Ethnic and Primitive Paradigms in the Study of Early Medieval Art

  • Lawrence Nees
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Thomas Kuhn has much to say about stubborn adherence to an underlying paradigm, a tendency apparently embedded deep in human psychology. In his classic discussion of the issue, Kuhn quotes one study in which people persisted in identifying playing cards as “normal” even when shown cards that were obviously impossible, such as a red six of spades or a black four of hearts.1 Scholars tend to be conservative; expertise is often associated with conviction,2 and paradigms are resistant to change partly because they are literally taken for granted. So one should probably view as a hopeful sign of the growing recognition that a paradigm shift is needed in the study of early medieval art that, in 1992, Per Jonas Nordhagen, referring (to me, ironically) to Kuhn’s theoretical presentation, criticized Ernst Kitzinger for proposing we substitute a new paradigm of “stylistic modes” for the older one of “local schools.” This older paradigm was codified in 1924, in a famous diagram by Charles Rufus Morey that Nordhagen thought still fundamentally valid.3 On its face, the local schools concept seems geographical, contrasting traditions primarily associated with different cities; but Morey revealed he was thinking in terms of ethnic distinctions when he described one of his major trends as “neo-Attic” and another as “Asiatic,” evoking a dichotomy that goes back to Aeschylus.4


British Museum Ethnic Category British Library Artistic Tradition Metropolitan Museum 
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Copyright information

© Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz 2007

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  • Lawrence Nees

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