English, Department of


Date of this Version



Modern Language Quarterly 9 (1988), pp. 386-395.


Published by Duke University Press.


Lee Patterson begins Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature with quotations from Johan Huizinga, concerning the necessary objectivity of the historian's project, and from Soren Kierkegaard, concerning the "pretext of objectivity" that leads his opponents to "sacrifice individualities entirely" (p. ix). Patterson wishes, rightly I think, to avoid the naivete of either position. But he also wishes to show that contemporary historicist positions have not been objective but governed by modern political considerations, and he wants to demonstrate this in such a way as to be able to build on New Historicism while, in the process, changing it in order to "rescue texts from the tyranny of context" (p. xi). But if recent "language analysis" philosophy is correct in its claim that a word's meaning is its use in the context and for the audience for which it is used, there may be no rescuing us from the tyranny, or the liberations, of context. That does not imply that all works from a period or milieu "mean" the same thing but rather indicates that to mean at all they have to be couched in rule-governed public languages. Patterson would take us away from the tyranny of context by grounding us in approaches that go beyond context--a revised version of New Criticism, Auerbachian analysis, and New Historicism. ...

There is another sense in which the world of textuality is open, open to reconstruction in terms of what we can know of history-through the study of archaeology, historical linguistics, medieval reader response, the remnants of the past extant in modern institutions, and, most of all, through the study of the language games outside literature used in specific contexts, without which the language of literature would not exist.