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On Time and Space in the Middle Ages

A.J. Gurevich: Categories of Medieval Culture. Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1985. 347 pages.

First published in 1972 in Moscow, A.J. Gurevich's major work on medieval European culture testifies to a period of lessened Soviet restraint on Russian intellectual life. The scope and freedom of this study may even surprise some readers--those, namely, with strongly rooted preconceptions about the backwardness of the Soviet academies. Other readers will note that this book was written during the same years that saw the "discovery" of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian theorist who has had so much influence on the West's critical discourse. Such company as Bakhtin's is suitable for Gurevich. This book shows none of the forced Marxist-Leninist analyses one expects from a Soviet publication. Not simply free of Leninist platitudes, however, Gurevich's Categories demonstrates the obvious advantages of a limited structuralist mode of interpretation: structuralism as applied in a limited manner to the understanding of distant cultures. Here the "distant culture" in question is that of medieval Europe.

Gurevich explains the need to understand the "world picture" of medieval man as this world picture is grounded in conceptual categories such as time, space, law, and labor. In this, he is clearly right. It is only after first laying out the basic and essentially unconscious categories of perception of the medieval mind that the texts and artwork of medieval Europe can be understood. Gurevich's methodology is thus of great use to teachers and students. The student, once introduced to the idea of "world picture" as Gurevich presents it, can begin to think through not only the meaning of medieval art and literature, but also the meaning of culture and cultural difference in general. In other words, this is one of those books through which the intelligent undergraduate may be snapped into curiosity--that curiosity without which real learning cannot occur. Gurevich's smooth manner of exposition, his clarity and relative avoidance of jargon make the work more readable than more specialized texts. And the mode of analysis makes it far more compelling as a general introduction than many of the better-illustrated textbooks.

In his introductory chapter Gurevich at times skirts, but never quite slips into, the famous Russian penchant for redundancy (a penchant that finds one of its great practitioners, alas, in Bakhtin). If he has one core thesis here, one polemical position to which his chapters all return, it is that the contradictions and apparent absurdities in medieval works only appear as such because we have habitually submitted medieval culture to our own post-Renaissance criteria. In this way, we repeatedly miss the essential elements of medieval vision, seeing only a lack of those elements typical of our own habitual modes of thought. Rather than being signs of a primitive or undeveloped vision of the world, the eccentricities we associate with medieval art are shown to be appropriate to a uniquely holistic experience of the universe, albeit one to which we are no longer privy.

For example, when we as moderns view an example of medieval painting, we may have the feeling that we are witnessing the results of a relatively primitive artistic practice. After all, the work in front of us doesn't show knowledge of the rules of perspective we are used to: those techniques of representing space realistically that were to be developed in the Renaissance. But this isn't all. The medieval painter may not even have shown much regard for correct proportion: a mountain appears to be the same size as a man, who in turn is far too large for the house he has apparently just exited. Furthermore, the painter may have used the same pictorial surface to show a succession of events that occurred over time: in one part of the work, the main figure is hunting; in another he is the center of some meeting at court; finally, not far away, we see the same figure kneeling in prayer. And where are the indications of the links of cause and effect between these different stages? What drove him from the earlier activity (a passion for the hunt) to the latter (prayer)? It is as if the medieval artist didn't quite realize the importance of the temporal sequence of events or of the development of character in a narrative sense. These aspects of medieval art lead to the impression of a kind of childlike naivete.

Through consideration of the categories of time and space as experienced by the medievals, Gurevich reveals that this supposition of naivete in fact points mainly to our own naivete. The priorities of the medieval artist under the dispensation of medieval Christianity, the categories he used to evaluate which aspects of reality were chaff and which wheat--these were radically different from the categories according to which we interpret reality today. In other words, it is not really a matter of artistic or literary technique. Rather it's a matter of a different kind of intellectual vision, a vision characteristic of medieval man and one that necessarily inflected his attempts to depict reality, whether those attempts were in writing or in the plastic arts. Gurevich contrasts Renaissance perspective with the earlier medieval practice:

The principle of perspective rediscovered by the artists of the Renaissance assumes the presence of an observer viewing all the parts of the picture from one single immovable point, each part being then seen at a specific angle.... The elements of the cosmos are imagined as seen by this beholder at a given moment in time; they are related to him as to a central point, acting as a dimensional point of reference for the limitless and endless space beheld through the foreground of the picture (Alberti's fenestra aperta).

This subjective-anthropocentric position, this rationalising of the visual and optic impressions, is alien to the man of the Middle Ages. In his case, one should speak of a theocentric 'world model.'

...

God was the center round which the world imaged by medieval painters turned. Since the truly significant was not that which was seen by physical sight but that which was apprehended by the spiritual eye, medieval painting took the visible world not as independent but as subject to higher, suprasensual powers, and worked on the premise that the human, earthly way of seeing things is unreliable. The beholder of a medieval painting does not represent a center from which a section of reality can be contemplated. The picture assumes the presence not of one but of some or many observation points. This is the reason for the 'deployment' of images, the lack of proportion, the 'inverse perspective.'

...

Medieval aesthetics required the painter to provide not an illusion of the visible world but, in accordance with the teaching of Neo-Platonism, a divulging of 'intellectual vision.' To such a vision much is accessible that is not perceivable by the eye. Hence, medieval painting places the beholder in a special situation which might be described as the 'drama of the meeting of two worlds.' (86-7)

In approaching medieval art, we thus need to adjust our interpretive efforts to a more fundamental plane. We must think not simply of subject and technique, but rather we must rethink such basic categories of experience as time and space, cause and effect, human and suprahuman perspective. Gurevich everywhere facilitates such a rethinking, making this work an excellent introduction to the more serious questions of interpretation.

For this reader at least, it is Gurevich's long chapter on time that is most of interest. I began reading it according to my usual practice of noting down important observations or questions, but soon had to dispense with notes altogether, since nearly every paragraph game me something worth considering and then remembering--another piece in the puzzle of medieval perception. And in my case it's not merely antiquarian or academic curiosity that makes me want to get more of the puzzle put together. Instead, I'm one of those who suspects that my own culture's experience of time--abstracted time; time as a constant succession of identical increments--is debased. Compared with the medieval understanding of time, I suspect that my culture's perception of time is not simply different, but actually less in accord with reality. And so I read Gurevich's pages on time with a kind of fervor, seeking to fit together that puzzle--that other, lost map of time--that may be more in line with real, sacred history than our own impoverished "clock time."

It would be impossible to summarize the chapter on time in such a brief essay as this. Nonetheless, I think some important points can be raised.

Gurevich repeatedly tries to make clear that the medievals conceived of time almost as a material entity. For one thing, time was among the things created by God; it was an integral part of creation rather than an indifferent system of measurement abstracted from the material world. Interestingly, time as such could be understood to be slowly "wearing out" through continued use. One theologian compared time to a rope that was repeatedly stretched out taut and then wound up again, over and over. The days of contemporary men were thus worn out or threadbare compared to the days of biblical history. But also, as a material thing akin to the other things of the created world, time was not uniform in its essence. It was variegated, showing different qualities in different of its sectors. Just as different places held different valuation, so different times did too. As Jerusalem was the center of the created world--a location on the earth charged with more being than other locations--so the time of the coming of Christ was another center. Other times were vouchsafed their being in relation to that central time, and thus could be said to be more or less full. To the extent that the contemporary time in which medieval man lived could become similar to biblical time, to this extent alone could contemporary time be said to become more real. Thus it is no surprise that medieval historical events and figures were interpreted by contemporaries as antitypes of biblical events. Thus also the importance of Church festivals as re-enactments of the pieces of sacred history. The rituals of the Church were necessary both to rejuvenate and to understand the depleted time of contemporary life in its relation to the fuller time of salvation history.

These are only a few of the points Gurevich raises concerning the medieval understanding of time. His chapter deserves careful study not only as a guide to medieval time, but also as a revelation of our own suppositions about time, suppositions to which most of us hold without really being conscious of them.

In later chapters, Gurevich delves into medieval conceptions of law and the medieval understanding of wealth and labor. In his Conclusion, he brings together all these various threads and considers their linkage under that unified medieval universe he has asserted since the beginning:

[O]ur study of medieval concepts of time and space, of law as the all-embracing principle of world order, of labor, wealth and property, seems to show the mutual interconnectedness of all these categories. Their connection is determined first of all by the fact that medieval people perceived and construed the world as a unity; that is to say, its component parts were conceived not as independent entities but as copies of the whole, each carrying the imprint of the whole.... Since the regulating principle of the medieval world is God, conceived as the highest good and as that which is perfect, the world and everything in it is seen from a moral standpoint. In the medieval world model there are no ethically neutral forces or things; all things and all agencies are active elements in the cosmic conflict between good and evil and in the universal process of salvation.... The moral essence of all the categories of medieval perception which we have studied is at the same time a manifestation of their inner unity and kinship. What medieval man perceived as a unity finding its completion in the Godhead, did indeed possess unity--for it represented the moral universe of medieval mankind.

...

[But it] is not simply that all the categories of the medieval world-view are mutually intertwined. What is far more important is that in the Middle Ages, such concepts as time and law which we regard as abstract were held to be just as concrete, as tangible, to have just as much 'materiality,' as material objects. Hence general concepts and material objects were regarded by the people of the Middle Ages as manifestations, homogeneous and comparable, of one and the same order.

With the above rather lengthy quotes I've tried to give some idea of the clarity and breadth of Gurevich's prose. Categories of Medieval Culture is a book well worth reading both for new students and for those, like myself, who've been unable to pull themselves away from study these past couple decades.

Eric Mader-Lin
January, 2000

 

A.J. Gurevich's *The Categories of Medieval Culture* at Amazon.com

 

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