Robert Stanton

title.none: Warren, History on the Edge (Stanton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0107.004 01.07.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Stanton, Boston College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Warren, Michelle. History on the Edge, Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300. Medieval Cultures, Vol 22. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 302. $34.95. ISBN: 0-816-63491-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.07.04

Warren, Michelle. History on the Edge, Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300. Medieval Cultures, Vol 22. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 302. $34.95. ISBN: 0-816-63491-2.

Reviewed by:

Robert Stanton
Boston College

The turn of the millennium is also marking a postcolonial turn in medieval studies. Cultural historians and literary critics are at once embracing and transforming postcolonial theory by looking at medieval cultural contact, colonization, and the formation of group identities in startling new ways (the collection edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, The Postcolonial Middle Ages [New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000] is on the cusp of this revisionist trend). The hyphenated 'post- colonial', in its implied temporal development, presupposed not only a modernist framework for thinking about the time 'after' empire but, implicitly, a unified 'pre-colonial' Middle Ages. The increasingly popular 'postcolonial', though bearing the traces of the hyphen and its implications, acknowledges an oppositional discourse that is not produced by a single historical period and hence opens a space for subtle, deconstructed revisions of medieval power relations. Michelle Warren reads British historical narratives of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from their ambiguous edges, which is a provocative and original contribution to this project.

Warren's central trope is the border, which she uses not only in the geographical sense (each chapter is full to bursting with marches, rivers, coastlines and other such frontiers) but also as liminal zones where peoples' ethnic identities, historical roles, and ultimate destinies are in a state of constant negotiation and interpretation. Her principal argument is that the most complete Arthurian histories were forms of "border writing", which Chapter 1 ("Arthurian Border Writing") defines systematically by mapping out the sectional divisions that govern every chapter. These are: (i) the physical description of Britain, which also comprises the role of architecture in the narratives (ii) the deployment of genealogical strategies (such as endogamy and exogamy) and disruptions of them (adultery, incest, rape, sodomy) (iii) the use of etymologies, which "thematize not only word formation but also culture formation across time" (12); this section includes a discussion of translation, which patrols the zone where resemblance and difference interact (iv) the shape of chronology in each work, whereby "border writing both remembers and forgets the founding divisions of history" (14) (v) the central place of swords, especially Caliburn (Excalibur), as material border artifacts. Swords, says Warren, engender ambivalence in that "[p]hysically, force promises the creation and defense of stable boundaries; socially, this creation disturbs the limits of existing relationships". (16)

The consistent structure of each chapter gives the book a solidity that might otherwise be threatened by the diversity of the texts it treats and the adventurous breadth of the theoretical purview. Warren, though, keeps her five topics flexible enough that the treatment of each text in these terms never feels forced or reductive. The chapters are organized broadly by the place of origin of each text. From Britain come Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (1136- 38), Welsh revisions and vernacular versions (brutieu) of Geoffrey (mid-twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries, respectively), Layamon's Brut (c. 1200), and Robert of Gloucester's Historia rythmis Anglicanis (assembled c. 1300); from Normandy, Wace's Roman de Brut (1155); from France, the Prose Cycle of Arthurian romance (c. 1215-35); and from Brittany, the Latin hexameter poem Gesta regum Britanniae (1235-54). Although this necessitates some chronological flashbacks, it suits the themes of the book well, as writers in different regions, using different languages, express ethnic identity and regional aspirations in distinct ways. Most of the texts treat similar material, and this allows Warren to draw a sophisticated cumulative comparison: though much of the narrative material stems from Geoffrey's Historia, she problematizes the originary force of this text and resists casting it as a master narrative. The introduction clearly lays out the postcolonial and cultural theory that energizes the book, though its efficacy is hard to gauge until it is combined with her excellent close readings in each chapter. Thus, the reader is well-advised to flip back to the relevant section of the introduction before reading the corresponding section of each chapter.

Chapter 2 ("Historia in marchia: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Colonial Itinerary") astutely gauges the extent of ambiguity and ambivalence in the Historia, particularly toward the role of the Britons in the island's history. Geoffrey's equivocations between praise and condemnation of the teleology of British colonization are shaped by his own hybrid identity (Monmouth, in the Welsh March, was an important site of the Norman presence in this borderland). Some sections of the chapter claim too much (Geoffrey's conventional plea for correction from his patron Robert of Gloucester is unjustifiably made to seem a subversion of the power relation, 27) or force material into the "border" theme (the arming of Arthur before he fights the Saxons is wholly unconvincing as an engagement with "boundary thematics", 53). But a clear overall picture emerges of the Historia as a deeply equivocal text, insisting that his readers consider the legitimacy of conquest but orienting their responses in only the most ambivalent ways; this would have a profound effect on subsequent British histories that drew on Geoffrey's work.

Chapter 3 ("Ultra Sabrinam in Guallias: Resistance to the Past in Wales") turns to the reception of the Historia in Wales. The so-called First Variant of the text (1138-55) shuns much of Geoffrey's ambivalence, producing a narrative that wholly approves of the geographical expansion of the Trojans and Britons, focuses on the contemporary problem of Welsh liberty, and promises the eventual restoration of Briton domination. The uncertain identity of the First Variant redactor (mixed ancestry? a Welshman imitating the English? an Englishman in Wales with a Welsh perspective?) makes this text an apt "textual product of border culture" (62), and Warren's analysis makes it clear that the linear teleology of this version, partly through its continued use of Latin and partly through its use of linear time, actually "subtly sustains the political conquest of Welsh sovereignty in the present". (72) Similarly, the Welsh translations of the Historia reclaim Briton history for the thirteenth-century Welsh and play an important contemporary role in their self-identity; but they also, by their vivid witness of Welsh subjugation and their frequently submissive posture towards Latin literature, help to naturalize the "shadow of foreign origins". (78-7\9)

Chapter 4 ("Here to Engelonde: Settling into the English Present") sees the story being domesticated, in an English context, by thirteenth-century English authors (Layamon of Worcester, the "Otho Redactor", and Robert of Gloucester). For those writing in the contentious border area around the Severn, says Warren, British history becomes local history on a grand scale. While sensitive to the differences between these figures (Robert, for example, was the first major writer of Briton history to say that King Arthur is definitely and permanently dead), Warren also notes that all these Englishmen take decisive control of the British past in the service of a thirteenth-century English identity. To do so, they cultivate a "presentist historiography" (117) that uses present-tense verbs, personal experience, and anachronistic explanations to stress the continuing presence of the past. The troubling borders and strategic ambivalences of Geoffrey of Monmouth are discarded in favor of an Insular unity based around a supposed continuous people and kin-group: Britons, Angles, and Saxons are all ancestors of the "English".

Chapter 5 ("L'enor d'Engleterre: Taking over the Past from Normandy") briefly discusses the Continental reception of Geoffrey's Historia before turning to Wace's Roman de Brut; in both these environments, the Britons enacted a "spectacular Insular accomplishment" (133) in the service of an expansionist Norman ideology with few qualms about the legitimacy of forceful conquest. For the Norman redactor of Geoffrey (represented in Neil Wright's edition of Bern, Burgerbibliothek MS 568), the Normans and Britons were cousins (through Antenor, ancestor of both the Britons and the Danes), and Norman conquest was part of an inevitable Trojan diaspora. Norman rule in England was thus a restoration of the Trojan line usurped by Angles and Saxons. (135) Wace himself is cast as a border figure from the island of Jersey, on the edge of Brittany, Normandy, Cornwall, and southern England. Warren's comparison of Wace's opening section with previous versions is especially helpful in showing how his refusal to aestheticize the British landscape authorizes a military/economic ethic of gaainer ("gain") over guaster ("waste"). (142) Like the Middle English adapters, Wace espouses a presentist ideology, eliding chronological disjunctions by using aphorisms and the omnipresence of Fortuna; he also claims to translate without naming his source, thus "eliding antecedents in order to more easily transfer the Britons' history to their conquerors". (153) In the end, Wace's Roman is a dispassionately colonial text that assumes the rightness of conquest in the formation of Normanitas.

Chapter 6 ("En la marche de Gaule: Messages from the Edge of France"), which discusses the Old French Prose Cycle, is the weakest in the book. Part of the problem is that there is a high degree of overlap in the more explicitly historical material she treats elsewhere, whereas the Prose Cycle treats the mythos of the Grail and the Arthurian court more specifically. Thus, while Warren brings her fine critical sensibility to this alternate narrative (showing, for example, how and why a Hebrew genealogy supplants a Trojan one), it connects loosely to the book's principal content. One wishes, too, that she had engaged with the border zone between history and romance, although she does follow up on Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich's work on the nature of prose to suggest that the medium was ideally suited to expansionist ideology. (175) Her casting of the Prose Cycle as a border text partly relies on its possible origin in Champagne, a site of thorny relations with the French crown and thus "a particularly rich site for narratives portraying ambivalence toward royal authority". (172) This chapter also contains the most extensive treatment of swords, and though Warren's analysis is deft, the sword fails to emerge as a coherent symbol of border writing (see below).

Chapter 7 ("In Armoricam: Bloody Borders of Brittany"), concludes the book with a discussion of the Latin hexameter epic Gesta regum Britanniae written by an anonymous Breton monk in the 1230s. Brittany was not only a border region, with close ties to England, Wales, Normandy, and Champagne, but figured largely in British histories as Armorica or Little Britain, a place both of colonization by Insular Britons and of refuge for those displaced by the Anglo-Saxons. The Gesta takes a strongly anticolonial approach, constructing a Breton identity around a pacifist, anti- expansionist worldview. This is partly accomplished through exaggerated, aestheticized violence--the gory "river of blood" section is particularly memorable--and partly through a direct address to Breton monks to resist invaders. The poet notes the classical heritage of the Breton race and says that Insular Britons are degenerate by comparison. The English fare even worse, being illegitimate invaders and tyrants. The poet mocks the familiar story of Gregory the Great etymologizing Angli from angelus, suggesting that the name comes instead from angulus ("their lower angle, in which they have a stiff tail") or in-gloria ("since that people will be without glory"). (227) King Arthur is resolutely refused as a cultural hero: his military exploits are without glory, he is punished by God through Mordred, and only "simpletons will believe that he lives forever". (236)

Warren's book offers a challenging new way of approaching the problem of identity in medieval colonial contexts. Her prose is wonderfully compact and to the point, and her organization within the chapters means that she deals even-handedly with her material, giving the reader a fair chance to assess her arguments and very rarely indulging in any special pleading or unsupported flights of theoretical fancy. The book's main problem arises from the difficult nature of its main thesis rather than any difficulty with the close reading or organization. By the end, most readers will, I think, be convinced that Briton historiography in this period was indeed conditioned by borders, edges, and frontiers that made ethnic identity, historical movement, and ultimate destiny into constantly contested zones of negotiation. But the postulate that this fact arises from physical edges and borders is not fully demonstrated, nor could it be. Her "border writing" is well described, but without a contrary idea about writing from the metropole or colonial center, it lacks weight. Warren notes that although nothing links Wace's Roman de Brut directly with Henry II, the text can certainly be read as "resounding to the greater glory of territorial expansion". (141) But if a strong, centralizing king like Henry is a focal point for Wace's "border writing" (and Henry's multiple royal connections certainly authorize this reading), where would one find any stable center? One wishes that Warren had pursued the idea of the border even further, in order to deconstruct more aggressively the center/margin binary.

In short, why is all writing not border writing? This is a question the author herself poses, but her answer, that "the border histories of Arthur share one unique trait: they give his sword a proper name," is unsatisfying. (16) She goes on to say that "[p]hysically, force promises the creation and defense of stable boundaries; socially, this creation disturbs the limits of existing relationships; words, moreover, formally incarnate the boundary paradox: their edges divide trenchantly while forming the blade's indivisible unity". (16-17) The ambivalences and paradoxes of swords as signifiers are very clear (and well demonstrated by her subsequent analysis), but our understanding of them is not greatly increased by an attempt to make Arthurian swords into "border objects". It could be that the sword is a victim of the success of Warren's analysis, as the troubled, protean processes she describes are too multifarious to devolve onto a single symbol, even one as complex as the sword. But this need not detract from the force of the individual arguments: the sections on swords in each chapter, though stretched too thin to accommodate the paradigm, are as trenchant and well-observed as the rest of the book. Michelle Warren's greatest strength here (and it is an especially valuable one) is that although she is writing about paradoxes, lacks, undoings, and aporias, she never does it by equivocating or convoluting her own mode of expression. Her theoretical sensibility is well-served by her careful, balanced, and thorough attention to historical detail, and her close readings and quotations never fail to hit the mark she ambitiously aims at. History on the Edge will prove to be a seminal text in the integration of postcolonial theory with medieval historical material.