Michael Kuczynski

title.none: Thomas, A Blessed Shore (Michael Kuczynski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.012 08.10.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Kuczynski, Tulane University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Thomas, Alfred. A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 239. $45.00 (hb) 978-0-8014-4568-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.12

Thomas, Alfred. A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 239. $45.00 (hb) 978-0-8014-4568-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Michael Kuczynski
Tulane University

In my old neighborhood in North Philadelphia, there was a church on nearly every corner. These were the spiritual centers of groups of streets, where Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants tried keeping to themselves, but inevitably mingled--in my parents' generation, by intermarriage. Neighborhoods, I came to understand as a boy, can be both parochial and international. In this respect, they are like the pre-modern England of Alfred Thomas's fascinating new book, A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare, which in its prolonged exposure to Czech influence, revealed both its cultural limits and a remarkable degree of aesthetic and theoretical openness.

The insularity of England is a geographic fact. It is also, however, a distortive historical fiction, one that Thomas counters by showing how, during the medieval and early modern periods, Czech people, places, and things stimulated and challenged English ideas. These stimuli, Thomas argues, established a lively cultural continuum between the two lands, in areas such as literature, theology, the visual arts, and educational theory.

The book falls into three parts. The first, Chapters 1 and 2, concerns Ricardian England, and most important, the focus of much of Thomas's earlier research, the figure of Anne of Bohemia, Richard II's queen, and her role at the English court. The second, Chapters 3, 4, and 5, attends to relations and divergences between the ideologies of Wycliffism and Hussitism. The third, Chapters 6 and 7, discusses the 16th and 17th centuries, by way not only of Shakespeare's ideas about Bohemia, but the activities in Prague of the English Jesuit Edmund Campion among others and the journey to England by some eminent 17th-c. Bohemians, including the Czech pedagogue Comenius, who (according to a doubtful account) was offered the first presidency of Harvard College by John Winthrop. In a brief but useful conclusion, Thomas reemphasizes "the shared humanist values of an integrated Europe" (211), discredited over the past decade by much Renaissance scholarship on Italy and Spain, as a key to imagining medieval and early modern Bohemia not as obscure and even subcultural, but as "the intellectual playground of Englishmen such as Sir Philip Sidney and Dr. John Dee" (211).

Chapters 1 and 2 are best read alongside Thomas's earlier work on Anne of Bohemia, lest their mode of argument seem too hypothetical and tentative. The author is concerned here with combating a narrow "positivist" (26) interpretation of Anne's life, which misses the range of her and Bohemia's influence on Ricardian culture because of a paucity of explicit references in the archive. As Thomas observes, only the first letter of Anne's name makes it into the text of Chaucer's Troilus, in a brief passage praising Criseyde's peerless beauty and Anne's by way of a cryptic comparison. Chaucer's implication, I always thought, was that while poems can establish excellencies that life can barely match (as when his narrator asserts in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that no better Parson exists than the ideal one he just described), Anne of Bohemia is an exception: "A," the alphabet's as well as Anne's first letter, suggests a new beginning for beauty and real preeminence. Thomas's two pages on the Middle English word "makeles" and his subsequent pursuit of parallels between the imagery of the anonymous dream-vision Pearl and the reality of Anne of Bohemia are, to my mind, generally convincing. Elsewhere, however, his early arguments seem to me a little strained, as in the discussion of whether or not Anne commissioned The Legend of Good Women, a question that Thomas acknowledges, following David Wallace, is not so important after all (33).

Caveats aside, Thomas's remarks in Chapters 1 and 2 on medieval objects associated with Anne and Bohemia are compelling: for instance, her pearl crown, the remarkable twin tomb effigy of herself and her husband, and the famous Wilton Diptych. History is a matter not only of what happened, but of how things, including poems, got made. Thomas's at times minute deliberations about the degree to which Richard's imperial ambitions (Anne's father, Charles IV, was Holy Roman Emperor and her brother, Wenzel, an unpromising successor) became manifest in the material cultures of Ricardian painting, architecture, and poetry save the first pages of this book from seeming too broadly speculative.

The approach that proves somewhat problematic in Chapters 1 and 2 of A Blessed Shore reappears more convincingly in the book's final two chapters (pp. 167-96), where Thomas discusses English persons in Bohemia and under Bohemia's influence, such as Sidney, Campion, and the recusant, Elizabeth Jane Weston. The author demonstrates in this long run of text a real aptitude for balancing concerns of personality and fact in assessing the historical record. In discussing Weston, in particular, Thomas brings together some of his book's major concerns: the role of female agency not only in literary but a wider cultural production during the medieval and early modern periods; multilingualism (Weston was adept at Latin, Greek, Italian, Czech, and German); utopian ideals; and the kind of exponential expansion of reputation that print culture made possible. (Weston's collection of poems, Parthenicon, was several times reprinted by other European presses after its initial 1606 appearance in Prague.)

The strongest section of A Blessed Shore in my view, however, is its second and central one, on matters Wycliffite and Hussite. The road between these ideologies is sometimes viewed as one-way (Oxford to Prague) and smoothly paved. Thomas complicates this understanding, explaining how the ethnic divide at the University of Prague between German nominalists and Czech realists made Wyclif's ideas and works "at once appealing and deeply divisive" (101). Thomas is especially compelling on the deft decision by Hus and other Czech reformers to emphasize Wyclif's polemics against church corruption over and against his troubling doctrinal views, especially those on the Eucharist. And he is at his best introducing readers at some length (107-116) to Hus's avid follower, Peter Chelčický, a social reformer and Scriptural primitivist who elaborated utopian visions of the church both under the influence of and in oppositon to Wyclif. I am not sure that I agree with Thomas concerning a clear link he perceives between British and American differences over church-state relations and Chelčický's departures from Wyclif on this subject. His discussion of Chelčický's The Net of Faith, however, reveals how some of its ideas were bound to influence post-Renaissance cultural suppositions, just as the outrageously polemical Czech poem Thomas analyzes, "The Wycliffite Woman," might be said to anticipate the grotesque anti-feminism reflected in recent Vatican pronouncements against the ordination of women priests. (Thomas gives his own rhymed translation of the poem in an Appendix, on pp. 213-215.)

A Blessed Shore alludes to the conceit, in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, that landlocked Bohemia had a seacoast. The book's contents, however, belie the clever cliché of its title. Without a coast, medieval and early modern Bohemia nevertheless exported to England and imported from her ample shores an immense amount of cultural capital. Alfred Thomas has written the first but one hopes not the final chapter in the history of that rich exchange. In A Blessed Shore he has produced a volume that can stand alongside other impressive recent work on pre-modern England and cross-culturalism, such as David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004) and Kathy Lavezzo's Angels on the Edge of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000-1534 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).