The Medieval Review 11.01.06

Kline, Daniel T. The Medieval British Literature Handbook. Literature and Culture Handbooks. London: Continuum, 2009. Pp. xxii, 300. . $29.95 ISBN 978-0-8264-9409-2.

Reviewed by:

George Keiser
keiser.george@gmail.com

For those enamored of Theory, this book may be a good read. As someone who is not, reading it made me fear that I was experiencing the first phase of ADD. No one can disagree with the underlying premise of the book, that critical movements have expanded the canon of Middle English literature and have profoundly influenced the ways in which we now read this literature and will continue to do so. However, the essays in this guide take a narrow perspective and offer a limited and, in some respects, outdated view of those ways of reading. Indeed, the book may have passed its sell-by date: "Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical '- ism' and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts" (New York Times, November 17, 2010, C3).

The structure of the book reflects the stated aims of the series of which it is a part, as these are set forth in an introduction by the general editors. The declared intention is a "student-friendly" work intended to guide undergraduates "through the increasing academic difficulty of complex, critical and theoretical approaches to Literary Studies" (xxi-xxii). This volume's introduction by Daniel Kline is a good-natured and enthusiastic celebration of the medieval world as past and present, emphasizing an interpenetration of the medieval and modern world and recommending modern medievalism as a way to draw students into medieval literature. While concentrating on the theoretical, Kline does admit that "the perception that literary theory has distanced readers from the literature itself, or otherwise obscured the rhetorical and literary features of a text, is giving rise to a new formalism and a renewed sense of aesthetic appreciation" (17). Of that matter we hear no more.

In a mere fifteen pages, "Historical Context for Middle English Literature," Brian Gastle provides a potted history of 1066-1500, with a nine-page timeline for the period. Gastle emphasizes the hotspots of current concern: the Crusades, ecclesiastical power and unrest, plague and its economic consequences, social and political upheaval. While the limited space makes detailed exploration of these topics impossible, recommendations for further readings in studies and surveys would have been valuable. Each chapter in the volume contains a set of study questions. Here Gastle provides URLs for a Christian and an Arab account of crusading activities and three current views of Lollardy. These are certainly welcome, but they do not really present students with challenges to explore in any depth the issues treated in the chapter.

The third chapter, like the previous one, seems meant to provide a foundation for what will follow. It contains an alphabetized list of "Major Figures [i,e, not authors], Institutions, Topics, Movements," the work primarily of Julia Bolton Holloway, with insertions by Daniel Kline. This whimsical and not always well-informed list begins with Adam Easton, a figure of marginal interest to Middle English literature. Puzzling indeed is the fact that he should be here at all and given as much space as more obviously important figures: Caxton, Chaucer, Lydgate, and Malory. The agenda for this and much else is clear if one consults a website on mysticism for which Bolton is the webmaster. One section of that site explains the presence of Easton in this list, as well as London, British Library, MS 39970, which Bolton calls the Amherst MS. Interesting as it is, this codex hardly trumps the Vernon MS (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. poet.a.1), which Bolton ignores. A recent announcement of plans for a digitized version undertaken by the Bodleian and the University of Manchester (www.medievalenglish.bham.ac.uk/vernon/) rightly describes the manuscript as "the biggest and most important surviving late medieval English manuscript." Bolton may have the Vernon in mind when she mistakenly describes the Auchinleck MS (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1) as "a compilation...written out in an Anglo-Norman convent." As the NLS website explains, the Auchinleck MS has long been recognized as a commercial, metropolitan production (auchinleck.nls.uk). Among its other oddities, the chapter defines dream visions as works of "spiritual and contemplative awareness," notwithstanding a reference to Chaucer's courtly dream visions, and it describes Malory as "writing in Tudor English" while giving his death date as 1471, some years before the first Tudor monarch assumed the throne in 1485.

In a chapter entitled "Case Studies in Reading I: Key Primary Literary Texts," M. B. Goldie brings us as close as we ever get to sustained analyses of literary texts in the book. About a third of the chapter is devoted to The Book of Margery Kempe, which Bolton described as "one of the most important [achievements] in ME." Goldie stresses the historical, performative, and subversive aspects of Margery's book, as he also does when treating Marie de France's Lanval, Piers Plowman, and Mankind.

The remaining chapters offer varied expositions of Theory and its applicability to Middle English literature. These are of varying interest and frequently cover the same ground, with Chaucer's Pardoner and Margery's book turning up again and again as illustrations. The authors present confident and, usually, intelligible expositions of the workings and range of Theory, though whether these would be fully accessible to uninitiated undergraduates remains a question. On a practical level, one of the more satisfying chapters is "Changes in Critical Responses and Approaches," in which John Ganim gives an account of "post-structuralism, New Historicism, feminism, gender and sexuality studies and postcolonial studies," defining each and describing "a typical or especially influential example of their uses" (135).

Devoted advocacy of Theory and other virtues notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how this book would be useful in helping undergraduates read Middle English writings without extensive guidance and explanation by the instructor. The few primary works that receive even brief mention in the latter chapters of the volume are discussed only as subjects of particular critical studies. The questions and suggested web searches that accompanying these chapters mainly encourage students to recapitulate the exposition the chapters or to search for similar critical studies. They seldom direct attention to writings in Middle English, raising the question as to whether validating critical approaches is preferable to reading primary works.

For students beginning their studies of Middle English literature, or even more advanced students, a vital issue would surely be the language(s) of the literature itself. The only treatment of language- -brief, general, and abstract--is in Holloway's chapter, where she speaks of records and inventories kept "both in Latin and the vernacular" (52). By the latter Holloway apparently means English, overlooking the fact that French was also a vernacular of later medieval England, in which many records and inventories were kept and in which a number of writers composed works, including John Gower and, likely, Geoffrey Chaucer. In Chapter 8, "Changes in the Canon," Nancy B. Warren speaks of multilingualism without specificity concerning the languages used in later medieval England. Nowhere in the volume do we find information about dictionaries, though the on-line version of the Middle English Dictionary appears twice (279, 287) in the wide-ranging and unsorted 40-plus page bibliography at the end of the volume. However, there are no citations for the OED or Old French, Anglo- Norman, and Medieval Latin dictionaries. Nor does the volume evince any concern with the nature of editions and the important distinctions between those with normalized texts and those that attempt to reproduce the text as found in manuscripts. (This indifference to editing is evident in the citation of an unreliable 1871 edition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, rather than a far more reliable 1984 edition.) The question of whether students should read medieval writings in some form of Middle English, normalized or otherwise, or read them in translation is not addressed.

Perhaps necessarily, the individual authors paint in broad strokes, but often these are too broad. Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe are discussed together (188-89) with no consideration of the vast difference in the nature of their writings. A similar lack of distinction is the absence of any explanation that the works of Continental female authors were frequently read in Middle English translations which probably were not made by English women. How this figures into questions of gynocriticism (203-4) deserves consideration. Alexandra Barratt, an early and strong voice on the subject of medieval English writings by and for women, has recently suggested that "women's writing in Middle English, though a seductive topic, turns out to promise more than it delivers" (see Anne Bulkeley and her Book [Belgium: Brepols, 2009], p. 1). Barratt recommends study of the many other aspects of women's relation to literary culture, particularly as readers, patrons, and book-owners. In all the pages devoted to feminism and feminist studies in this volume, I find no reference to studies of women's books and what they tell us about their readers, despite valuable contributions to this subject by Mary Erler, Jennifer Summit, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, and Rebecca Krug--all of which modify many assumptions concerning gender and literature set forth in this book. Codicology and book-history, fields of immense growth that provide information about women's relations to books, have no advocates here. The patronage of such women as Margaret, Duchess of Clarence, and her granddaughter Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII) receives no notice. Unnoticed too in the one brief reference to Osbern Bokenham's collection of lives of holy women are the specific contemporary women whom the author names as the audience for his work. The book-owning Paston family and their letters are mentioned once, with no attention whatever to the towering figure of Margaret Paston, who dictated a large number of those letters in a voice as strong as that of Margery Kempe and whose daughters certainly were influenced by their reading.

Finally, any book directed to undergraduates in 2010 must recognize their digital savvy and their readiness to make use of it. Throughout the book we find scant attention to internet resources, and the bibliography has no more than a dozen references to such resources (two listed twice, one listed three times, under different names). Even though two contributors to the volume, including its editor, maintain webpages, the main text has few recommendations for drawing upon internet resources for creative research that might easily be undertaken by undergraduates. With astonishing frequency these days we hear of the availability of digitized versions of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, yet these receive no attention. A curious feature of the book is an interesting appendix, "Teaching Medieval British Literature into the Twenty-First Century" by Susan Oldrieve, which has a tenuous connection to the rest of the book. (To gain access to this appendix, one must go to the internet and register with the publisher.) Only in this appendix do we find a brief, general, but wise discussion of the possibilities the internet provides for undergraduate teaching. Using the internet with Theory is by no means impossible. Unfortunately, using them in a complementary way seems a challenge that this book fails to consider. This limit, along with others noted above, would suggest that the book is indeed beyond its sell-by date.