Open Minds

Recently, The New Yorker published a highly problematic piece by Lawrence Wright, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc and Open Minds.” Medievalists around the country responded to the article in a series of open letters. Below is one such open letter sent to the magazine by Prof. Elina Gertsman and her colleague at California State University, Prof. Asa Simon Mittman. 

Lawrence Wright’s “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc and Open Minds” brims with outdated misinformation and ceaselessly perpetuated clichés. Among the low points are the long-discredited claim that the dark and dangerous Middle Ages were brought down by the plague (which any historian of medicine would know must not be characterized as “bubonic”), only to usher in the joyous and enlightened period of the so-called Renaissance, but more troubling in our historical moment is the bizarre and racist periodization claim that tethers this “end” to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. There are other strange errors that a bit of basic fact-checking should have caught, such as the proclamation that Cicero and the like were unknown in the Middle Ages. The absurd moniker “the Dark Ages” was retired decades ago, and would not be used by any serious scholar in the field at this point, but here we find it resurrected, and tied to the trite statement that Renaissance humanism “unsettled the stagnant rule of religion over people’s minds,” as if the celebrated works of the Renaissance, from Donatello’s Mary Magdalene to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes to Raphael’s most famed works, located in the pope’s quarters, are somehow not religious works. Indeed, the many supposed heroes of this period Wright champions (such as Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante) — those he credits with sparking “a great cultural renewal” — all flourished long before the fall of Constantinople, and therefore, according to Wright himself, fall squarely into the “dark” medieval period. The rest of Europe, it would seem — the Europe of universities, of thriving urban culture, of rich visual, musical, and literary production — apparently never existed, having been swallowed whole by “the feudal system” (another long-debunked claim). The simplistic narrative that Wright offers about “Dark Ages” foolishness and “Renaissance” brilliance does not stand up to basic scrutiny, and should not have made it into the pages of The New Yorker.

– Elina Gertsman, Case Western Reserve university

– Asa Simon Mittman, California State University