This essay takes the Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory as a test case for the applicability of Thomas Kuhn's notion of “paradigm shifts” to the history of culture. While Kuhn apparently found inspiration in the disciplines of cultural and art history for his idea that scientific progress is noncumulative, the arts and humanities (unlike the sciences) must deal with the ideas of (and the evidence for) “Renaissance” and “renascence,” “resistance” and “reaction.” A poet such as Malory may achieve a permanent place in literary history and on required-reading lists by resisting a shift in paradigm, whereas a scientist who resists will effectively disappear. Thus, the Morte Darthur set the terms for modern literature in English by holding fast to those of the Middle Ages. This essay argues that Malory was “modern” in that the Morte Darthur would not have been written except for the events in England and France of 1454–85 but that what was most modern about him was his resistance to concomitant changes in English society.

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