselves to are such that many of them end up with an extremely impoverished picture of the human past that often relies on fringe theories such as “Jesus mytherism” and a comic-book idea of the history of science that is well-exemplified by this monstrosity.

The reasons why this demographic might be interested in DNR are not difficult to see: it is certainly reassuring to know that about seven centuries before the Quran and still a century before the New Testament there used to be a Roman guy who (seemingly) saw the world very much like oneself. For a modern-day admirer of Lucretius, who perceives history as an eternal struggle of reason against religion, the idea that this crucial text was rescued almost miraculously from oblivion in the hands of self-castigating monks, who were burning pagan books when they were not burning heretics, is clearly an eminently sexy one. It is precisely this intellectual climate that Greenblatt decided to take advantage of when he wrote The Swerve. Being faced with the choice between intellectual honesty (which, being a literary critic and therefore steeped in pomo-philosophy, he probably regards as an outmoded concept anyway) and the prospect of laughing all the way from the bank, he chose the latter. If there is something we should be worried about, it is not the fact that people make such choices, but that garbage of this kind is awared with a Pulitzer Prize.

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38 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

38 responses to “The Swerve is really a full-frontal crash.

  1. Hey, thanks so much for posting this. There is a slight problem with the link to my blog, which leads to “Quodlibeta” instead of “baerista.blogspot.co.uk”

    Also there are two mistakes I have found (both my fault):
    - 2nd paragraph, fourth line from below: “miniscule” should read “minuscule”
    - 3rd paragraph, ninth line from above: “account to” should read “account for”

    Sorry for that.

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  3. Tim O'Neill

    Great post. Both Hitchens and (IIRC) Alain de Botton bang on about the wicked Medievals deliberately destroying Lucretius, which smelled like Draper-White nonsense to me. Hitchens in particular painted a lurid picture of evil churchmen burning copies of this book, which makes odd that at least one Medieval copy survived these imaginary bonfires. I saw Greenblatt’s book in a shop and have been meaning to look into the textual transmission of Lucretius in the Middle Ages, since the idea that it had been repressed (let alone “burned”) smelled like crap from the usual suspects. Thanks for saving me the effort.

  4. Many thanks for this review! I had heard the hype over Greenblatt’s contribution and was admittedly skeptical of yet another text that examines the classical influence of the Renaissance without paying much attention to the transmission of texts throughout the middle ages.

    In art history in particular – from Alberti and Vasari to the present day, it is a constant battle to look at the Renaissance without being given a distorted view of the impact of the middle ages on the period. Would Alberti have been able to wax endless about Apelles is he didn’t have a medieval remnant of Pliny on hand?

    If there is one thing I can say with certainty, I am glad Greenblatts’ book was released so as to prompt reviews like this – which provide an openly accessible starting point for those interested in the fuller picture.

    Many Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  5. Intellectually informed and judicious review that this reader is grateful for. Thanks for this, I’ve tweeted it twice in hopes that others will find it as vauable as I did.
    Best regards,
    StephenKMackSD

  6. That article may be true, but it come across as nasty. A bit like all the medievalists I knew in 1980 who said that of course they had the inquisition records on their shelves, but they had never thought to write Montaillou.

    • Fair enough, but Le Roy Ladurie’s book will likely continue to be held in high regard as an outstanding contribution to modern “micro-historical” writing, which everyone, including professional historians, can gain a lot from reading. Greenblatt’s book is nothing like this. It is devoid of any complex thought or original interpretation that would interest historians and is instead aimed exclusively at a mass audience of people who will enounter most of this information for the first time.

  7. jimhexis

    When you referred to the manuscript of Lucretius’ DNR, I read the acronym as standing for “do not resuscitate,” figuring that Greenblatt was implying that the monks had marked the work for euthanasia.

    Though I completely agree that the Swerve is a deplorable commercial concoction, I do take exception to your throw away bit about Greenblatt’s contempt for “intellectual honesty (which, being a literary critic and therefore steeped in pomo-philosophy, he probably regards as an outmoded concept anyway.” Is the Warfare of Science and Literary Criticism really an improvement on Draper and White’s original Manichean interpretation of intellectual history? “Pomo” is a term that pretty much lacks a definition, and its normal use is reminiscent of the way right wingers refer to everybody they dislike as a socialist. Anyhow, are “New Historicists” Pomo? I sometimes think that they are just essayists. Greenblatt is problematic to me not because of some sort of despicable cultural relativism on his part, but because he has gotten sloppier and sloppier as time wears on. Renaissance Self Fashioning and Learning to Curse are vastly better works than the Swerve.

    I haven’t read Catherine Wilson’s book—I liked her earlier work on microscopy. If she doesn’t fill the bill, I’d certainly like to find somebody else who had a serious interpretation of the reception of Lucretius where by serious I mean something more than a book-length bibliography.

    • I admit that the bit you refer to was a cheap shot. As a matter of fact, I don’t really mind philosophical “postmodernism” for the most part (Richard Rorty is one of my favourite philosophers) and you are quite right that Greenblatt’s theoretical “school” of “New Historicism” does not really fit the bill. What I was gunning for when I slipped that remark in is a tendency that I have encountered over the years among “humanistically” educated people, who like to take refuge in some vague, ready-made relativism when they are confronted with fact-based criticism of their views. For some reason, I can imagine Greenblatt taking exactly this line of defence against the charge of historical embellishment, but this is a mere suspicion on my part. Again, the bit you criticize is the one I’d most readily take back.

    • PS: Regarding your last remark, you might want to check out Alison Brown’s “The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence” (2010).

  8. ramberg62

    Thank you for this excellent review of this book. I became aware of the book only when I saw it announced as the Pulitzer winner and learned that it had won the National Book Award as well. But I could see from the book’s summary that something was decisively wrong about it. After all, atomism (if not through Lucretius) and its implications were never forgotten throughout the ancient and medieval worlds. It was considered and rejected many times for numerous reasons. And the claim that the discovery of a single manuscript could create the “modern” world is an absurd claim on its face.
    It’s extremely disappointing that this gets such popular recognition, when other far better books are out there.

  9. Jeb

    Interesting read. Also somewhat impressed by the responses to criticism.
    Refreshing. I wonder if Stephen Greenblatt responses would be as grown up and honest, not read the book but I rather like history surrounding Virgil of Salzburgh which has a relationship with some of the texts surrounding this.

    Disappointing to see the early med. history ignored in such a manner.
    Does sound like something an early med. monastic historian would produce, retro discussion of present concerns.

    Think this as an irony surrounding much modern debate on belief some what easy to become the very image of what you profess to despise.

  10. Michael Fugate

    Once again, a battle between those who believe Christianity to be “the” reason for modern science and those who don’t. This is the crux of Osler’s review of Wilson (who just happens to be Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen) – Wilson was too dismissive of religion. Let’s be honest – religion had both positive and negative impacts on development of western civilization. It is inherently conservative and quick to rein in deviants – which might not be that conducive to new ways of thinking.

    • Let’s accept your proposition that religion “is inherently conservative and quick to rein in deviants”. Does that mean it should be excluded from our historical accounts of early modern science? Does it undermine Osler’s point when she insists that we should pay attention to “the context of seventeenth-century theological and philosophical controversies” when we deal with the work of Boyle and others? And where does it state that Osler believes Christianite to be “the” reason for modern science (she certainly doesn’t say so in her last book “Reconfiguring the World”)?.Is this something you infer from her job description as Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy (which she no longer holds, since she passed away in 2010)? I would appreciate it if you could answer some of these question, so I can make greater sense of your comment.

      • Sorry, now I see what you meant with the “Regius Professor” bit. I thought you were referring to Osler rather than Wilson.

    • thonyc

      I find your reading of Osler’s review remarkable. she does indeed criticise Wilson for her attitude to the religious belief of 17th C scholars but that is only one powerful point amongst several in her review.

      Also being Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen does not prevent someone from being wrong or are you trying to argue from authority?

      Lastly your attempt to sneak in “the Church prevents people from thinking” at the end of your comment without a single fact to back up your claim is rather sloppy.

    • Shippee Arthur

      “It is inherently conservative and quick to rein in deviants – which might not be that conducive to new ways of thinking.”

      It = religion? There is so well-defined a thing called religion with this quality? And any institution is this way, including scientific ones; we must keep in mind that most new ways of thinking are poor, and we all waste a lot of time on hare-brained notions. More nuance, please.

  11. Jeb

    To me a good historian presents as full a range of sources as possible.
    A full account of all historical argument, treating views the individual historian does not agree with in full detail and does not drown the argument with their own particular perspective and ego.

    I want room as a reader to reach my own conclusions rather than those of one particular expert among many.

    As someone who does not self-identify or feel comfortable with H.O.S, and its political present day arguments, this subject seems to speak of the way academics dealing with the subject generally carve up history, so more than an H.O.S debate, suggesting H.O.S my simply be a normal historical subject after all and one key part of a big messy vibrant interrelated and hugely interesting past. Despite H.O.S weird and persistent identity issues and the way it gets all to often bogged down in the present day.

    Personally I do not find grand watershed moments and the way history is often carved up particularly convincing. I have never found that big sign that says warning the medieval world will end in approximately two years One month three days, one hour and twenty seven minutes.

    I don’t think such things exist and what we are looking at is a much more complex and very messy picture. Although I am open to having my mind changed if a solid and rich argument is presented suggesting otherwise.

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  14. Michael Fugate

    Baerista claims that Osler is a great historian, but fails to mention Wilson’s credentials – he obviously doesn’t even have a clue who Wilson is. Osler’s correct, but Wilson’s wrong – how do you decide if you don’t know who Wilson is? They both seem pretty well credentialed to me.
    So religion is not conservative – really? You’re sticking with that? I did say might, but you see criticizes religion – must be wrong.

    • I’m afraid, but I fail to discern much coherence in what you say.
      First of all: you are misrepresenting your original statement, which was that religion “is inherently conservative and quick to rein in deviants – which might not be that conducive to new ways of thinking.” It should be clear to every intellectually honest observer that “might” here does not apply the part before the dash.

      Second: I treated this part of the statement as a hypothetical in my earlier reply, because I’m not convinced that all “religion” is by necessity always (i.e. inherently) “conservative.” As a matter of fact, this is an extremely steep claim on your part, which would call for a clear definition of what you mean by religion. The burden of proof is literally on you in this case.

      Third: At no point did I say or even imply that it is wrong to criticize religion. This is an issue you seem strangely osessed with, despite it being quite irrelevant to my review.

      Fourth: The reason I introduced Osler as a “widely respected expert on early modern science” was in order to give readers some idea of her standing in her field and also in order to pay tribute to her, since she passed away not too long ago. This was not to demean Wilson in any shape or form. Her track record in the field may be less than Osler’s, but that says nothing about the quality of her work per se.

      Five: I never said Wilson was “wrong”. What does it even mean to say that? What propositions are we evaluating here? Knowing who she is is in fact quite irrelevant to deciding whether she’s “right” or “wrong”, but I never made such a judgment anyway.

      Seven: You seem to regard this as a contest between “fans” and “critics” of religion, which is not what I am interested in here at all. The point that the religious component should be taken into account when thinking about the history of early modern science is completely neutral as to the value (ethical or factual) of religion. I myself do not believe in anything supernatural, but I’m still greatly interested in religion as a historical, sociological and philosophical subject. If you think historiography of science should not pay any attention to religion, you are kindly invited to explain why.

      • This is a very old threat but I want to weigh in with my opinion. Wilson’s record in the field (in both the history of philosophy and philosophy broadly construed) is more impressive than Osler’s.

        Osler’s review was embarrassing and uncharitable.

  15. thonyc

    If you think historiography of science should not pay any attention to religion, you are kindly invited to explain why.

    I’ll go one better. Give one example (other than the case of Galileo which is much to complex to discuss in a comments column) from the history of science of religion reigning in deviants. If your generalised claim is correct should be easy!

  16. Michael Fugate

    So it was just a shout out to Osler at Wilson’s expense? Sorry I didn’t catch that – I thought it had something important to add to your post. Maybe a link to a paper by Osler and not a book review would have been more appropriate?

    So religion has never reined in deviants – really? Heresy has never been a crime anywhere in the world? No forced conversions – I must have read too many false histories – perhaps you can give me some sources to the real version where religion is all goodness and light. Today, we have countries in the West passing blasphemy laws and yet you seem to believe that religion only has had positive effects on the world. It has never sought to control thought or action? You are accusing me of going overboard against religion? I just thought I was being realistic.

    I realize that history is complex and looking for cause and effect in the past is difficult, but I read these paeans to religion as well paeans to religion (my Sunday school lessons would be hard pressed to match their adoration). I am sure “Swerve” is simplistic and has an agenda and perhaps so Wilson’s book (I haven’t read it). Without a doubt religion was everywhere then and for the most part still is today, but when we look at today, religion inspires people to do all sorts of things including controlling thought (why would it have been different in the past?). The Vatican is limiting discussion or at least trying to on all aspects of the human sexual experience – even investigating the Girl Scouts as a heretical organization. The vatican has spread false information about HIV and condoms in Africa. It continues to make up information regarding homosexuality. I can’t imagine a time when the church would have encouraged individuals to have complete freedom of thought, but perhaps I am wrong. It just seems to me that religion is happy to encourage science and learning if it helps religion stay in power, but science and learning doesn’t always do that, does it?

    • “So it was just a shout out to Osler at Wilson’s expense? Sorry I didn’t catch that – I thought it had something important to add to your post. Maybe a link to a paper by Osler and not a book review would have been more appropriate?”

      Why on earth should I have linked to some paper, if I was specifically talking about Wilson’s book and Osler’s review of it? Also, I already stated that I did not intend to demean Catherine Wilson or her scholarly merits. As far as I’m concerned her book is a bit one-sided, but I’ve seen worse. Get over it.

      As for the rest of your post, it strikes me as no more than a lot of strawmanning and knee-jerk indignation that is completely irrelevant to the subject (who cares about the Catholic Church’s attitude towards sex on a history of science blog?). Nobody here claimed that religion “only has had positive effects on the world.” So, again, stop hyperventilating and get over it.

  17. Pingback: Knowledge: What are the most important examples of lost or forgotten knowledge? - Quora

  18. Thank you for this welcome antidote to ‘The Swerve’. A warning to all: in every discipline: beware the quick fix. Life is always more complicated.

  19. Alexandra Gillespie

    This is a wonderful and erudite review: I think I’ll be citing it with full credit in a public lecture next week on what medieval manuscript culture was like (an antidote to the Swerve-y accidental survival and poky dark scriptoria filled with stupid self-flagellating monks version). Thank you!

  20. Those who enjoyed Baerista’s review might like to read mine at Armarium Magnum:

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/stephen-greenblatt-swerve-how-world.html

    I make many of the same criticisms and use Baerista’s summary of the manuscript evidence for the medieval preservation of Lucretius’ work that Greenblatt choses to skate over and/or misrepresent.

  21. david williams

    Wonderful response to a book that does serious damage to scholarship. This review goes a long way to repairing it.The Swerve bristles with anti-Christian loathing and doesn’t hesitate to deform the facts to feed its bias. One of many, many examples is the reference to Saint Cyril (page 92-93) which leaves out any of the facts that would correct the impression that Cyril was responsible for Hypatia’s murder and even sainted for it.
    That Greenblatt has garnered prizes for this kind of stuff is one more indication that these prize comittees have degenerated into polemicists rewarding polemics. (e.g. Hillary Mantel)

  22. Pingback: Stephen Greenblatt–The Swerve Review | cvltvre

  23. I am one of the masses, not credentialed in historical or religious studies, just one of the bullseyes targeted by Greenblatt’s mass appeal gunsites–as many replies here have self described Greenblatt’s real message.

    It’s easy to see that staying on point is hard when religion is part of any discussion. While I enjoyed reading the original criticism which spawned all these replies, I also cherry picked the parts of it that resonated with me and left out the parts that didn’t. From my hoi polloi perspective it’s almost impossible not to carve up history as some have criticised others for doing.
    Seems like all of you are doing quite the same thing on this message board.

    I’ve always viewed Greenblatt’s book as a compelling narrative in the same sense that movies of any historical period omit, condense and select to maintain interest and enjoyment. If as many of you say, The Swerve presents a distorted view of events, it doesn’t do so for all the events presented. Most of us in the peanut gallery need compelling prose to
    begin any inquiry into historical events we know little about. Not necessarily the right way to find out about history but it’s a start.

    • Even good historians are subjective and everybody has a personal take on a given subject or theme. One thing that one learns with time is never rely on just one source if reading secondary material. Greenblatt is recognised as an excellent writer but the general consensus is that The Swerve is historically pretty poor stuff.

  24. Do you know the name of the male statue (or the statue maker) that appears in the hardcover 2011 edition of the book?
    Thanks!

  25. Pingback: Chris Douglas Martin | Stephen Greenblatt, an addendum

  26. laura

    Just reading this now. Excepting the stupid bits about the self-flagellating monks, I admit to enjoyed the first two thirds of it despite its obvious partisanship and lack of evidence that Lucretius really did much to change the course of humanist thought in Italy in the 15th century.

    Then I got to the part about Bruno and the Copernican/physical revolution. Good god. Copernican theory was “scandalous” in 1590. Bruno had a “brilliant scientific mind”. Harriot “anticipated” Galileo in observing Jupiter’s satellites. Galileo was destroyed by evil Jesuits and his downfall was really all about atomism (though of course with Bruno it was really all about Copernicanism). And despite struggling and straining to make Galileo proof that atomism was “vitally important in enabling new scientific advances in in enabling new scientific advances in physics and astronomy”, Greenblatt ignores Beeckman, gives Gassendi a single mention, and implies that Newton was just the death throes of a plausible belief in God. Ugh.

    • I’ve not actually read The Swerve, the post as you can see is a guest post, but if Greenblatt really does write the things you say he does then it’s another reason not to waste time on it.

      The downfall of Galileo being all about atomism and caused by the Jesuits is actually Pietro Redondi’s thesis as dealt with in his book Galileo: Heretic. The book is well researched and written and Redondi argues his case very well but subsequent researches have failed to support his theory. If you haven’t read it I can thoroughly recommend it especially for the extensive background material.

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