Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve racked up prizes — and completely misled you about the Middle Ages

Recently on Facebook I made some of my friends go “hmm” when I corrected a meme that suggested the medieval church burned Copernicus at the stake for teaching that the sun is the center of the solar system. (“Contrary to popular belief, the Church accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric theory before a wave of Protestant opposition led the Church to ban Copernican views in the 17th century.” CS Monitor). The label “The Dark Ages” was applied retroactively, by protestants who had much to gain, politically and culturally, by presenting the medieval church as full of superstitious fools. (See “The Other Side is Not Dumb.”)

Scholars continue to disagree over how dark the Dark Ages really were, and the extent to which the Renaissance was a rebirth, or a continuation of movements that had already begun within the medieval church. Case in point — Greenblatt’s book The Swerve, which celebrates (and perhaps exaggerates) the Renaissance.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 2.07.16 PMEvery page of The Swerve strives to present the Renaissance as an intellectual awakening that triumphs over the oppressive abyss of the Dark Ages. The book pushes the Renaissance as a rebirth of the classical brilliance nearly lost during centuries mired in dullness and pain. (In Greenblatt’s Middle Ages, bored monks literally sit in the dark when not flagellating themselves.)

This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of good guys (Poggio, as well as Lucretius) defeating bad guys and thus bringing forth a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but, more importantly, because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that all too easily excuses the crimes and injustices of modernity.

But history does not fit such cookie-cutter narratives. Having studied medieval culture for nearly two decades, I can instantly recognize the oppressive, dark, ignorant Middle Ages that Greenblatt depicts for 262 pages as, simply, fiction. It’s fiction worse than Dan Brown, because it masquerades as fact. –Laura Saetveit Miles, Vox