12.02.01, Garner, Structuring Spaces

Main Article Content

Catherine Karkov

The Medieval Review 12.02.01

Garner, Lori Ann. Structuring Spaces: Oral Poetics and Architecture in Early Medieval England. Poetics of Orality and Literacy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 367. ISBN: 978-0-268-02980-7.

Reviewed by:
Catherine Karkov
University of Leeds

Lori Ann Garner's book appears in the Poetics of Orality and Literacy series, which is appropriate as it is much more about poetics than it is about architecture. Garner does discuss architecture, from the Iron Age Carn Euny (Cornwall) to the fourteenth-century Bodiam Castle (East Sussex), as "real-world spaces" that helped to structure poetry and its interpretation just as they did the landscapes that poets and readers inhabited. In other words, poetry was composed and architecture built and used alongside each other; each informed the other, and each was informed by the same traditions. In general, however, the analysis of the poetry is far lengthier and more detailed than that of the architecture, and the majority of the focus is on the "oral-derived nature of Old English poetry--and its reciprocal tradition and reception--specifically as manifest in poetic depictions of architecture" (13).

The book is divided into three parts, with Part 1 establishing a structure for an "Architectural Oral Poetics." The first chapter outlines the theoretical and methodological frameworks on which the analyses that follow are built, chief amongst them being oral poetics and the field of vernacular architecture (a cultural ethnography of architecture and architectural traditions). Chapter 2 focuses on the building materials used by the Anglo-Saxons, the meanings that may have been attributed to them, and the ways in which these meanings are manifested in Old English verse, especially Beowulf.

Part 2 uses the theories and methods developed in the first two chapters to analyze the architectural poetics of Old English verse. Chapter 3 picks up on issues of translation, the translation of one building into another (either through rebuilding or reuse), and the ways in which poets translated the architecture of foreign places (Rome, Babylon, Egypt, Israel) into Old English verse. Chapter 4 is devoted to architectural metaphors in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and provides extended discussions of the Advent Lyrics, Juliana, The Phoenix, and the Exeter Book Riddles. Chapter 5 examines architectural description in lyric poetry: The Ruin, The Wanderer, and The Wife's Lament.

Part 3 explores the reception and development of the Old English tradition into the post-Conquest period. Chapter 6 provides a summary of the major architectural changes and continuities evident in post- Conquest architecture, and deploys the transition from the characteristic Anglo-Saxon aristocratic space, the hall, to its Anglo- Norman counterpart, the castle, in a nuanced reading of the spaces of Layamon's Brut. Chapter 7 explores the survival and development of the Anglo-Saxon tradition in the architectural spaces of the Middle English poems King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Sir Orfeo, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The book ends with an Afterword that looks at modern encounters with Anglo-Saxon spaces such as Bede's World, Jarrow and the annual pilgrimage to St. Peter's Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea. It does its intended job of continuing the theme of revision, translation and adaptation into the post-modern era, but a synthetic conclusion that brought some of the very different strands of Garner's argument together would have been welcome.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is the detail in which it brings out the ways in which both Anglo-Saxon architecture and verse synthesize elements of multiple traditions and multiple time periods to creative ends. Garner's overall emphasis on deliberate use and reuse, rather than the passive "influence" is commendable. Another strength is the fact that the book looks across the traditional divide of 1066 to consider both the continuities and changes that occurred in architecture and poetry with the coming of the Normans.

Garner can be repetitive. In chapter 1 she states and restates her purpose in writing the book no less than five times. And the book does contain some unfortunate errors of fact. This reviewer found herself misrepresented on page 36, where Garner claims I discussed a hogback depicted on the Franks Casket. There is no hogback on the Franks Casket, and my discussion was in fact of the depiction of vernacular architecture on the Franks Casket and of hogback tombs as sculptural skeuomorphs of architectural forms. On page 40 we are told that the Harley 603 Psalter copies images from the eleventh-century Utrecht Psalter, but of course it is Harley 603, not Utrecht, that dates from the eleventh century.

More importantly, there are arguments that remain underdeveloped or one-sided. Chapter 3, for example, opens with a critique of traditional descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon church of St. John's Escomb as having been built from or with stones from the Roman fort of Binchester, just over three miles distant. Garner is quite right to ask why Binchester in particular, why couldn't the stones have come from someplace nearer, perhaps Escomb itself? But she fails to ask whether or not the Anglo-Saxons might have had a specific reason to choose stones from Binchester. If poets could pick and choose from amongst diverse sources - as she goes on to argue in this chapter - then why should architectural patrons or builders use any stones that happen to be lying about? Moreover, the chancel arch at Escomb was taken in its entirety from a Roman building, so it must have been a substantial structure. True, fragments of Romano-British pottery have been found at Escomb, but there is nothing to suggest a settlement on the scale of the nearby fort. Garner then returns to the topic of reuse in a brief consideration of Wilfrid's reuse of Roman architectural fragments in the building of Hexham Abbey, a use she describes as "meaningful and self-conscious," a way of translating the authority and power of Rome into the new church (152). Many of those stones came form the Roman fort at Corbridge, just over five miles from Hexham. Indeed, Wilfrid's reuse has been described as a "systematic robbing" of the stones of Corbridge (John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], pp. 190-1), but Garner provides neither a critique of the Hexham tradition, nor a sense that Wilfrid's propagandistic use of the past might have been echoed in other less grand buildings, like Escomb.

Several key sources are missing from the bibliography. The discussions of hell, imprisonment, punishment, and the general reuse of earlier landscapes or architectural features in depictions of the same would have benefitted from a reading of the work of Sarah Semple and Andrew Reynolds: Sarah Semple, "A Fear of the Past: The Place of the Prehistoric Burial mound in the Ideology of Middle and Later Anglo- Saxon England," World Archaeology 30.1 (1998), 109-26; Sarah Semple, "Illustrations of Damnation in Late Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts," Anglo-Saxon England 32 (2003), 231-45; Andrew Reynolds, Later Anglo-Saxon England: Life and Landscape (Stroud: Tempus, 1999); Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). The discussion of Escomb might have been more complex had Garner read Nicholas Howe's much more nuanced reading of Escomb's Roman stones in his Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 93-7. Chapter four's extended analysis of architectural metaphors in the Advent Lyrics should have been informed by Mercedes Salvador's "Architectural Metaphors and Christological Imagery in the Advent Lyrics: Benedictine Propaganda in the Exeter Book?" Conversion and Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Catherine E. Karkov and Nicholas Howe (Tempe: ACMRS, 2006), pp. 169- 211. And the critique of the distinction between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon architecture in chapter 5 fails to take into account the work of Martin Henig, perhaps most importantly his "Murum civitatis, et fontem in ea a Romanis mire olim constructum: The Art of Rome in Carlisle and the Civitatis of the Cervetti and their Influence," Carlisle and Cumbria: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, ed. Mike McCarthy and David Weston, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 27 (Leeds: British Archaeological Association and Maney Publishing, 2004), pp. 13-23.

Garner has done an excellent job of analyzing the architectural language and imagery of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and of demonstrating the survival and rewriting of that tradition into later medieval poetry. She is, however, clearly less well informed about the material culture of the Anglo-Saxons than she is about their poetry, and her discussions of real spaces and structures are treated as case studies, they lack both the synthetic overview and the detailed critique she is able to bring to her literary analyses. Nevertheless, the book does provide some fruitful avenues for future research.

Article Details

Author Biography

Catherine Karkov

University of Leeds