The Medieval Review 09.08.01

Kennedy, Ruth and Simon Meecham-Jones (eds.). Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. 312. $89.95 978-0-230-60295-3. .

Reviewed by:

Robin Chapman Stacey
University of Washington
rcstacey@u.washington.edu

"History is not always written by the victor," as Helen Fulton observes in Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones' superb new volume of essays, Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales (208). Unfortunately, this is usually not for want of trying, as those familiar with almost any world instance of colonial occupation will know all too well. Conquests might be effected by armed force and consolidated by statutes and bureaucratic niggling; however, they are legitimated, or even erased in memory altogether, by means of the cultural products that follow in the tracks of armies and kings. It is to this process of cultural reimagining in the wake of the English conquest of Wales in 1282 that the present volume of essays is devoted, and it is one of the great virtues of the collection that almost without exception, the authors represented in it refuse to simplify the constructions they describe in the interests of any particular theoretical or political agenda. Some address English constructions of Welshness and others Welsh constructions of Englishness. All, however, acknowledge in some manner the complexities of cultural interaction in a setting in which political independence had been lost, but national identity, social class, and individual prosperity were still very much at stake.

Several prominent themes run throughout the volume as a whole, connecting essays that might seem on the surface rather disparate in focus and theoretical perspective. Prominent amongst these themes is an interest in cultural erasure: the means by which Wales and the Welsh were made simply to disappear in the works of Middle English authors in a variety of genres. As Meecham-Jones points out in one of the strongest essays in the book, Middle English authors virtually omitted Wales from their works. Chaucer mentions Wales only once directly and Gower in Confessio Amantis not at all; English romances, songs and epics do not hesitate to celebrate the crusades or Charlemagne, but are silent about the political and cultural battles taking place nearer to home. Tony Davenport stresses similarly the contrast between French-speaking authors like Marie de France, who show little reluctance to set their chivalric and romance fictions in Wales, and their English counterparts, who seem to go to great lengths to erase all mentions of the region, even when adapting French stories in which Wales originally featured prominently. Erasure of a slightly different sort is the concern of Sara Elin Roberts and David Klausner, who assemble the evidence for sophisticated and largely independent traditions of law and drama existing before and after the Conquest-- Roberts drawing interesting contrasts between Welsh and English practices, and Klausner arguing persuasively that the relative paucity of visible civic drama in Wales is rooted in contrasting economic realities of the two nations.

Related to the idea of cultural erasure is that of cultural reconstruction: specifically, the conscious or unconscious depiction in English sources of Welsh culture as "barbarous," "uncivilized," and generally lacking in what R. R. Davies termed the "sweet civility" of English life. Several of the essays in the book testify to this widespread practice. Meecham-Jones traces the manner in which what he calls the discourses of the peripherality and inferiority of Welsh culture became such a fixture in the English literary record that neither medieval nor modern authors thought to challenge them. Peter Robson makes use of Edward Said's writings on Orientalism to situate the famous Exeter Book Riddle 12 within a colonializing discourse in which Welshness is equivalent to servility and a furtively gendered sexuality. Ronald Waldron offers a new translation of De Wallia from Higden's Polychronicon , outlining the manner in which pejorative stereotypes are deliberately played up throughout the narrative. Tony Davenport's excellent article on Welshness in Middle English romance literature traces changes in the portrayal of Wales over time, from the twelfth century, when Wales tended not to appear at all in such narratives, through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Wales appears either as a wild, lawless place of forests and mountains, or as a place in which heroes might test themselves and prove their valor. And Cory Rushton's focus is Malory, in whose works south Wales appears a land of kinship and alliance for his hero Arthur (appropriated here for England), while north Wales is depicted as a place of rebellion and feud.

Somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, another theme of the volume is the complexity characteristic of cultural interactions between the victorious English and the defeated Welsh. Several essays stress the extent to which English and Welsh continued productively to interact even after 1282: William Marx, for example, demonstrates the presence of many English-speaking communities on the Welsh side of the border. Michelle Brown situates the production of the Llandeilo/Lichfield Gospels within the churches of the Columban federation, but argues that it is ultimately futile to try to "claim" manuscripts of this sort for one nation or another. Sally Harper considers Welsh and English musical traditions side by side, particularly those related to poet-harpers, concluding that while there were significant differences between these traditions, there were similarities and connections as well. And Geraint Evans demonstrates the significance to the continuance of Welsh culture of London and the large number of Welsh speakers resident there in the days of the sixteenth-century Protestant printer and translator William Salesbury. Ceridwen Lloyd- Morgan's splendid essay on literary borrowing extends the focus to Welsh relations with the French and Anglo-Norman realms, showing just how extensive Welsh cultural contacts with the continent were in this period. Not only were well-known Arthurian narratives "borrowed back" from France and translated into Welsh, but a variety of more surprising genres were also assimilated into Welsh tradition, such as religious texts, proverbs, and even a copy of Walter of Henley's treatise on husbandry.

Perhaps the most thoughtful and challenging essay in the collection is Helen Fulton's examination of the treatment of Englishness in post- Conquest Welsh poetry. Drawing on Homi Bhabha's concepts of "doubling" and "mimicry" as a way of understanding the relationship between colonizer and colonized, she challenges the idea that Welsh attitudes towards their English conquerors were always and inevitably hostile. Hers is one of a number of essays in the volume (also Harper, Roberts, Meecham-Jones, and to a lesser degree Klausner) to call attention to the role played by social class in complicating portrayals by the Welsh of their conquerors. The vested social and economic interests of the native Welsh nobility ( uchelwyr ), as well as their long history of collaboration with Marcher and English lords, ensured that attitudes towards England and the English could never be entirely one way or the other. Identities were multivalent and inherently complex: uchelwyr could collaborate with English rule while simultaneously resisting it in ways designed to underscore their identity as Welshmen with a proud and independent history. They could attempt to partake of ("mimic") English aristocratic culture, looking with contempt on the lives of the burgher class, and yet at the same time patronize the very poets in whose work the essential cultural differences between themselves and their conquerors were chiefly preserved. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, one from which anyone interested in the application of post-colonialist theory to medieval relationships of domination and conquest would surely benefit.

Inevitably, there are a few weaknesses to the volume. The essays do vary rather a lot in terms of their historiographical focus and perspective. Some are highly theoretical in their approach (Meecham- Jones, Robson, Fulton, to a lesser degree Harper); others, by contrast, are rather more traditional (Marx, Evans). This is not in itself a drawback, of course, and Meecham-Jones's introduction does a lot to smooth over the rough edges, but it does make the collection feel rather disjointed at times. Some interpretations are more convincing than others, and some are easier to follow. I found Brown's arguments regarding Columban connections quite persuasive, for example, whereas I struggled a bit with Robson's fascinating, but to me ultimately hard to pin down, interpretation of the Exeter Book riddle. A more substantial complaint has to do with the extremely small typeface of the volume. My middle-aged eyes could read the text if held at an appropriate distance; however, the print in the two maps provided (particularly the map of Wales and England together) was so small that I literally could not find a focal length that would allow me to make out the names. A quick survey of others in the vicinity at the time I was reading this book suggested that I was not alone in this--which to me means that the desire to save money here triumphed over the book's fundamental duty to communicate with and to its readers. Overall, however, these are mere quibbles. The New Middle Ages series edited by Bonnie Wheeler has produced some of the most innovative and exciting publications on medieval topics out there on the market today; this volume is a worthy addition to the list.