The Medieval Review 11.11.26

Tolmie, Jane and M.J. Toswell. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2010. Pp. xii, 306. 60 EUR. ISBN 9778-2-503-52858-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Kim Zarins
The California State University at Sacramento

Ever since an Early Modern colleague Sheree Meyer interested me in the lament poems of Ben Jonson and Katherine Philips, I have wanted to gain a better understanding of parental loss in medieval literature. [1] Brepols' website describes Laments for the Lost as having "a particular focus on grief at the loss of children," a point reiterated in the first chapter and Postscript. I would add a cautionary statement: readers interested in the history of the family or the child, who come to the book for this focus on parental bereavement, will need to turn to the second half of the volume. The early chapters contain much fine research and lucid prose, but the connection of nearly half this volume to that particular focus is not as strong as one might wish.

In the first essay, Anne L. Klink offers an overview of lamentation and the literature of loss with a vast array of examples including Bion, Virgil, Volsunga saga, Carmina Burana, the late- medieval Castilian Agora que soy niûa, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan, Milton, Shelly, Matthew Arnold, the 1773 "Lament for Art O'Leary," Flannery O'Connor, and many others, all within twenty pages. The piece reflects great learning and scatters references to parental mourning, a topic discussed in its own right in the essay's final pages. A reader expecting the book to be about parental mourning would appreciate a longer section on parents in mourning. Even better, though, would be an introductory essay by the editors laying out the volume's organization. By plan or circumstance, Klink has the mammoth task of writing both about loss in literature and of providing some statement on "the special interest" of this volume, "mourning for dead children," though she concedes, "Apart from the Marian laments, which form a special case, I can think of few medieval examples" (17). An Introduction might have taken much of this load off her, providing a space to explain what went behind this "special interest" and how the essays complement and contextualize it among the many forms of loss reflected in medieval literature.

Even those, however, are not comprehensively sampled, and the principles of use and focus for the book must be inferred. The next three contributions mainly pertain to Old English literature. Volume editor M. J. Toswell offers a survey of lament psalms in Old English literature, revealing how vernacular authors, including Hoccleve, adapt conventions of the Psalms in form and content rather than adhere to a close, literal translation. Alfred, for example, employs doublet nouns and verbs in loose translations that show Alfred's interest in adapting the Psalms for his contemporary audience. Mary K. Ramsey proposes that "the literature of lament in Old English is where Anglo- Saxons 'put the remains', that the poetry is meant not only to tell the story of the dead, whether of individuals or communities, but also to stand metonymically in the place of the dead" (48-9). Ramsey underscores the impermanence of monuments, necessitating the true treasure of the people to go into their narratives. Anne Savage points out the poignancy of communities' loss of both their past and future in one moment; burying their loved ones, the mourners are isolated and doomed to die alone: "who will lay them out?" (76). Among those who suffer are parents (Grendel's mother, Hredel, the man whose son hangs on the gallows, and Hildeburh) caught under tensions of divided families and comfortless burials, or lack of one. The essay concludes with a moving reference to a child's grave at Sutton Hoo, and the notion that the boy's miniature spear does not symbolize the warrior he was but "points to what he would have been" (80).

Jan M. Ziolkowski's chapter, "Laments for Lost Children: Latin Traditions" is the first piece where the volume's "special interest" receives central attention. As Pearsall notes in his Postscript, this is a contextualizing essay; it acts as an introductory essay to the volume's topic and sets forth basic terms (e.g., what is a child?), compares Latin's universal permanence as opposed to the vernacular's status, defines classical terminology, and provides historical and cultural contexts (most interesting were examples of church fathers rebuking parents for excessive mourning). Medieval authors adapted tales of Biblical parents and children including Jacob, Jephthah's daughter, Rachel, the Holy Innocents slaughtered under Herod's orders, and Mary. Parents grieved vicariously through sacred narratives like the death of the Holy Innocents and were invited to find consolation therein. Especially interesting was the discussion of ethopoeia, in which classical students of rhetoric composed lament poems by such renowned women (and mothers) as Andromache, Niobe, and Medea. The essay concludes with Hypsipyle's lament for her charge Opheltes and the story's prominence in literary and musical adaptation. I found it interesting that Ziolkowski mentions Hypsipyle's lament but not that of Opheltes' mother, Eurydice, found in Statius' Thebaid Book 6.138-183--what makes the nurse's lament more powerful or popular than the mother's bitter lament? It is a useful introductory survey, but it has very few quotations of medieval Latin poetry, which is unfamiliar enough to deserve some inclusion.

Susan Small's contribution, "The Language of Philomena's Lament," stood out from the previous broad-scoped chapters in its tight focus on the cry of Philomela after her transformation into a nightingale. Small engagingly theorizes the conflict between inadvertent and intended meaning in Philomela's onomatopoeia-enriched call, "oci," which could signify the imperative, "Kill!" or the present, first person singular, "I kill." Anyone interested in Philomela, onomatopoeia, or simply the friction between form and content would profit from this piece. Though Philomela's loss is indeed staggering, I wondered if the special focus of the volume could have been taken into consideration more, as Philomela is neither mourning a child or any other dear departed kin. I wished for more positioning of chapters like this one.

In "Mary, Motherhood, and Theatricality in the Old Polish Listen, Dear Brothers and Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale," Anna Czarnowus focuses on the theatricality of both texts. The Virgin's compassion for Christ's passion is emulated by Constance, who like Mary is a "mother forced to occupy a hostile space" (138), and like the Virgin, she voices her woes before an audience, a performance in contrast to her previous silence. Constance is not lamenting a departed son, but her parallel life with the Virgin allows her to participate in what Czarnowus calls a "community of mothers," deliberately invoked in the Old Polish poem (generously included in the chapter's appendix), and a "theatre of salvation" (145).

The next two chapters, by Joseph Harris and Russell Poole, discuss Sonatorrek, one of medieval literature's most remarkable lament poems. The chapters draw attention to laments of fathers for their children and (especially in Harris) the balance between a father's worship of and resentment toward the god who deprived his child of life--indeed, I wished for a chapter on Pearl to complete the discussion but was glad that Egill was included in a volume in which Mary and mothers naturally receive so much attention. Harris discusses how Egill constructs his lament poem (erfikv╛di) around the myth of Odin's beloved and tragically murdered son Balder, yet while Egil takes on the role of Odin as bereaved father, he resents the real Odin who functions as a god of death constantly recruiting warriors for Valhalla. While Harris compares Egill's description of his shocked silence after his son's death with that of the gods after Baldr's death, thereby modeling his grief on sacred narrative, Poole notes that Sonatorrek is a compilation, and that same silence could be modeled after Carolingian poetry, specifically the poetry of Gottschalk of Orbais. This attention to Latin literature adapted to vernacular ends reminds me of Toswell's chapter on the Psalms (185).

The last four chapters explore the ways in which women react to loss, mostly the loss of children, and what this says about women. In a chapter on Middle English Nativity lyrics by Amy N. Vines, we learn that this genre associated with soothing a baby is anything but soothing in late medieval literature, of which the lullabies present Mary lamenting the death of her son while her child is still a healthy baby. To Vines, the moving image prefigures the Pietê, though the lullaby is a private, domestic scene while her lament over Christ's crucified body is a public lamentation. Mary's lullabies of lament, receiving her knowledge from the Christ child, are eerie and reveal to medieval audiences how transient parental bliss is.

"Natural Feeling and Unnatural Mothers: Herod the Great, The Life of Saint Bridget, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale" by Rebecca Krug, points out the complex roles women in mourning are assigned. On the one hand, the mothers of the Holy Innocents are permitted a public display of desolate lamentation; on the other hand, saints ought to rise above such emotion and not mourn for the loss of children. Griselda's role as mourning parent is stripped of open lamentation and other shows of "natural feeling" due to her saintly nature. The next chapter contrasts nicely with Krug's portrayal of "unnatural mothers" whose spiritualized responses to death bear little in common with the raw emotion of the mother of God. Elizabeth Towl's contribution on "The Lamentacioun of Oure Lady" notes that the poem focuses not on Christ's suffering, which is minimally treated, but on Mary's troubles: her persecution from the crowds who cursed her and her agony and loss during the Crucifixion. Towl notes the realistic portrayal of grief in Mary's egocentrism, her intense anger at God, and her loss of identity as a mother. Why Mary is allowed this human response while Bridget and those like her are not is worth further exploration. As Nadia Margolis writes in her chapter, "Christine de Pizan's Life in Lament: Love, Death, and Politics," Christine's authorial persona and life are marked with political and personal loss expressed in varied forms of lament. Her stature as an author occasioned by widowhood is well known, and she also endured the loss of a son and later that of her son Jean in 1425. Margolis focuses on Christine's political activism with an eye to gendered language, gendered power, and the figure of motherhood in Christine's writings.

Christine's role as a provider for her family forced her to "become a man" as she explains in her Mutacion de Fortune. The final essay on English "Massacre Plays" (the Slaughter of the Innocents), by editor Jane Tolmie addresses mutability in gender and tone in medieval drama. She notes strange metamorphoses from male into female stage props, and shifts from lamentation into comedy, as the transvestite mothers of the Innocents (i.e., male actors role-playing mothers) show their aggression to the soldiers who kill their children. They are as passionate as Mary described in Towl's chapter, but without any of the dignity accorded to the mother of God. Tolmie's intriguing chapter emphasizes the disturbing prevalence of humor in the massacre and the manner in which the women, spouting jingling threats and wisecracks at the soldiers, are spotlighted, while the Innocents are killed without comment--with a mere stage direction, in fact, while the women banter on without any recognition of the atrocity. These carnivalesque features point to the lack of innocence in the mothers of the Innocents. Their ineffectual resistance only underscores the blame they bear for being women.

In his brief "Postscript/Postlude/Afterword" Derek Pearsall discusses the chapters that bear upon the volume's theme, leaving the more general chapters alone. He makes the point that bereaved parents in secular literature are given little representation in the medieval period. He adds the lament of the mother of the Prioresse's Tale, the urgency and despair of which seem to me to evoke Ceres' lament for Persephone from Ovid's Fasti 4. Pearsall concludes with Lydgate's treatment of Canacee's lament for her baby, soon to be killed on her tyrannical father's orders.

The mention of Lydgate brings to mind the death of Opheltes from Statius' Thebaid and Lydgate's Siege of Thebes. The story underscores personal and public loss centered on this little child, whose death occasions great public mourning in Statius and, in Lydgate, some gratuitous moralizing from Adrastus, warning the boy's father that "No man [should] gruch" against the gods, nor engage in the "gret foly" of grief. [2] Lydgate's concern over excessive mourning resembles the epilogue of the Brome Sacrifice of Isaac, which concludes with an address to men:

"Trowe ye, sorys, and God sent an angell, And commawndyd yow yowre child to slayn, By yowre trowthe, is ther ony of yow That either wold groche or strive ther-ageyn? How thingke ye now, sorys, therby? I trow ther be thre or four, or moo-- And this[e] women that wepe so sorrowfully Whan that hir childryn dey them froo, As nater woll, and kind. It is but folly...[3]

The essays in this volume make clear that women had an outlet for their feelings in the passionate mourning of Mary. But is their grief mere folly? And what of paternal grief? Krug states that "Representation of parental grief was widespread in late medieval literature," and she cites Pearl, Herod the Great, the Prioresse's Tale, and The Tale of Melibee (229). This volume begins valuable groundwork in exploring parental loss, and I hope that other scholars will take up this topic and explore how widespread these representations were, giving weight to maternal and paternal grief in secular and Christian literature. The differentiation of paternal obedience and maternal folly in The Sacrifice of Isaac shows gendered grieving, yet for some fathers, paternal obedience does not guarantee recovery. John Gower's Apollonius takes the news of his daughters' death and does not groche "sithe it mai no betre be / He thonketh God and forth goth he": this indirect discourse is separated from the man's speech and his heart. [4] He descends, like Egill or Hredel, into a closeted space to mourn in darkness and silence, to be saved only by his Muse- like daughter. The evidence suggests that the "folly" of grieving is shared by both sexes (in different ways), and is rooted to identity. We wouldn't be human without it, because, as Mary's own distress manifests, lament is not a flaw of the spirit but a cry of the spirit, demanding a connection with God and the child God took away.



1. Sheree Meyer, "The Public Statements and Private Losses of Ben Jonson & Katherine Philips: The Poet as Bereaved Parent,"

Explorations in Renaissance Culture, Vol. XIX, 1993, 173-182. 2. John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, ed. Robert Edwards. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2001, lines 3443, 3449.

3. Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975, lines 443-452.

4. John Gower, Confessio Amantis, ed. Russell Peck. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000-2006, 3 vols, lines 8.1589-90.