The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle-Ages par Haidu

In his latest book, The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages, Peter Haidu avers that the modern subject emerged in the Middle Ages and is the product of political ideology. First, he deconstructs the distorted image modernity holds of the past. Far from flat, predictable, and universally accepting of subjugation, the Middle Ages were a period of revolt and conflicting ideologies. In this respect, Haidu notes that it was in the 11th and 12th centuries that modern states took shape, as a response to uncontrollable feudal violence. Moreover, the same period redefined the relationship between religious and secular life.

Indebted to Marxist theories, Haidu describes the modern subject as specifically political. He follows the evolution of subjectivity from the 6th century to the 15th, analyzing both political practices and specific texts that he considers “privileged lenses” through which to look at the formation of the state. Even though the subject is a creation of the modern state (11th -12th centuries), Haidu notices the first manifestations of modern subjectivity as early as the 6th century. The efforts of the medieval Church to punish disobedience speak to the very presence of disobedience and therefore to the nascent modern subject. However, it is only with the Oaths of Strasbourg in 842 that the modern subject emerges: a “specifically political subject” (11) who can/must choose between loyalty to the ruler or rebellion against him.

Haidu spends several chapters discussing medieval violence, dismissing the revisionist theories that argue against it. The very existence of the Peace Movement in the 11th century is proof of the presence of violence, but also of the “existence of an ideological crisis.” (347) Though it initiated the Peace Movement, the Church lacked the means to enforce its decisions upon the knights. Its attempts to address and control feudal violence, Haidu argues, therefore “mutated” into permanent institutions of the state.

Texts contemporary with the Peace Movement mirror this preoccupation with violence. Haidu notes that, although these texts praise heroic virtues, they don’t all “glorify the violence they represent.” (41) This explains the depiction of violence as reprehensible, or at least problematic. In hagiographies such as La vie de Saint Alexis, for instance, the values of the saint’s life exclude violence. In the Song of Roland, the violence necessary to defend Christianity is redirected against foreign invaders. What is not addressed in the Song of Roland, Haidu points out, is how this shift occurs or how the savage warriors come to obey a distant prince. These texts, Haidu concludes, see violence “as a social and textual problem, from the perspective of a state in the process of creation and the recasting of subjectivity.” (78)

In love lyrics, the violent warrior of the Song of Roland becomes a knight with new sets of rules and a female figure in the place of a male seigneur or king. The female figure of the love lyric resembles the king: they are both physically absent, but their presence is always felt through representatives. The knight Yvain also represents the absent Arthur, even acting almost autonomously. Haidu explains this contradiction: at its beginning, subjectivity is “not a universally recognized characteristic of the body politic. It is a specialized trait of functionaries. Their subjectivity is the representation of the state within the psyche of the individual subject.” (116)

In his chapter on Chrétien de Troyes, Haidu asserts that Chrétien’s main topic is the subject, “a subject coordinate with the State.” (116) The first section of the book ends with a discussion of Raoul de Cambrai. Once again, violence is central, but this time, the focus is on the victim. The other innovation of Raoul is the depiction of the king misusing his power and of the vassals resisting state formation.

The second section of the book examines practices of governance, such as surveillance, control, and the census. The Domesday Book of 1087 illustrates the preoccupation of the state with taking surveys to ensure the maximum possible taxation. Two early categories of subjects are also created to this end: those who exercise violence in the name of the state, and the functionaries, like Yvain, who represent the absent king.

Haidu justifies his selection of texts as examples of a “new kind of history.” (266) In this respect, Adam’s Congés presents a new view of subjectivity as relying on the “interdependence of self and other, of subject and cultural ideology.” (279) Moreover, by opposing commerce to human values, Adam is an innovator who deserves a place among modernists. Jean de Meung lays out a version of “primitive Communism.” (291) Philippe de Beaumanoir’s writings on the functions of the bailli establish, according to Haidu, “the vernacular discourse as an institution, reporting on sociojuridical practices of ideology and subjectivity.” (300) Villon gives voice to those who lack it thus rejecting “institutional subjection.” (330)

Haidu’s erudition is exemplary, and his work will benefit anyone interested in medieval studies. The Middle Ages are often misunderstood by the modern reader, but Subject can cure anyone (who is ready for the challenge) of this shameful “disease.” As Haidu emphasizes, in spite of the many similarities between the Middle Ages and modernity, there are differences as well. Modern distinctions, for instance, cast an aura of ambiguity on medieval texts. In this regard, it is important to acknowledge that, unlike the modern opposition between the individual and the community, the medieval community ensures individuality by “emphasizing the location of an individual in a corporate group.” (273)

Haidu’s analysis of the emergence of the modern state is highly pertinent. For Haidu, the state did not put a stop to medieval violence; on the contrary, it amplified and legitimized it. A just war is one led by the state. Of great political significance today is the sharp distinction Haidu draws between the modern bureaucrat and his medieval counterpart, the bailli. The former blindly obeys his superiors lest he lose his job, while the latter was obliged by contract to disobey immoral orders lest he lose his soul. The modern citizen should keep that in mind when mocking the Middle Ages.

Haidu’s interpretations reflect his political convictions. One can argue for and against a reading of history as endless class struggle, but one must not twist realities to fit personal theories. The forced peasant labor of feudal societies and the voluntarily contracted labor of industrial societies are not synonymous, nor are society and state, though Haidu considers them as such. His analysis of Marie de France also suffers from his preconceptions. Marie de France, writes Haidu, “knew marginalization: to that of gender were added the geographical and the linguistic.”(123) However, her elite status among those who could write (around 5 percent of the population) and her knowledge of at least four foreign languages are hardly signs of marginalization. Her association with Henry II distances her even further from Haidu’s sad portrait. It almost seems as if Haidu needed Marie de France to be a “writer of margins,” (137) so he made her one. Thankfully, such transgressions are rare in this text. In most cases, Haidu does not hesitate to go against established tendencies in literary criticism. When approaching Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies, for instance, Haidu recommends a “less adulatory reading of her text.” (304) She is not a feminist, not a modern one at least, and her beliefs are anti-democratic.

Though Haidu admits that all texts are not overtly political, he nonetheless maintains that novels always contain political undercurrents. In Rose I, Guillaume de Lorris meant to ignore politics, history, and identity, yet the role of Dangier, an obstacle to overcome, is political. Such over-politicization is problematic, especially when defining the modern subject as essentially political. As a creation of the state, the subject can only manifest its freedom through political choices. Therefore, according to Haidu’s theory, when a subject makes some other type of choice, it does not attain subjectivity. Consider Chrétien de Troyes’ hero. Perceval’s choices to never repeat God’s names, to repent, and to abandon knighthood do not demonstrate his subjectivity, as those decisions are apolitical. “Perceval,” writes Haidu, “slides from one attempted subjectivation to another, without attaining subjectivity … even in the Hermit Episode.” (103)

Haidu’s view of subjectivity is not only reductive but also paradoxical, and thus brings into question the very existence of subjectivity. The author describes the subject as “the thorn in the state’s side,” (343) yet he is surprised that “oddly enough the triumph of state formation under Philippe Augustus had among its many effects, not consolidation of the subject, but its problematization.” (348) A subject does not emerge outside the state – it is, in fact, created by the state, which in turn stifles any attempts at individualism and subjectivity. Who, then, are these modern subjects of which Haidu writes?