Renee Trilling

title.none: Rouse, Idea of Anglo-Saxon England (Renee Trilling)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.014 06.02.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Renee Trilling, University of Illinois Urbana- Champagne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Rouse, Robert Allen. The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer Publishing, 2005. Pp. viii, 180. 90.00 1-84384-041-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.14

Rouse, Robert Allen. The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer Publishing, 2005. Pp. viii, 180. 90.00 1-84384-041-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Renee Trilling
University of Illinois Urbana- Champagne

The Norman Conquest has long served as a convenient, if somewhat artificial, cutoff point for the periodization of medieval English literature. In recent years, scholars seeking to reevaluate periodization have identified various points of historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary continuity joining the Old and Middle English periods. In spite of these efforts, however, the field remains sharply divided; scholars still tend to specialize in either Old or Middle English, and few book-length studies attempt to bridge the divide. Even the magisterial Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (1999) devotes only one chapter to literature before 1066. It is therefore both refreshing and encouraging to see Robert Allen Rouse's fine study of Middle English romance reaching back across the Norman Conquest to remind us that Middle English writers did not turn their backs on pre- Conquest history; rather, their ideas of the Anglo- Saxon period played a formative role in contemporary configurations of local and national identity. Rouse is deeply immersed in the historical and cultural contexts of his chosen material. His careful attention to detail and his astute fusion of historical background and literary analysis allow him to make intriguing claims about the larger purposes of romance texts in the Middle English period.

As Rouse makes clear in his introductory chapter, his work is concerned less with actual knowledge about the Anglo-Saxon period and more with "the remembrance and re-imagining of Anglo-Saxon England". (1) But both positivist and ideological versions of history figure in his analysis. He begins with the discourse of Anglo-Saxonism, or the idea of Anglo-Saxon England, as it is defined in Allen Frantzen and John Niles' influential collection Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity (1997), questioning their assertion that the use of Anglo- Saxon England in later periods is primarily rhetorical. For Rouse, the fact "That names and places remain relatively unchanged in post-conquest England suggests a more complex process of appropriation," as "the land not only encodes history, but also holds an intimate connection with identity". (5,9) He contends that these material reminders of the Anglo-Saxon period give it a persistence, in its own right, that exceeds the merely ideological. This distinction is not quite borne out by the rest of the book; it is most often the idea of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than its concrete or material presence, that serves the various purposes of Middle English romance.

Yet this idea itself is compelling, and the texts examined by Rouse exploit a wide range of resources from earlier English history. Chapter Two frames a conflict between the authority of the Anglo-Saxon past and the rise of the Arthurian tradition in the mid- twelfth century; in the midst of this debate, Rouse locates the Proverbs of Alfred, a text anxious to capitalize on the historical cachet of the great English king. The Proverbs posit Alfred's reign as a golden age for England in a thoroughly conventional way, organizing the ideal Christian society into the familiar Three Orders (those who work, those who fight, those who pray) whose structure is held together by the king. The veneer of antiquity serves more to highlight the difference between this ideal and the twelfth-century reality than to demonstrate any real historical difference; in this way, "the Proverbs utilises the past for that most common of purposes--to comment upon the present." (29) From this fairly predictable conclusion, Rouse goes on to examine the local context of the Proverbs' genesis in East Sussex. Here, he finds some intriguing evidence of local legends about Alfred holding councils in the area, a possible connection between the text and a powerful local family whose patriarch shared the king's name, and a conceivable local provenance. In these historical remains, both cultural and material, Rouse finds a connection between the past, now shrouded in memory, and present concerns about good government. That an Anglo-Saxon king in particular should be seen as the arbiter of these values is, for Rouse, a sign of Anglo-Saxon England's enduring importance for the Middle English imagination.

Imagination plays an even greater role in Chapters Three and Four, which explore the use of the Anglo- Saxon past in the Matter of England romances. The argument of this section is twofold: first, that the romances deploy a vision of Anglo-Saxon England that emphasizes the continuity of place over time; and second, that the confrontations with various national/racial Others in these romances reinforces that continuity through its construction of a distinct English identity. The English identity so carefully constructed by these romances, then, has both the authority of antiquity and the power of a contemporary presence, because the landscape familiar to Middle English audiences features prominently in stories set in a distant, but not so different, past. Chapter Three begins by rehashing the critical debates over reading romance as historiography; while the romances certainly cannot be credited with achieving, or even attempting, historical accuracy, their appropriation of an earlier period serves as a kind of historical discourse. Romance often influenced the composition of more straightforward history, as Rouse demonstrates with the example of Pierre de Langtoft's use of the Guy of Warwick narrative in his fourteenth-century account of the Battle of Brunanburh. In the popular imagination, then, romances were regarded as history, and the romances' repeated emphasis on land serves to forge a more concrete connection with the past they claim to recreate. In Chapter Four, the figure of the Saracen, along with Insular Others, encodes English identity by representing its opposite and reinforcing the connection between Englishness and a particular place. Romance can thus serve the needs of regionalism and nationalism simultaneously, offering a more complex and nuanced view of the multiplicity of identities available to later medieval readers and, to some degree, lessening tensions between competing identities by giving them free reign in the safe space of the past.

The final chapters of the book move on to discuss more specific uses of the Anglo-Saxon past in post-Conquest romance, particularly in legal discourse and in the representation of urban space. Chapter Five deals with Anglo-Saxon England as a perceived Golden Age of English law, characterized by "the rule of a rightful king who rules within the bounds of the law of the realm" (105), in contrast to the lawlessness of places like Denmark (Havelok the Dane) and Wales (Horn Childe). Through this contrast, "law becomes a powerful element in the creation of an English Identity, standing as a point of differentiation for the Anglo-Saxon England of the romances and, vicariously, for the post-conquest England of their audiences." (118) Chapter Six, perhaps the most compelling, and certainly the most theoretical, in the book, returns to the discussion of place with potent philosophical musings about the effects of place on the imagination. As one walks through Winchester, Rouse writes, the physical space evokes narratives of the past that are both multifarious and inescapable: the tombs in the cathedral, the statue of Alfred that connotes "the burning of the cakes. . . educational and judicial reforms, victories against the Danes, and dynastic foundation," vie with less authentic, but equally powerful, memorials such as the Round Table itself. (135) This was no less true, he argues, for medieval visitors like the antiquarian John Leland than for the modern tourist. Here, Rouse is at his most concrete and descriptive, finally theorizing the relationship between place and meaning that has been assumed throughout the book. Winchester becomes a site of cathexis for the various and sundry questions of identity and historical meaning that have been explored throughout the book, and Rouse's characteristic attention to historical detail traces the rise and fall of Winchester's fortunes throughout the medieval period, establishing clear links to the literary traditions that become a source of civic pride. The book ends with a summarizing Conclusion and a thorough Bibliography.

On the whole, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance is the result of creative thinking and excellent writing. It is a rewarding read and a fine contribution to a scholarly discourse that aims to bridge the arbitrary divide of the Norman Conquest. Rouse's notes reveal thorough research on a number of fronts, including literary, historical and theoretical; he has clearly done his homework. In places, however, he does not appear to be fully independent of the influence of previous scholarship; he is scrupulous about citing secondary sources, but he often simply relays the judgments and interpretations of other scholars rather than returning to primary texts and evaluating them himself. In contrast to the often-exhaustive depth of his independent research on some points, this tendency is disappointing, and it seems to indicate a hesitancy to establish his own critical voice. Homi Bhabha's theories of nation, for example, are foundational to the argument in Chapters Three and Four, but appear to come almost exclusively from an essay by Diane Speed rather than from Bhabha's original text. Similarly, some readers may be troubled by the citation of Old English texts from Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English rather than from standard editions. Complaints such as these may be overly particular, however, and they do not necessarily constitute a failing in the book. If anything, its minor shortcomings serve rather to illustrate the inherent difficulty of encompassing two effectively distinct disciplines in a single project of ambitious scope, as well as the value of integrating studies of Old and Middle English literature across period boundaries.