Maura Nolan

title.none: McMullan and Matthews, eds., Reading the Medieval (Maura Nolan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.015 08.10.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Maura Nolan, University of California, Berkeley,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: McMullan, Gordon and David Matthews, eds. Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 287. $96 978-0-51-86843-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.15

McMullan, Gordon and David Matthews, eds. Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 287. $96 978-0-51-86843-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Maura Nolan
University of California, Berkeley

As its editors suggest, Reading the Medieval takes its place among a number of recent reconsiderations of the relation between medieval and Renaissance texts and cultures, in part inspired by James Simpson's groundbreaking rethinking of the two periods, Reform and Cultural Revolution, and in part emerging from the tendency among medievalists to push their period forward into the sixteenth century. Reading the Medieval , as its title suggests, focuses on moments of explicit interaction between the two periods, especially on representations of the medieval past by a Renaissance present. "The sleep of the medieval past is not easy" (2), argue its editors, and this line serves as the guiding rubric for the collection, which insists that medieval texts continue to be read, reread and rewritten in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so much so that "the medieval" becomes a kind of revenant historical force, able not only to demand attention but to "construct the ways in which it is read" (2). The importance of this book lies less in the particular texts it analyzes--though many individual essays will prove influential in their specific ambits--than in its demonstration of a new way of reading the Renaissance. It shows readers how to approach the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (but mostly the sixteenth) without forgetting the Middle Ages and without assuming that early modern textuality began in 1485, or 1534. Historical change, particularly epochal change, has long been troubling to literary historians, not least because it tends to coincide with professional boundaries within the larger field of literature. These divisions mark differences in training, hiring, certifying, vetting, promoting and rewarding academics, and thus acquire tremendous authority within the field; it should be no surprise that differences in literary interpretation persist when they are hammered home by such powerful disciplinary and institutional forces. Critics wishing to cross such boundaries thus face enormous difficulties, whether they are stretching from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance or from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They must produce accounts of historical change as well as temporal continuity; they can neither acquiesce to the divisions they wish to deconstruct, nor toss those division completely out. After all, even if one wishes to demonstrate a set of continuities between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, one must admit that the Act of Supremacy occurred and that (as Jennifer Summit demonstrates) the very landscape of England was drastically and brutally altered.

The essays collected in Reading the Medieval model four approaches to crossing an epochal divide. First, and simplest, is the exploration of representations of the medieval past in later texts; Deanne Williams's account of Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Gordon McMullen's discussion of early Britain on the Jacobean stage, Bernhard Klein's rich and provocative examination of Tamburlaine and cartography, and Patricia Badir's analysis of "Protestant Magdalenes," fall into this category. Second, we find accounts of the Renaissance afterlife of medieval texts in Larry Scanlon's fine reading of Crowley's Piers Plowman (which includes an admirable discussion of recent approaches to the shift between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance), and David Matthews's exploration of "Tudor Chaucer." The third approach focuses on an idea, concept, myth or institution that persists across the divide; in this group can be found Anke Bernau's discussion of various "myths of origin," Stephanie Trigg's account of the Order of the Garter and its history, and Sarah Beckwith's sensitive elucidation of the penitential as it appears in its medieval and Reformation manifestations. Finally, the essays by Jennifer Summit and Cathy Shrank focus on texts that straddle the divide--John Leland's Itinerary and the drama of John Bale. I have placed these essays in a separate category because the texts they address are truly transitional, sharing characteristics with texts of both periods and explicitly thematizing and theorizing historical change.

One oddity about the volume lies in its opening essay and its afterward, both written by distinguished medievalists (James Simpson and David Wallace). I have already mentioned Simpson's Reform and Cultural Revolution as one of the guiding inspirations for the collection, and it is entirely fitting that he should lead off the volume with an essay on "Diachronic History." The second half of his title, though, is "The Shortcomings of Medieval Studies," and it points to the critique he stages of traditional approaches to the Middle Ages, which turn the period inward and valorize cross- disciplinary, wide-ranging forms of scholarship and academic engagement. Simpson rightly points out that this mode of medieval scholarship is produced by a historiography dependent on a severe break with the modern and motivated by a strong desire to set the Middle Ages off from a future of change and development--to protect it, in a sense, from the destructive forces of modernity. I think Simpson is right to argue for a more inchoate vision of historical change, one that includes multiple temporalities and periodizations; as Reading the Medieval demonstrates, some discourses are radically altered by the Reformation while others remain stubbornly wedded to their medieval origins. Simpson concludes by suggesting that a more open notion of change will produce a different Middle Ages, "less alien, more familiar," and different ways of reading the Middle Ages, "less a matter of finding distant analogies with a past civilization...and much more a matter of finding friends with whom we want to converse" (30). David Wallace's afterword is similarly concerned with ways of "Reading the Medieval"; he notes that "medievalists contemplating the Reformation in England feel mixed emotions: resignation to the patient task of textual reconstruction...and a kind of road rage directed at Renaissance Studies" (221). He identifies the risk taken in the volume in placing the Reformation, rather than the classical revival of the Renaissance, at the center of the two periods as the mark of historical rupture, pointing out that such an emphasis "may ironically conserve the ideal of a Middle Ages possessing originary wholeness" (222), even though there are other moments of rupture (the Cromwellian civil war, for example) as destructive and world-altering to those who lived through them.

My reason for pointing to Simpson's and Wallace's introductory and conclusory essays, however, is to note that they seem slightly at odds with what the volume actually does in practice. Both framing essays include specific addresses to medievalists, and both focus on how the Middle Ages in particular will be revised, rewritten, and reshaped by reconceiving the medieval/Renaissance divide. But all of the essays in the collection deal with Renaissance texts, social practices, editions, and discourses first and foremost. Each essay reads early modern works as accounts of the medieval, as responses to medieval texts, as constructions of the Middle Ages--but for the most part, the volume does not reread medieval writing itself in changed ways. Nor does that seem to be the overall goal of the collection, which focuses on how the Middle Ages impinges on a Renaissance that has traditionally been read as estranged from its own past. The lesson of most of the essays here is that early modern writers were deeply immersed in medieval discursive, literary, and social forms and modes, so much so that the writing they produced bears the traces of a medieval past many sought to erase. In this sense, the reading practices that are modeled by the essays in the volume are exemplars for scholars of the early modern, or the Renaissance, or the "post- Reformation" period, however one wishes to name the "era after the Middle Ages." Middle English scholars, it seems to me, can respond in two ways, either by expanding their notions of their field and stretching forward to study Renaissance texts, or by applying the lessons learned from looking forward to looking backward as well, from the fourteenth century back to another moment of rupture, the Norman Conquest. As David Wallace wisely notes, late Middle English scholars are as guilty of ignoring early Middle English and Old English as their Renaissance colleagues are at fault for imagining that history began with Henry VII.

The oddity of the volume, then, is that it pointedly addresses medievalists but performs new ways of reading the Renaissance. Perhaps this oddity is in fact a strength, in that it reflects the inchoate quality of a historiography that resists narratives of rupture and break and embraces multiple periodizations and varied accounts of literary history. Certainly, several of the essays in the volume so brilliantly rework conventional accounts of the relationship between the periods that they should be required reading for scholars of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One absence in the volume overall surprised me; there are few mentions of fifteenth- century texts and the fifteenth century in general. As the period that led directly to the Reformation, and whose literature most directly precedes the drama, poetry and prose that comprise "Renaissance literature," the fifteenth century stands at the center of recent reconsiderations of the relation of the two periods, as the work of such scholars as Paul Strohm, Jennifer Summit, Seth Lerer, Bobby Meyer-Lee, Ethan Knapp, Shannon Gayk and William Kuskin, among others, has shown. Only Strohm and Lerer receive any mention at all, and those references are glancing. This criticism aside, Reading the Medieval at its best illustrates the interpretive power that can be generated when medievalists and Renaissance scholars join forces. Lest this review become unmanageably long, I have chosen to highlight two essays from the volume, though all of its articles are thought-provoking, insightful, and originalindeed, the collection as a whole is among the most original treatments of either period that I have read.

In her essay, "Leland's Itinerary and the remains of the medieval past," Jennifer Summit turns to geography and mapping as a way to think through the relationship of medieval to Renaissance texts and cultures. John Leland was employed by Henry VIII to tour England and survey the dissolution of the monasteries; the result was his Itinerary, a massive unfinished compilation of observations and notes that formed a central resource for later Elizabethan and Jacobean geographical writers. Leland's work has been read as "proto- Renaissance," an anticipation of the classicizing of later writers like William Camden and John Speed. But Summit argues that these uses of Leland's work serve as an index to the persistence of Reformation (and thus medieval) political and religious concerns throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, making "the investments of early modern geography...the product less of the Renaissance than of the Reformationless, that is, of a newly awakened, classicized self-consciousness than of an ongoing, politically driven struggle to redefine and contain the nation's own medieval past" (160). Summit's sparkling analysis of Leland's Itinerary brings to the fore the necessary place of landscape for understandings of the Reformation and the persistence of the medieval; she points out that throughout England, the ruins of monasteries stood as mute reminders of the violence of historical change and the fragmentation of the Catholic Middle Ages. Leland's goal was to "rewrite the violence of the Reformation and to re-incorporate the ruins it left into a topography of the newly Protestant nation" (161)--an effort that Summit argues was essential because of the central role played by landscape in medieval religious practice.

Summit goes on to show how the later geographical writing of Camden and Speed similarly negotiates the relationship of medieval past to Protestant present by making various choices in representing ruined or translated church property. By itself, her demonstration of the changes in geographical writing over the century after the Reformation would make for a solid, smart, and useful essay, one sure to provoke many scholars to think about Renaissance geography in a new way. But in the final section of her essay, Summit synthesizes her analysis into a stunning thesis about the relation of Renaissance discourse to its medieval past. She argues that Leland's project of desanctification-through-mapping formed a template for colonial enterprises, providing early modern explorers and colonists with a "model of how the unruly past could be incorporated and its incorporation naturalised in the description of the landscape" (175). The displacement of native peoples, Summit argues, was written into or erased from English maps and English history following the model of the secularization of the medieval English landscape first created by Leland. The implications of this claim are substantial. The link Summit forges between the Renaissance treatment of the medieval, and colonial accounts of subjugated peoples and lands, opens up new ways of understanding how past histories and colonized peoples were rendered in language or cartography. More significantly, perhaps, it also points the way to reconsiderations of the relationships of history to landscape, medieval temporality to colonial temporality, and techniques of representation to their objects and to each other. As Summit cogently puts it, "before England could domesticate its colonies, it first needed to domesticate itself, starting with its own recent past" (176).

The final essay I will discuss here is Sarah Beckwith's superb "Medieval penance, Reformation repentance, and Measure for Measure." Beckwith manages not only to describe the Protestant idea of repentance, but also to articulate in some detail the medieval understanding of penance, making her essay relevant to both medieval and Renaissance texts. At the same time, she also produces an original and compelling reading of Measure for Measure, creating in the process an exceptionally rich account of medieval, sixteenth-century, and Shakespearean notions of sin and the penitential. As she points out, though penance was utterly central to theology throughout these periods, it is rarely discussed and certainly not in relation to Shakespeare's medievalism. Beckwith's analysis of the role of penance in Shakespeare's plays begins with a definition of sin and sinfulness. Sin was a "deeply theological category bound up not merely with social relations but also with the very structure and reflexivity of self. It was the category through which, as a human creature, one encountered and learnt about oneself" (194). In this light, we can see that both medieval penance and reformed repentance are "technologies of memory"; both demand a reconstruction and reshaping of past experience, a rewriting of past history. This recognition of sin's central place in reformed theology leads Beckwith to an account of the ecclesiastical courts, which survived the abolition of confession and retained jurisdiction over usury, probate of wills, failures to conform to the Book of Common Prayer, advowson, patronage, contracts where oaths had been sworn, bastardy, and matrimony. Shakespeare deals directly with the last three in Measure for Measure, and it is in relation to them that Beckwith argues for his concern with reformed repentance and the relation of confession to state power. The crucial backdrop to the play, in Beckwith's eyes, is provided by the reformed church courts and their emphasis on the public nature of sin. As she shows, once auricular confession to a priest has been abolished, the secrecy of the confessional and the role of the priest as mediator to both God and the community are erased, leaving in their stead only the very public judgment of the ecclesiastical court. Where once a priest could adjust the penance assigned to a sinner (to take account of a need for secrecy, for example), now penance would automatically be public, "shameful and humiliating" (197). The relevance of this shift from private to public penance to Measure for Measure would have been obvious to a Renaissance audience; Shakespeare's Duke, masquerading as a friar, elicits confessions that he then, in his role as Duke, publicly exposes. Beckwith argues that this "theatre of exposure and humiliation" functions for Shakespeare as a critique of the kind of state in which privacy has been forcibly violated and confession converted to "accusation and surveillance" (201). This brief sketch of Beckwith's argument cannot do it justice, for it is a richly layered and complex analysis of Reformation religious practices, state self-representation, and the theatrical staging of both. Her essay demands that readers rethink conventional understandings of medieval confession, just as Shakespeare did, in order to see the Renaissance state through his eyes. It further points the way toward a new kind of thinking about confession itself-- neither as a surveillance device, nor as a therapeutic form of introspection, but as a profoundly social act that insists upon the importance of the self's relationality, its connections to others and to its community. The success of Beckwith's essay lies in its capacity to rework both medieval and Renaissance narratives of penance and repentance--and it is this capacity that makes it the ideal model for the kind of work Reading the Medieval as a whole sets out to accomplish.