Gabriele Neher

title.none: McKee, ed., Crossing Boundaries: (Neher)

identifier.other: baj9928.0008.013 00.08.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gabriele Neher, University of Nottingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: McKee, Sally, ed. Crossing Boundaries: Issues of Cultural and Individual Identity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Vol. 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. vi, 283. 2017 BEF. ISBN: 2-503-50818-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.08.13

McKee, Sally, ed. Crossing Boundaries: Issues of Cultural and Individual Identity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Vol. 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. vi, 283. 2017 BEF. ISBN: 2-503-50818-9.

Reviewed by:

Gabriele Neher
University of Nottingham

The editor of this stimulating book of essays, Sally McKee, opens the introduction with an expression of her surprise on finding that a call for papers for the third volume of the Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance series produced a majority of submissions concerned with the issue of 'crossing boundaries', where instead her expectations had been for essays dealing with the theme of 'identity'. Implicitly, though, the 'crossing of boundaries' is not possible without there being distinctive states of being, clearly defined situations where centres and margins, norms and irregularities exist. Similarly, the act of transgression and migration implied in the action of 'crossing boundaries', suggests a choice between alternatives, and demands an 'identification' with one of them. Boundaries go hand in hand with identity, as their function is to delineate and delimit separate fields, which then in turn contributes to a definition of a possible identity. As McKee points out, boundaries are most interesting when they are crossed or transgressed. One of the outcomes of the various engagements with boundaries in the twelve essays gathered together in this volume, whether linguistic, political, ethnographic or stylistic, is a rich and varied approach to the question of what boundaries exist, how they are being crossed, and what this might mean with reference to the identity of the transgressor.

The book itself is divided into two distinctive parts, the first one looking at boundaries in literature, whereas the second half of this volume deals with boundaries in History. A bridge between these two sections is provided by an essay on portraiture, which reflects a concern with recording physical appearance as well as constructing an authorial identity from literary precedents. Identity and boundaries discussed here have been taken in the widest possible sense, which proves illuminating and thought-provoking. The themes spanned by the twelve essays in the volume comprise such issues as concerns with social arrivistes as well as consideration of a number of transgressions of sexual and linguistic norms and the construction of social roles.

This latter theme is of particular importance to the first two essays in this collection, Linda Georgianna's engagement with issues of self-fashioning in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Robert L.A. Clark's examination of "Eve and her audience in the Anglo-Norman Adam". The roles that are constructed in Geoffrey of Monmouth's history are concerned with class or status, and this applies in particular to some of the most memorable characters of the history, King Arthur and Merlin. Monmouth constructs them as peculiarly fatherless and therefore classless figures who secure their eminent positions through clever self-fashioning, thus transgressing traditional boundaries of ethnicity. Georgianna argues that the self-fashioning of Geoffrey's main characters reflects the reality of twelfth-century Britain where social mobility went hand in hand with political ascent.

This detailed discussion of self-fashioning in the Historia Regum Britanniae with reference to the conventions of rhetoric and history it employs, is followed by Robert L.A. Clark's essay on the construction of gender relations in the Ordo representacionis Ade, a mid-twelfth century dramatic office, that is the earliest extant drama in French, and remarkable not only for the subtlety of its characterizations, but also for the close links the text retains to the liturgy. Clark's discussion looks at the models from which the Ordo draws its inspiration, and pursues these in the text. His examination of Eve looks at her social construction with reference to contemporary contention about the role of women in society. Casting Eve as an exemplum of negative behaviour for the benefit of the lay and aristocratic audiences establishes a clear case study of the damning results of a woman's 'crossing of social and moral boundaries'.

John Damon's essay on "Seinte Cecilie and Christes owene kknyghtes: Violence, Resignation and Resistance in the Second Nun's Tale" continues this concern with the construction of appropriate models of female behaviour by looking at a dichotomy of virtues projected in Chaucer's version of the Life of Saint Cecilia. The 'second Nun's Tale' is one of only three tales told by women in the Canterbury Tales and as such highly instructive about roles assumed by women. The life of this early Christian martyr is traditionally seen as predominantly pious and moralistic in its emphasis on the willing submission to death at the hands of a male executioner by the female saint, but Damon argues a more subtle reading. He suggests that this tale of St. Cecilia, far from reinforcing perceptions of passive female martyrdom, instead constructs Cecilia as militant and active (and thus assuming male characteristics) in her refusal to yield to the threat of violence. Damon argues that this reading of St. Cecilia as a martial heroine is borne out by an investigation of the choice of sources Chaucer selected for this particular portrayal of the saint. Damon identifies two separate hagiographical accounts, spliced together in such a way that in each of the extracts used, Cecilia's active determination is given precedence over her passive submission to suffering. In this choice of highlighting the martial over the marital (Cecilia remained a virgin in her marriage, and her husband converted himself to Christianity), Chaucer goes against contemporary trends in hagiography where the marital aspects of a female saint's life came to be emphasised instead. Chaucer's depiction of St. Cecilia thus transgresses gender boundaries in his deviation from ascribing predominantly passive roles to women.

With Elaine R. Miller's contribution on "Linguistic identity in the Middle Ages: The Case of the Spanish Jews", the focus of enquiry shifts from preoccupations with gender relations to the question of linguistic barriers. Miller explores the use of language(s) amongst Jews in thirteenth-century Castile. She argues that the use of several languages, including a vernacular form of Hebrew as well as a distinctive form of a Judeo-Spanish dialect was an important part of Jewish cultural identity. She assigns different discourses to each of the languages in circulation amongst medieval Spanish Jews and suggests that this flexible use of language was one means of preserving and establishing a distinctive cultural identity amongst the group. Miller argues a choice of identity, and a similar theme is pursued in Emily Steiner's essay on "Medieval Documentary Poetics and Langland's Authorial Identity". Steiner considers the function and status of writing in Piers Plowman, arguing that Langland's use of 'fictive documents' draws on the only available models for writing, apart from the Scriptures, available to him: legal documents. Through the use of these documents, Langland appropriates the authority of official discourse, and endows the characters of his poem with a sense of gravitas. Steiner also argues that the characters gain an additional sense of authority from the employment of the traditional first person narrative, familiar to the reader from legal documents. These forms of writing conveyed a sense of oral confession, and truth laid bare, that in turn reflects on Langland's authorial identity and credibility in Piers Plowman. Here, legal discourse has been appropriated to endow a literary text with a precise meaning, and by applying this discourse to a different context, Langland's 'crossing of boundaries' invested the poem with a different set of meanings.

The clearest literary example of Crossing Boundaries, and thus transgressing and undermining existing states of orthodoxy, is the discussion of "Religious Rhetoric as Resistance in Early Modern Goodnight Ballads" by Patricia Marby Harrison. Her concern is with the rhetoric of orthodox confession as disseminated through the medium of the popular ballads. Harrison argues that the performance character of the ballad made it troublesome in its appeal to large sections of the populace. At the same time also, the content of the ballads was difficult to control for the state, and far from reaffirming messages of orthodoxy, the ballads instead undermined that very message. Here then, words in themselves conveyed one message, but this was negated through the very act of performance of the ballads.

Jami Ake's engagement with "Mary Wroth's Willow Poetics: Revising Female Desire in Pamphilia to Ampilantus", is a close look at the ways in which a female poet deals with the subject of female desire and with the construction of gender- specific models of behaviour in Pamphilia to Amphilantus (1621). Wroth substitutes Petrarchan models of male desire with her own version of desire, substituting the supple willow tree for the poetic laurel. She offers in the poem a female reaction to the male gaze and to its conventionalized poetic description that empowers the female object of the male gaze to become a responsible and self-possessed object.

With Annabel Patterson's discussion of "The human face divine: identity and the Portrait, from Locke to Chaucer", the discussion of transgressions and boundaries in literature is succeeded instead by an engagement with theories of identity and images of identity as conveyed in portraiture, and in particular, with reference to images concerned with the fashioning of likenesses of famous men. Patterson concentrates her enquiry on depictions of John Locke, John Milton, John Donne and Chaucer, tracing a preoccupation in these images with the fashioning of an authorial presence. All of the images she discusses have been manipulated towards emphasizing a particular authorial identity which, for Patterson, is defined as a balance of "material embodiment and cerebral self- consciousness". (157)

Her attempts to define what factors actually contributed toward an Early Modern identity provides a close link to the next paper, Jonathan Harris' s discussion of "Common Language and the Common Good: Aspects of Identity among Byzantine Emigres in Renaissance Italy". He examines the case of such eminent emigres as Cardinal Bessarion and whether his integration into the upper echelons of the Catholic Church resulted in a relinquishment of his Byzantine cultural identity. The answer is a negative one: Bessarion, like other Greek refugees, appears to have preserved much of his Greek origin, emphasizing in particular his literary heritage by patronising the copying of Greek books.

A similar case of the preservation of distinctive elements of a particular tradition is the subject of Nolan Gasser's discussion of the "Beata et venerabilis Virgo: Music and devotion in Renaissance Milan". Here, Gasser discusses the contact between two distinctive musical traditions, one Flemish, one Milanese, which occurred in the fifteenth century as a result of Galeazzo Maria Sforza's attempts to establish a chapel in Milan. Music performed by this chapel needed to conform to the particularities of Milanese Marian devotion. Gasser examines music written for the chapel as a means of gaining an insight into the musical patronage of the Sforza court, suggesting that, while Marian devotion was a thread common to both Galeazzo Maria and his uncle Lodovico 'Il Moro' Sforza, the chapel performed music according to different rites under their reigns.

Elspeth Whitney considers "Sex, Lies and Depositions: Pierre de Lancre's Vision of the Witches' Sabbath" as her contribution to a discussion of the crossing of boundaries. Her reading of the report of this seventeenth century magistrate, charged by Henry IV to investigate reports of witchcraft activities in the Basque region, considers the role of the author in shaping the accounts of the eyewitnesses and participants in Witches's Sabbaths he interviewed. Whitney argues that Lancre's preoccupation with sexual deviance results in a text which demonstrates a "complex interaction between the symbolic equation of women with sexual disorder and the presumption of male authority and control". (242) His assumptions and expectations about gender roles assign authority to the (male) devil that in turn controls the (female) witches.

The final essay, Laura Hunt Yungblut's "Straungers and Aliaunts: the 'Un-English' among the English in Elizabethan England" again considers the question of difference. She looks at hostile attitudes towards foreigners in Elizabethan England, and the ways in which hostility towards them was expressed. Yungblut identifies the predominance of terms such as 'alien' with reference to the immigrants, and examines prejudices prevalent in contemporary plays. Her suggestion for further research is worth quoting at length as it summarizes a number of concerns common to the twelve essays discussed in this volume. Yungblut writes that "a fuller understanding of the impact of Elizabethan immigration, therefore, requires a deeper look, an examination of how the consciousness of a national English identity might have arisen from the perception and recognition of a potentially hostile--or at least extremely different--population in their midst." (276) Yungblut here emphasizes the importance of 'difference' as a factor that creates boundaries, and once boundaries exist, these lead to transgressions. As McKee points out in the introduction, boundaries are most revealing when crossed and challenged, as this very process of challenge, of needing to cross a boundary, implies the existence of alternatives.