The Medieval Review 10.03.17

Solopova, Elizabeth and Stuart D. Lee. Key Concepts in Medieval Literature. Palgrave Key Concepts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xiv, 338. . $30 ISBN 9781403997234 .

Reviewed by:

Richard Johnson
Harper College

Elizabeth Solopova, who works in the Department of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, and Stuart D. Lee, who teaches Old English at the University of Oxford, have co-written a valuable addition to the Palgrave Key Concepts series. According to its General Editors, the stated purpose of the Key Concepts series is "to provide students with key critical and historical ideas about the texts they are studying as part of their literature courses. These ideas include information about the historical and cultural contexts of literature as well as the theoretical approaches current in the subject today. Behind the series lies a recognition of the need nowadays for students to be familiar with a range of concepts and contextual material to inform their reading and writing about literature" (ix). To the extent that achieving such monumental objectives is possible for the literature of the Middle Ages, Solopova and Lee have done so admirably. To their credit, the book leads students through necessarily brief discussions of major authors, themes, and critical perspectives, while at the same time framing these in the major historical and literary contexts that shaped the development of this vast body of literature.

In a very brief Introduction (xi-xiii), Solopova and Lee delineate their own objective: "This book sets out to present key themes, texts, terminologies, and methods related to a period of English literature we broadly term 'medieval'. In short, this covers the dates from some time in the middle 5th century to the third quarter of the 15th century--a period of over 1,000 years. The length of this time-span should not be forgotten, nor underestimated" (xi). Thus acknowledging the challenges of the task, they bravely set forth to produce an accessible companion text to a student's undergraduate literature curriculum. To that end, the book is divided into four sections: "Introductory Key Concepts," "Old English," "Middle English," and "Approaches, Theory, and Practice."

The opening section of the book presents a range of "key concepts" through a series of brief overviews of the political and social history of the Anglo-Saxon and post-Conquest periods, punctuated by short essays on religion (both pagan and Christian), the church, philosophy, and political theory. While by no means comprehensive, these overviews provide students with a palpable sense of the historical, social, and cultural backgrounds against which the literature of these periods were produced. The second and third sections focus on Old English and Middle English respectively. In each section, the emphasis is on the principal historical and literary- critical concepts that are fundamental to the study of Old and Middle English literature. The section on Old English literature includes discussions of Anglo-Latin, legal and historical texts, scientific works, as well as a range of prose and poetry. The coverage of Middle English literature is equally broad, including Latin and Anglo-Norman as well as a wide range of genres and a selection of individual authors. The final section of the book, "Approaches, Theory, and Practice," discusses Old and Middle English language; the vagaries of translation; issues involving manuscripts, particularly dating and editing them; the prosody of Old and Middle English poetry; and the multiplicity of medieval English literary genres, as well as a variety of theoretical approaches to the vast body of literature produced in these periods. Following the main text, the authors provide students with a chronological list of the principal historical and literary events from the fourth to the late fifteenth centuries. The book closes with a comprehensive bibliographic list of references.

This is an impressive and scholarly introductory volume that has much to recommend it. The focused essays are concise and generally accessible to an undergraduate audience. Each essay is followed by helpful and discursive recommendations for further reading that include not only print texts but websites and electronic editions as well. Each of the sections is fully cross-referenced, enabling students to draw comparisons and establish connections among the works, authors, historical periods, and contemporary theories. Nevertheless, I do have a few minor quibbles with the text. In some places it reads a bit like a graduate thesis, and while it is generally extremely informative, it is in other places necessarily simplistic. This second complaint may in fact be a virtue since the intended audience is comprised of undergraduate, non-specialist readers. My only other complaint involves an aspect of the book which may have been beyond the control of the authors: the title of the volume is disconcertingly misleading. The "Medieval Literature" of the title refers exclusively to the body of literature written in England from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, ignoring entirely the vast body of continental, not to mention Asian, African, and Latin American, literature composed in this same period. If the Key Concept series is to accomplish the lofty goals set out in the initial paragraph of this review, then the publishers need to uphold the principle of truth in advertising. The addition of the word "English" to the title would have alleviated this simple misrepresentation. I suspect, however, that these minor deficiencies have more to do with the impossibility of the task set before the authors by the publishers of the series, namely the creation of a single volume introduction to a body of literature covering over a thousand years.

All in all, Solopova and Lee's Key Concepts in Medieval Literature succeeds at introducing students to the major authors, themes and genres of the English Middle Ages. The book highlights the continuity, while not ignoring the discontinuities, in the development of medieval English literature. Despite the limitations I have enumerated above, the ultimate success of this volume is due to Solopova and Lee's ability to combine text, context, and criticism in such a way as to make clear the ways in which medieval English texts intersect with their immediate contexts (both physical and literary) and their historical circumstances.