The Medieval Review 12.02.11

Galloway, Andrew. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture. Cambridge Companions to Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 340. $90 hb. ISBN: 978-0-521-85689-8. $29.99 pb. ISBN: 978-0-521-67327-3.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen E. Kennedy
Pennsylvania State University-Brandywine

Anyone writing for a "state of the field" collection labors under many, often conflicting demands. One is in charge of introducing the entirety of one's subject mater, often at an "advanced" level. One is enjoined to demonstrate the highlights of the field's scholarship, but keep the notes and bibliography as strait as possible. Oftentimes one must tie the current state of the field with its past, or where the field is going, or both. One must accomplish all of this without using any jargon. Finally, "state of the field" collections strike at a moving target, and can quickly appear dated. Despite such an apparently Sisyphean outcome, the best of these collections can be useful not only for their stated introductory goal, but also for gesturing toward the future of the field, and they can usefully inflect many projects. Much of The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture is self-aware of its complex, contradictory charge, and this makes it a careful entry into this genre.

Editor Andrew Galloway sets forth the ambitiousness of this project in the introductory chapter: "a portable guide" he says "can only introduce and provoke, aiming for a significant variety of approaches, as well as a significant range of disciplines" (1). The volume traces both elite 'culture' and culture that we all take part in as living people. What emerges is a complicated textus spanning the centuries before the Norman Conquest through to twenty-first century medievalisms such as World of Warcraft. Throughout the continued influence of interdisciplinarity on the field is manifest. This view of the English Middle Ages welcomes the complicated cultural threads of Norman culture tangling and knitting with Anglo-Saxon culture over several centuries.

The first set of essays explores several large areas "that set the stage for the period and for the broad terms of life" (8). Scott Waugh sketches the progression of English politics from being centered on the court, whether Anglo-Saxon or Norman, to an emergent nation characterized by a monarchy working over, but always with (only less effectively, against) a parliament made up of both lords and commons. Waugh emphasizes that English people and communities at every level of society participated directly in politics which meant that local politics could effect national, just as national politics traditionally effected local. Paul Hyams describes the development of a legal profession as a corollary of this complication of political power. Hyams goes as far as to call medieval England a "lawyer-dominated world," but he demonstrates how both the law and the legal profession took time to develop (43). David Hinton's chapter on archaeology uses specific examples to highlight how material evidence can support textual arguments, and sometimes complicate or contradict those arguments. Hinton highlights how both traditional and emerging scientific technologies allow for the assembly of highly detailed evidence about medieval material culture. In particular Hinton uses architectural and ceramic history to demonstrate how material culture can physically address issues of cultural diffusion across class and national boundaries.

The second set of essays considers the tension inherent in cultural change. Like Waugh's belief in politics at every level, Richard Kaeuper sees England as sharing a sense of ideal community at every level. Kaeuper traces the institutions developed to respond to breakdowns in this community throughout much of the period, particularly the royal courts founded on the ideal of the king's role in supporting peace and justice in his realm. He admits that his own reading of the evidence suggests that the later medieval English felt lawlessness was supported by a corrupt legal system. David Dumville's essay on the "celtic" (quotation marks used by Dumville) populations of England explores non-English perceptions of these political and legal changes as each people adjusted to colonization or conquest, and accepted or rebelled against the English perception that as "celts" they would never truly fit into English culture. Rebecca Krug uses Margery Kempe as an example of the tensions surfacing around the relationship between sanctity and sainthood. Compared to the hagiographies of the Golden Legend, Kempe's sanctity and her Book stand in stark contrast. Like the "celts" Kempe struggles to assert a unique identity; unlike the "celts" Kempe does this comparatively alone.

The third section reorients the sense of textus being explored to areas more usually described as texts: visual art and literature. Laura Kendrick considers the intersections of text and design in Conquest art, and happily includes examples from manuscripts as well as textile. Of note are her examples which illustrate high medieval audiences' comfort with visual glossing (illustration) of biblical texts. Therefore later medieval distrust of glossing or color, of "verbal [or] visual explanations of authoritative texts," encourages future work in the area (169). Ralph Hanna outlines the history of education in medieval England and links its expansion in the later Middle Ages to the increasing needs of royal, ecclesiastical, and manorial bureaucracy. Hanna emphasizes the range of literacies learned, with variation not just in the languages used, but also information literacies mastered. In a pair of admirable essays David Carlson and Elaine Treharne explore the sometimes surprising relationships between the major languages of medieval England. Carlson reminds his audience of the range of "Latins" used in medieval England. Throughout the period, Latin was a language of authority: "lending authority, or making authoritative, is what Latin was for" (202). Nevertheless, for Carlson by the early sixteenth century Latin's authority had waned: the possible range of styles had narrowed, and audiences had shrunk. Treharne picks up these threads and weaves them together with Englishes and Frenches. She uses manuscript miscellanies to emphasize the ease with which literate audiences moved between languages for much of the medieval period. While before the thirteenth century English and French existed in separate traditions, during this century texts in both languages begin to appear together in manuscripts. Finally, touching on the work of more theorists than the rest of the volume put together, David Lawton expands on Treharne's discussion of translation to explore fifteenth-century England's efforts to translate its own culture.

The final set of essays closes the volume in considering medievalism, not just in the contemporary but also in the medieval world. Indeed medieval rethinking and remaking of previous eras of the Middle Ages is traced throughout the volume, making this a fitting conclusion. Helen Cooper demonstrates the continuing popularity of medieval literature up through the Restoration in nearly every genre. This early medievalism reforms these texts to serve Early Modern cultural needs and interests. Clare Simmons continues tracing medieval literature and culture through time, beginning with the medieval revival of the early nineteenth century and ties the neomedievalism of several eras to political and social cultures far from the Middle Ages.

For all its admirable complexity, the volume remains almost hermetically-sealed around England itself. Dumville's exploration of non-English insular peoples is a stark reminder of how unfamiliar much of this history is, and given the complex histories of appropriation surrounding much of its vocabulary a glossary for his essay might have been useful. Given the volume's emphasis on medieval England's complex linguistic geography, one of the notable absences is an essay dealing with England's French empire. Dumville covers the "celtic" fringe, but the French territories remain outside of discussion aside from the language they employed and its continued effects on insular life. The other major example of this cultural vacuum in the volume is using Margery Kempe as an extraordinary exemplar, rather than part of a Continental tradition including women such as Dorothea of Montau. Religion's role as a cultural mediator is implicit in several essays but goes unexplored. Indeed, the other major means of cultural exchange with foreign cultures, the military and commerce, receive little attention.

Yet no "state of the field" volume can ever include everything, and therefore these limitations stand out thanks to the overall strength of this volume. The emphasis in several essays on the multilingualism of medieval England is very welcome. Similarly the use of material culture seems to be a fruitful path for future research; whether architectural, ceramic, textile, or manuscript, essays in this collection use these physical traces to support textual arguments as well as to challenge them. Many of the essays seat their discussion in early or high medieval England, periods that deserve wider familiarity for those scholars working in later periods. Many of the essays illustrate how late medieval England mediated its own history, and with this acknowledgment alone the volume contributes significantly to the field generally. Throughout its light theoretical touch renders this volume accessible across a wide range of disciplines. Thus, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture serves its purpose fully and captures this moment in the study of medieval English culture.

Copyright (c) 2012 Kathleen E. Kennedy

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login