09.12.04, Johnston, Performing the Middle Ages

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Ellen MacKay

The Medieval Review 09.12.04

Johnston, Andrew James. Performing the Middle Ages from 'Beowulf' to 'Othello' . Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. viii, 344. ISBN: 978-2-503-52755-0.

Reviewed by:
Ellen MacKay
Indiana University

Andrew James Johnston's Performing the Middle Ages from "Beowulf" to "Othello" begins with a cri de coeur: modernism, heal thyself. In a brisk and feisty introduction, Johnston lists the ways the Middle Ages have been cast as the straw man by a variety of critical protocols that presume a teleological thrust to periodization. No matter how ready the field of medieval studies has been to undermine claims made about the onset of subjectivity, colonialism, capitalism, etc., it remains "the opposite of all that is deemed to be good"--or at least, all that is interesting--"about the periods ranging from c. 1500 to the present." Postmodernity, a seeming ally, has only reinforced this opposition, inasmuch as shared concerns (in the palimpsestic and the grotesque, for example) tend to "reduce the Middle Ages to a mere mirror of postmodernism's self-image," which is, once again, the antithesis of the modern. For Johnston, what's at stake is whether the medieval period can be allowed to participate in the same archaizing, nostalgic uses to which it has been put. If modernity upholds the fiction of a simpler past in order to formulate a present distinctive for its complexity, well, says Johnston, so do key works of the medieval period. By tending to texts that traffic in "nostalgic images of aristocratic warrior elites"--namely, Beowulf, Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Alliterative Morte Arthure and Othello--Johnston's solution to the problem of medieval "otherness" is not simply to say that these chosen works anticipate a later historiolography (the "we have that too" approach), but to show that they evince sharp critical self-consciousness about the myths they spread of their own pastness. True, Johnston is careful to state that "the Middle Ages" could not have "possessed a full insight into its own medievalness," but this is an obligatory caveat in a book that wants to argue just that, and more. The final incursion into Shakespeare, for instance, is by way of proving that Renaissance Man, that personified counterpoint to "The Dark Ages," "comes close to being a medieval invention."

The chapters that follow show Johnston's undertaking to be a twofold business: to recap some sticking points in the myth of the middle ages, and to recast them as deliberate complications of the history they represent. Especially pleasing on the first count is Johnston's robust engagement with an idea of the Middle Ages that is not merely scholarly, but embedded in the popular consciousness. Chapter 1 begins with a sprightly riff on P. D. James' bestseller, Death in Holy Orders, in which the detective protagonist (who moonlights as a poet) chooses for bedtime reading Seamus Heaney's rendering of Beowulf. Reminiscent of Sarah Beckwith's treatment of Morality Play (Barry Unsworth's Booker-nominated novel) in Signifying God, the turn to genre fiction is deft and purposeful. James, it turns out, is on the side of Johnston, employing the epic poem to unsettle what it conventionally signifies. In her murder mystery, as in Johnson's chapter more largely, Beowulf unravels under scrutiny from an archaic monolith to a stumbling block in the historicizing process. This is very fine, and what ensues from it is an impressive genealogy of Beowulf's critical reception, with special attention paid to "Hrothulf's treachery," and the contestation of scholars over the innocence of the text to the dynastic clash that it sets in motion. But though it is not hard to guess that Johnston wants to give the epic the freedom to know more than it says, by leaving us to anticipate the intervention he is slow to make, the chapter loses some of its momentum. Indeed, my only substantive complaint about the book is that its textual analyses tend to the turgid: while Performing the Middle Ages lays out scholarly debates with brio--so much so that it deserves to be received as a valuable overview of the stakes of historicism in the field of medieval literary studies--Johnston is too patient with his texts to reveal their compliance with his approach. Admittedly, it is hard to turn and cinch an argument on the basis of, say, "Hygd's Invisible Triumph" (one of the first chapter's several sub-headings), but one wishes that his repeated claims for performative "brilliance" were more swiftly harnessed to examples more dramatic and convincing. The disappointment owes, I think, to a book that is double-minded: though the scope of Johnston's inquiry suggests a daring intervention in the idea of the medieval, the evidence is read for a specialist audience, so that each chapter has the effect of contracting inward, away from the revisionist grand récit with which Performing the Middle Ages began, and toward some overly-fine points.

Still, if Johnston is too punctilious in making his case, the case is well worth making. As its title announces, Johnston's book is methodologically innovative for its attention to performance. But more accurately, the book reckons with failures of performance: for Johnston, those moments when the narrative doesn't jibe with what it seems to think it is saying--when, for instance, we are blithely assured of Sir Gawain's absolution despite the manifest falsity of the Knight's confession--are moments when medieval authors show themselves showing the effort to sustain the illusion of a seamless aristocratic culture. The second chapter offers a powerful articulation of this argument, via Johnston's account of Theseus's theatre--the platform on which the "Knight's Tale" plays out. Johnston makes much of the all-encompassing scope of this structure: so total is its design that "it affords no perspective apart" from itself, purveying a syncretic outlook that explains the ethical cluelessness of the tale's narrator. Yet the point here is not the expected one: that Chaucer wishes to critique the shallowness of the Knight's aristocratic view. Instead, Johnston turns to the Knight's use of Occupatio--a rhetorical device useful for its ability to feign omission and ignorance--to prove that the limited self-consciousness characteristic of chivalric subjectivity is merely an act. In the end, theatricality is not the sign of a constrained aristocratic perspective but the confession of the artificiality of that constraint; that is, the Knight merely acts blind to the injustices of the system that he represents.

A third case in which Johnston shows medieval texts "say[ing] one thing but do[ing] another" is the Alliterative Morte Arthur (which critics have called "a romance, an anti-romance, a chanson de geste, and an epic"). Here, generic intermixture is the first sign of a work that strives to simulate its orality--like a forged antiquity on the collectors' market, it suborns the fiction of an archaic provenance. The reason, says Johnston, is to camouflage the "modernity of its military/strategic time scheme." Tricked out in abundance with the hallmarks of early medievalism, the Morte Arthur stages the clash between historical form and historical fact, by way of disclosing that the past that it counterfeits has always been a fiction.

The final chapter takes up the subversive performativity of chivalric literature in the most theatrical of registers: Shakespeare's Globe. As others have done, Johnston takes aim at the mechanics of Renaissance self-fashioning by showing that Greenblatt's formulation--derived from the infamous conquest of Spain's over the "Lucayas"--rehashes a dubious history in which "primitive" natives are rendered the superstitious precursors to an apotheothetical Renaissance. Johnston's innovation, however, is his deft demonstration of how the new world is really a stand-in for the old one. The myth that defines Renaissance Man, "in which he succeeds in passing as a divine being to the natives of a colonial region," turns out to be a medieval borrowing, taken from Perceval's first encounter with the knighthood in the Conte du Graal. By backdating the historeme that motors modernity's supposed onset, Johnston renders the Renaissance a medieval invention. But even less expected, and I think more powerful, is his reading of the Renaissance as a more authentic version of the Middle Ages, with its chivalric tournaments undertaken in the name of its Faerie Queene. The literary evidence for this claim is Othello, in which Shakespeare casts Iago as "Mordred to Othello's Arthur"; in Johnston's beguiling interpretation, the most infamous theatrical self-fashioner is merely the prerequisite for the Moor's chivalric éclat, which is always conditioned by loss.

Especially impressive is the way Johnston leads us through Othello's consummate performance of chivalric self-narration, from captatio benevolentiae to Mandevillian travelogue. If the tragedy that ensues gets short shrift, it seems right that Johnston leaves us to work out the consequences of a catastrophe that can no longer signify the supercessionist break that we have attributed to it. His book proves to us that the performative legacy of the medieval deserves to remain our ongoing concern.

It is to be expected that a study divided between broad strokes and close readings will divide its audience between those who wish for more of the former and those who would like more of the latter. I confess myself to be a member of the first camp, and therefore I read some of Johnston's digressions--like the second chapter's careful account of auricular confession--as an impediment to the book's driving impulse, which seems to me to be about rethinking historicism's explanatory power. But if Performing the Middle Ages from "Beowulf" to "Othello" does not satisfy the every wish of its wide readership, there is more than enough in it to fascinate specialists in the texts and authors that Johnston traverses, as well as the wider community of scholars who continue to be troubled by the patronizing subordination of the early to the late.

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Author Biography

Ellen MacKay

Indiana University