Heide Estes

title.none: Frantzen and Niles, eds., Anglo-Saxonism (Estes)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.009 99.01.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Heide Estes,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Frantzen, Allen J., and John D. Niles, eds. Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. 242. 49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01532-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.09

Frantzen, Allen J., and John D. Niles, eds. Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. 242. 49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01532-4.

Reviewed by:

Heide Estes

Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity is a collection of essays rather loosely linked around Anglo- Saxon England and the reception of its culture, history, and literature. Part I, "Medieval and Renaissance Anglo-Saxonism," contains two essays that examine the process by which Anglo- Saxon writers themselves developed an idea of what it meant to be English, and two more that investigate the development of ideological constructions of Anglo-Saxon England during the Renaissance. Part II, "Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Anglo-Saxonism," includes several essays on post-Renaissance appropriations of Anglo-Saxon history and literature in the service of various ideologies. In their introduction to the book, Frantzen and Niles define "Anglo-Saxonism" as "he process through which a self-conscious national and racial identity first came into being among the early peoples of the region and how, over time, through both scholarly and popular promptings, that identity has transformed into an originary myth available to a wide variety of political and social interests." (1)

The series of papers that constitute this collection do not attempt a continuous history of constructions of Anglo- Saxonism. Instead, they provide snapshots of the development and appropriation of Anglo-Saxon ideologies from the Anglo- Saxon period itself through the twentieth century, in England, the United States, and Scandinavia. The varied geographical and temporal range of the essay makes reading them in sequence quite disjointed: while the introduction to the volume gives a brief summary of each essay, it provides no overview of the subject, and no clear idea of how the essays in the volume interact or otherwise fit together. However, Niles' essay, which is printed last in the collection, undertakes a survey of "Anglo-Saxonism" that links together and gives context to the remaining essays. It is unfortunate that Niles' essay is buried as the last essay in Part II of the collection; the essay does not fit well under the heading of the second part, and would serve well as an introduction to the collection. I begin, then, by considering this essay.

Niles' delightfully witty essay, "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture,"^T provides an overview of the development of "Anglo- Saxonism" in the form of a projected outline for a book which, he insists, could never be written. Such a book, as he imagines it, would begin with "Anglo-Saxon Self-Fashioning," would next describe the Norman project of "effacing Anglo-Saxon England as a separate ethnic, cultural, or geopolitical entity," and would continue by tracing the invention and development of ideologies about Anglo-Saxon England from the Renaissance through the present, with a concluding chapter on academic projections of Anglo-Saxon England (210-211). Niles' self-mocking survey accomplishes two things for the rest of the collection, however. First, it clarifies the logic of dividing the book into two parts, one dealing with the Anglo-Saxon period and the Renaissance, and the other with post-Renaissance Anglo-Saxonisms. In the terms of Niles' chapter outline, both the Anglo-Saxon period and the Renaissance are periods of invention: in the earlier period, the Anglo-Saxons themselves created the notion of what it meant to be English, while antiquarians of the Renaissance developed the idea of Anglo- Saxon England as an originary past in support of nationalist agendas. In this schema, then, post-Renaissance Anglo- Saxonisms appropriate and transform the original work of the earlier periods rather than cooking up new ideologies from scratch. Second, Niles' outline locates the individual essays in the collection along chronological and geographical trajectories, thus suggesting links among the essays and providing a sense of continuity for the collection as a whole.

More importantly, Niles articulates a philosophy of history that seems shared, implicitly or explicitly, by the authors of the book's individual essays and that, like his overview, emphasizes the conceptual links among them rather than the discontinuities of time and place. (I should note here that Niles demurs at calling this philosophy a "theory," insisting that it is instead "a tool for understanding the mechanisms by which culture is produced. Theories are always with us; tools can be used for a specific task, then set aside for a while" [223 n. 9].) Niles defines a "concept of cultural processes" as distinct from the notions of cultural change normally accepted by sociologists and anthropologists. These scholars, he writes, tend to view cultural changes as "impersonal processes" generally separate from any possibility of human agency. "Not many scholars in these fields approach culture systematically, focusing on large anonymous processes as well as on singular events and achievements." (205) Niles argues to the contrary that cultural change results from the deliberate action of individual humans, though they "often lack full understanding of those large movements in which their volition or employment plays a part." (224 n. 10) "From the perspective advocated here, culture is chiefly produced through a complex series of purposeful appropriations either of the past or of someone's present property (whether material, linguistic, or intellectual in nature)." (205)

Furthermore, these appropriations do not reach back to an actual historical past^Wand in fact Niles suggests that actual "history" is unrecoverable: for Niles, historical enterprise involves not gathering facts, but developing interpretations. Niles refers to the term "Anglo-Saxon England" as a "creation of language" literally a figure of speech, one that has lent the concept that it denotes the semblance of solidity thanks to centuries of reiterated use. (208-209) He further argues, "[t]he main question that is worth asking about any historical claim is not 'Is it true?' but rather 'What does it mean?'" (220) For Niles, the study of the past allows us an awareness "of our own place amidst the discontinuities and effacements that form the greater part of history." (221)

Niles' insistence on the mutagenicity of historical reconstruction will, of course, irritate some readers. (I^Rm not one of them.) Niles insists, "Anglo-Saxon England is an idea, not a thing." (209) From the point of view of the essays in the book which examine post-Medieval appropriations of Anglo-Saxon culture and history, it's hard to argue with this statement. Even from the perspective of the two essays in the collection that examine the formation of identity within Anglo- Saxon England, however, Niles is correct in that we can't observe that 'thing' that was Anglo-Saxon England: we can only observe our own reconstructions of it.

Instead of following the sequence of the volume, I will consider the remaining essays in roughly chronological sequence, beginning with those that discuss the construction of an "English" identity within Anglo-Saxon England and continuing on to those that examine later constructions of Anglo-Saxon England, in the Renaissance and beyond.

The essays by Mary P. Richards, "Anglo-Saxonism in the Old English Laws," and Janet Thormann, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poems and the Making of the English Nation," focus on laws and historical poems as cultural achievements through which the Anglo-Saxons articulated ideas of English identity. Richards argues that the development of a legal language, and the repetition of many elements each time a new code of laws was written, "conveyed a bond of Anglo-Saxonism." (43) She elaborates the "close connection between Christianity and the issuance of legal codes" (41), discusses laws that define what it means to be an outsider (47), and comments on the proliferation of laws that protect property (53). The laws thus define English people as Christian inhabitants of a particular land area. Similarly, Thormann argues that "the writing of the Chronicle produces the idea of a nation, an Anglo-Saxon England that may legitimately lay claim to power." (60) According to Thormann, the idea of an "English nation" is first articulated in the tenth century, "when reference to an Anglo-Saxon England comes to supersede references to territorial kingdoms and peoples." (63) Like the laws, the Chronicle poems link Anglo-Saxon identity explicitly to Christianity: "Providential design [in 'The Death of Edgar'] provides a law that supersedes the Chronicle's grammar of contiguity, connecting and relating individual events in a discursive logic. At the same time, providential design serves an ideology supporting West- Saxon ambitions." (77)

In these essays, Richards and Thormann argue (implicitly) for a singular English identity, centered specifically on males' experience of the English community. Richards does not as a rule specify a particular gender as likely to violate the laws she catalogues, but some of these do seem to imply male miscreants: for example, "fighting in the king's house" and marauding. (46) Conversely, Richards mentions no crime that seems specific to women. She mentions only males as creators and promulgators of law, and while she comments that "crime and punishment [are] segmented by the class of the accused victim" (46), she makes no reference to differences before the law based on gender or lack thereof. This is a puzzling omission since she is the co-author of an essay on the treatment of women in the laws (Mary P. Richards and B. Jane Stanfield, "Concepts of Anglo-Saxon Women in the Laws," in Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women in Old English Literature [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990]). Here, however, she treats English society as if it were entirely monolithic. Thormann likewise argues for the production of "the idea of a nation" (60) through the historical poems of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle without seeming to notice that all of the actors participating in this production are males. Women are, it is implied, either subordinated to or excluded from the national identity developed in the poems of the Chronicle.

I return now to the first essay in the collection, by Allen Frantzen on "Bede and Bawdy Bale: Gregory the Great, Angels, and the 'Angli.'" Frantzen's essay revolves around the scene in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the future pope Gregory the Great, walking through Rome, notices pale-skinned blond boys being sold at a marketplace, asks about their origin, and puns on the names of their tribe and their king. Frantzen dwells at length on the textual history of this anecdote, a version of which^Wunknown to Bede appears in an English Life of Gregory completed shortly before the Ecclesiastical History. According to Frantzen, modern scholars are divided as to the significance of the episode: some historians ignore it while others devote considerable attention to it. Moreover, "[i]n introductory grammars and readers, reliable measures of the cultural value attached to Old English narratives, references to this event are rare." (19) Frantzen's argument in this first part of the essay is both fascinating and frustrating in its suggestiveness: he implies rather than arguing outright that there is a sexual subtext to Gregory's interest in the boys. He acknowledges that "[w]e would not, for many reasons, expect Bede to comment on the sexual implications of Gregory's admiration of the beautiful boys in any negative way. Some seven hundred years after Bede's death, that task fell to John Bale." (25)

The Rev. John Bale, a convert from Roman Catholicism, wrote numerous propagandistic Protestant tracts, among them The Actes of Englysh Votaryes, in which he "portray[s]...the history of the Roman clergy in England [as] a steamy catalogue of the sexual excess of licentious men denied the right to marry" (25), among them an account of Gregory's interest in the English boys. "We are meant to conclude that Gregory, deprived of a wife by the Church's demand for clerical celibacy, sought out 'other spirytuall remedyes' by purchasing boys for sex." (26) From Bale's "queering" of the episode, Frantzen returns to Bede, arguing that his lack of concern for the possibility of sexual exploitation in the sale of the boys is a "lapse" which is "curious" (31). Frantzen notes the frequent attention in penitential handbooks and monastic rules to such "sins as sodomy and mutual masturbation" (31) and argues that Bede, who was sent to a monastery at the age of seven, would have been involved in such a "discourse of sexualization." (31)

Frantzen's attempt to problematize Bede's lack of attention to the beautiful boys' sexuality is less persuasive than his reading of Bale. However, the essay complicates the issue of "Anglo-Saxonism" in very interesting ways. Frantzen shows Bale using "Anglo-Saxonism" to support a religious agenda of opposition to the Roman Catholic church while simultaneously fostering a particular ideology of sex and gender identity. In Desire for Origins, Frantzen argued that "Orientalism and 'Anglo-Saxonism' intersect at many points" (Desire for Origins 29). In his new essay in this collection, Frantzen shows the deployment of "Anglo-Saxonism" to be even more complicated, suggesting the multiplicity of uses to which it has been put as described in the subsequent essays in the book.

Suzanne Hagedorn's essay, "Received Wisdom: the Reception History of Alfred's Preface to the Pastoral Care," traces the use of Anglo-Saxonism, and particularly the figure of Alfred, from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century. Her essay focuses on the textual history of editions of Alfred's Preface as a window into the cultural phenomenon of Anglo-Saxonism. "By tracing the material forms and the circumstances in which this single text has been presented to various communities of readers over the centuries, we may be able to see in microcosm the larger cultural forces that have informed the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies as a whole." (87) According to Hagedorn, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth, published and translated a number of Anglo-Saxon texts, including Alfred's Preface, and then "directly or indirectly" invoked these texts "to provide a venerable precedent for the archbishop's own biblical translation project." (89) In the next century, Sir John Spelman appended to his biography of Alfred a translation of the Preface "as evidence of Alfred's spirituality." (93) Hagedorn argues that "the patriotic context provided for the preface by Spelman's biography is as important as the translation itself. [F]or close to two centuries his work was considered the authoritative biography of the king, and as such it provided a historical basis for the glorification of Alfred and his reign in the popular imagination." (94) Later editors in England and the United States, according to Hagedorn, continue to use Alfred's Prefacein a context of glorification, until Henry Sweet, whose interest was purely linguistic. However, Sweet was interested in one particular manuscript of Alfred's preface and translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care as an example of the West Saxon dialect. "Sweet's cursory and incomplete discussion of the Pastoral Care's complex manuscript transmission and its cultural milieu also exemplifies his tendency to isolate the scientific study of language from cultural history and to privilege the former--a tendency widespread in subsequent Anglo-Saxon scholarship." (100) Hagedorn concludes with the warning that although Sweet's edition of the text appears more "objective" than earlier versions, it also "has an ideological subtext of which contemporary scholars who use it would do well to be aware." (101) Hagedorn's dual focus in this essay on textual and cultural history contributes to the disjointed feel of the volume as a whole.

In the next essay in the collection, "Nineteenth-Century Scandinavia and the Birth of Anglo-Saxon Studies," Robert Bjork focuses upon the contributions of Danish and Swedish linguists to Anglo-Saxon scholarship, while showing how study of Old English texts and culture was used as a tool in the development of Scandinavian nationalism. Bjork emphasizes the important early philological work done by Danes, which was, he writes, later "stolen" (112) by the English scholar Benjamin Thorpe. For example, Rasmus Rask wrote an early Old English grammar, while N. F. S. Grundtvig conceived an ambitious plan for publication of a library of Anglo-Saxon texts. Rask's grammar was translated into English by Thorpe, who also appropriated Grundtvig's ideas. "He thus eradicated Grundtvig's name from the project and rendered 'Anglo-Saxonism' distinctly, stubbornly British." (112) According to Bjork, Anglo-Saxonists of various nationalities appropriated Anglo-Saxon texts as foundational for their own languages and cultures: "Titles do or can imply nationalistic sentiment, but philological studies, grammars, prefaces to collections of texts, and random comments interspersed throughout the literature frequently make the nationalism explicit." (116) Thus Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin calls Beowulf Danish; Heinrich Leo calls it German; and John Mitchell Kemble calls it English. Though Anglo-Saxon scholarship in Scandinavia has "withered in the twentieth century" (125), Bjork argues that the contributions of Scandinavians to Anglo-Saxon studies remain unacknowledged and unincorporated into English study of the literature. According to Bjork, Scandinavian scholars such as the Danish Ludvig Schroder "achieved an early aesthetic appreciation for Old English poetry that [English] scholars have still not discovered." (123) Schroder's interpretation is a big step toward Tolkien, Bjork writes; he concludes, like Hagedorn, with a warning: "As modern Anglo-Saxonists", we may venerate Tolkien too much and appreciate too little the effect that nationalistic motives have had on us. The history of Scandinavian"Anglo-Saxonism"amply demonstrates both points.^T

The next two essays move the discussion from Europe to the United States. J. R. Hall discusses the burgeoning of Anglo- Saxon studies in the United States from one university in 1825 to three dozen by 1899 in "Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Anglo-Saxonism." According to Hall, this was part of the "intense and immense advance in scholarship in nearly all areas" in the United States at the time, but the growth was accelerated by political agendas: "many Americans understood the Anglo-Saxon linguistic and historical tradition to be a vital part of America's cultural heritage." (133) These Americans believed that the Anglo-Saxons originated democracy and developed into a "superior" race (134). Hall traces in detail the opposing arguments of two men, Charles Anderson and John Seely Hart, about the value of studying Old English, in order to make a case for the importance of the study of the language today. Hall's leap from these two nineteenth-century positions to his pitch for the study of Old English today is rather sudden. However, his description of Anderson's opposition to the exclusionary ideologies of Anglo-Saxonism provides an important counterweight to the two essays which follow.

In the next essay, "Bryhtnoth in Dixie: The Emergence of Anglo- Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South," Gregory A. VanHoosier- Casey follows the development of "Anglo-Saxonism" as a political ideology in the southern United States. According to VanHoosier-Casey, white Southerners used the example of Anglo- Saxon feudalism to justify slavery. Following the Civil War, the Southerners shifted their focus to the period following the Norman Conquest, likening themselves to native Saxons besieged by foreign invaders (162). VanHoosier-Casey also notes Southerners' attempts to link certain Anglo-Saxon dialects to Southern speech (165-166).

VanHoosier-Carey's essay on appropriations of "Anglo-Saxonism" by Southerners clearly refers to white southerners, not those of African heritage, but he never explicitly states this in his essay. I hesitate to criticize VanHoosier-Carey for not writing the article he didn't set out to write, and yet the absence in his essay of any acknowledgement that such an essay could be written that inhabitants of the south other than white former slave-holders also engaged with ideologies of Anglo- Saxonism coupled with his assumption that southerners are by definition white, unless defined otherwise, is an unfortunate lapse, particularly given recent scholarly interest in "white studies."

The next essay, the last in the collection but for Niles', returns to England. Velma Bourgeois Richmond chronicles in "Historical Novels to Teach Anglo-Saxonism" an "outpouring of Edwardian children's fiction and history that sought to influence and form an Anglo-Saxon character." (173) According to Richmond, these novels simultaneously idealized heroism, empire, and Christianity. She writes, "historical novels that taught 'Anglo-Saxonism' should be recognized as one key factor in the emergence of attitudes that produced, among many glorious achievements, a war of unparalleled proportions." (195)

Richmond, like VanHoosier-Carey, Richards, and Thormann, leans (apparently unintentionally) toward reification of the values promoted by the "Anglo-Saxonism" of various periods by her focus on the use of Anglo-Saxon history, language, and ideas in a context of admiring appropriation. Furthermore, Richmond discusses historical novels that draw upon and propagate an ideology of Anglo-Saxon culture dominated by males, echoing the earlier essays in the volume by Richards and Thormann, but avoids any discussion of how women fit into that cultural schema. Richmond's essay on historical novels refers to values inculcated in "children" that in fact are meaningful only if those children are male. According to Richmond, "[e]ndless representations of fighting fill the pages of the juvenile novels of this period, inciting readers to a heroic ideal of manliness." (175) A few pages later, she argues similarly that "this body of juvenile literature fostered Anglo-Saxonism, notably a definition of manliness as a warrior's strengths." (193). "Juvenile" should encompass girl children as well as boy children, but it seems clear that it was not intended that Victorian and Edwardian girls should strive to heroic ideals of manliness. My objection here is not to Richmond pointing out that these novels embody these ideologies; my discomfort stems from the fact that she refers exclusively to "children" when describing literature and ideologies that seem directed particularly at male children.

Richmond again echoes Richards and Thormann in her comments on the role of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxonist ideology: "The Anglo-Saxon myth is a complex one, but especially appealing to people of the Victorian and Edwardian periods were military success in a time of need, the ideal of free and equal citizens united through representative institutions, and the comfort and power of a strengthening Christianity that enhanced unity and stability." (174) As Virginia Woolf, who was apparently not reading the novels enumerated by Richmond (Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf[Knopf, 1997]), despite the fact that her childhood bridged the Victorian and Edwardian periods, has eloquently argued, women were not free, equal, or represented by the institutions of the English polity during the early twentieth century. Furthermore, it might possibly be questioned whether Jewish citizens of England such as Leonard Woolf found comfort or strength in Christianity.

While J. R. Hall's essay revolves around the tension between an opponent of the racist ideologies embodied in "Anglo-Saxonism" and a promoter of Anglo-Saxon studies as a route to a better modern English, it is striking that among the essays in this volume, only Frantzen's digs deep enough in Anglo-Saxon ideologies to unearth some of the complexities inherent in them, rather than simply describing their deployment in a particular incidence. Unfortunately, many of the remaining essays present "Anglo-Saxon" identities in ways that are more descriptive than challenging. Niles calls in his concluding essay for a critical self-awareness and cautions readers about the "silences that surround us, the legacies that have been lifted from our grasp." (221) The silences in many of the essays that form this volume point to issues that bear further investigation.