12.03.01, Matthews, In Strange Countries

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Michael Calabrese

The Medieval Review 12.03.01

Matthews, David. In Strange Countries: Middle English Literature and its Afterlife. Essays in Memory of J.J. Anderson. Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 171. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8450-8.

Reviewed by:
Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

A volume in the Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture Series, this dignified volume is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Anderson, co-founder of the series (with Gail Ashton) and by all accounts a distinguished teacher at Manchester for 40 years. American readers, including this reviewer, know him as editor of the Everyman edition of the poems of the Pearl manuscript; (initially as collaborator with A. C. Cawley and then as single editor in 1996). Other editions of these poems such as Andrew and Waldron and the Athlone texts target advanced audiences, and translations abound, but the Everyman likely provided the first taste of the language and of the infinite complexity of these poems to generations of readers. I have drawn my old, coverless edition from college off the shelf to be my companion as I compose this review. For what is a festschrift but a call to remember the influence a scholar has had on the countless lives that he has touched with his service, reaching beyond his actual students and the colleagues writing to honor him here.

Festschriften and memorial collections always struggle for unity, leading sometimes to an awkward mix of offerings whose justification must be simply diversity and range rather than focus. The editors here conceive Anderson's legacy as Gawain, obviously, but more broadly as the Arthurian tradition and also medievalism, which he taught for years at Manchester. Pearl finds its way into one essay; Patience and Purity receive only passing mention in an homage to the honoree. The Arthurian scope produces two essays on Laȝmon (one involving Tennyson) and another on Arthur and Robin Hood. But essays on Nicholas love, Pore Caitif, and one on a neo-medievalist 19th-century procession depart from the volume's apparent Arthurian unity. Accordingly, Matthews (and Anke Bernau, co- author for the introduction) offer diversity as a unifying principle for the various contributions: "From Gawain to Tennyson's Arthur, Laȝmon's Brutus to Bishop Blase, we are confident that for most readers of these essays...there will be something that is unfamiliar, something that is strange" (7).

This notion of the "strange" and the book's title come from SGGK 713-14, part of Gawain's journey to find the Green chapel: "Mony klyf he overclame in contrayes straunge, / Fer floten fremedly fro his frendes he rydes." If the editors' conceit reads like special pleading to craft a rubric for a partially unified set of essays (the notion of the strange and unfamiliar could be used to justify any range of topics), this verse nonetheless introduces the volume well. A word like "fremedly" is notoriously difficult to translate, and as they parse and gloss these verses with Anderson's translation, the authors highlight the intense experience of close reading the Pearl manuscript poems, with their oddity of language and idiom. Matthews and Bernau hit a lovely note in associating our linguistic and literary struggles with those of young Gawain himself, who seeks his to fulfill his duty and vocation "fremedly," that is, in Anderson's gloss, "as a stranger." "Gawain," they artfully conclude, "is like a character experiencing a romance for the first time" (2). In short, the introduction welcomes us into the volume as an adventure.

Stephen Knight starts the collection with a lively study of "Robin Hood versus King Arthur" tracing the cultural status of these mythic giants from their origins to modern times, revealing how in modern popular culture the "dynamic politics of the duo" have become elided (10). The king and the outlaw may have started as opposites, but "a combination of moralist individualism and liberal banality" have "made the two grow closer." The spread of popular culture in movies and the like have had, says, Knight, a depoliticizing effect devolving into a "passive reception of the politics of the moralized individual, neither king nor outlaw" (22). Gillian Rudd's "The Green Knight's balancing act" offers a "tentative" return for Rudd to the ecocriticism of her 2007 book, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late medieval English Literature. She nobly honors a suggestion from Anderson about nature in the poem, and her essay is the response he will never hear but surely would have appreciated. The imposition of a "green" vocabulary is strained and awkward; SGGK is indeed about the tension between the comforts of built society and the indifference of raw nature, but only special pleading can relate it to "the kind of balance we associate with ecosystems" (29). The poem's resolution between nature and society "must finally be," says Rudd, "an uneasy rest" for "greens," by which I assume she means eco-critics who would have to lament when ultimately in the poem "all hints of [the] vegetable and mineral natural world [are] expunged" (41) in Gawain's attempt to define the "mysterious green figure" (41). Her return to Anderson's themes of "crisis without resolution" at the end of the essay are more convincing, and if one can get past the green critical cant, Rudd's offering successfully draws our attention to the tensions between civilization and nature embodied in the ever- ambiguous green man.

Carole Weinberg in "Recasting the role? Brutus in Laȝmon's Brut," deftly traces some revisions the English poet made to his source in Wace that reflect his clerical training; accordingly he tends to amplify Biblical contexts and allusions. Clearly " Laȝmon's vision of past history encompasses God's will," writes Weinberg, and he sees a divine hand in both the settlement of the land by the British and their later loss of dominion over it" (54). This strong essay ends with an homage to Anderson: a gloss on the unique term "felix Brutus" in SGGK, associated with Laȝmon's epithet for Brutus, "sael." Rosamond Allen continues the thread by exploring "how Laȝmon and Tennyson deal with the problem of combat." Allen draws our attention to individuality and agency, showing how even though the authors define heroes as warriors, they nonetheless "are troubled by the sheer fact of battle where men set out to damage each other in order to prove valour and justice through fight" (60). Well-written and lean, this essay shows how, with generous quotations of the primary texts, that both "Laȝmon and Tennyson deflect our gaze from human violence, except where the opponent is an outright villain, a heathen Saxon or Saracen" (64). The essay should have shown some awareness of Weinberg's. In fact, I see no cross-referencing at all in the volume, which is unfortunate, because readers learn more when the writers coordinate their contributions.

Susan Powell then studies "the assumption of the Virgin in Pearl and [John Mirk's] Festial." Confronting forthrightly whether to read Pearl through its theological or human relationships, and wondering if Anderson himself might not embrace her approach, Powell considers the "marriage of the Maiden to the Lamb and "suggest[s] connections with the world of female religious" (77). Whether or not we agree with the bold contention that the Pearl poet "meditated on the postulant nun in her role as bride of Christ" and "on the Virgin Mary in her bodily assumption into heaven" and then "fused these thoughts into a consolatory narrative about the death of the two-year-old" (85), the argument itself is starkly exciting. And the great jewel here is Powell's critical edition of two Assumption- sermon lyrics from Mirk, which inspire rich comparison to the language of Pearl and convincingly link the maiden to Mary.

Alexandra F. Johnston then explores "Nicholas Love and the plays of the passion," connecting the works as "meditation texts," that is, arguing for the deeply emotional effect of the publically performed Mystery Plays texts, which are clearly in the same tradition of "affective piety" (98) as Love'sprivate prose meditations. Both texts are designed to make the reader/spectator present in the dramatic biblical scenes recounted. Unlike all the essays so far, this one makes no mention of Anderson at all and thus disrupts the personal consistency of the volume (and its topical focus) to this point. Peter Meredith then "reads" a procession, the 1825 celebration in Bradford of Bishop (St) Blasé, a 4th century Armenian martyr and patron of woolcombers, one of Bradford's prime industries. The essay ends with "Who now remembers Bishop Blasé?" and thus its very subject is the oddity of the elaborate celebrations. Meredith acknowledges that "there is no direct connection between the processions and the Middle Ages" but that they nonetheless recall medieval plays. Meredith recounts the event in an illustrated micro-history that will weary all but the staunchest remaining fans of Bishop Blase, but he begins the essay with a personal tribute to Anderson, recalling their shared interest in the history of cities and performances.

Next Kalpen Trivedi, in an excellent contribution to our study of the medieval book, lucidly studies the 14th-century Pore Caitif, a "manual of doctrine and devotion...covering the basic spiritual syllabus and encouraging more sophisticated devotion" (133). Encountering this text in so-called "Lollard manuscripts," we struggle, Trivedi rightly argues, to distinguish orthodoxy from heterodoxy, as we do with many vernacular texts including sermons. Opposing the view that the text "was adulterated in some manner by adherents of sympathizers of the Lollard movement he argues rather that the Pore Caitif arises more organically from the "proto- Lollard" movement (134), that is, during the "literary activities of the early Wycliffite movement, from a time before Wyclif's ideas were subsumed into the invention of Lollardy by ecclesiastical authorities" (152). No mention of Anderson here, and readers will simply have to accept the separate virtues of those essays silent on the ties that bind.

The volume ends with two testimonials to Professor Anderson himself: first by Ralph Eliot, who focuses on Anderson's awareness that there is "something distinctive" (159) in the natural settings in the Pearl manuscript poems; and then by Alan Shelston, who honors Anderson as colleague, scholar and friend. The volume ends where it began, in moving memorial and touching tribute to its honoree and his contributions to our understanding of all that is strange and exciting in the marvelous poems to which he will forever be most closely linked.

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Michael Calabrese

California State University, Los Angeles