12.03.21, Sobecki, The Sea and Englishness In the Middle Ages

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Richard W. Unger

The Medieval Review 12.03.21

Sobecki, Sebastian I.. The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages: Maritime Narratives, Identity and Culture. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 260. ISBN: 9781843842767.

Reviewed by:
Richard W. Unger
University of British Columbia

In his 2008 book The Sea and Medieval English Literature, the editor explored the topic of this collection which is the product of two sessions held at the Leeds International Medieval Conference in that same year. Four papers are added to the five surviving from the Leeds sessions as are an introductory essay by the editor and an afterword by David Wallace. The last pays due attention to the various contributions while making an effort to give coherence to the collection. The editor, in his introduction, explains that his goal for the authors was to "think about the relationship between the sea and the formation of a collective English identity" (3) as expressed in medieval literature. He wants to push back the idea of Britannia ruling the waves beyond the victory at Trafalgar and even beyond the claims of domination of the Channel in the reign of James I. He leads by example, concentrating on the reign of King Edgar as an Anglo-Saxon king not sullied by any French influence and showing how the monarch became for later writers a precedent for claims of royal dominance of the seas. Sobecki elaborates on the topic which he first explored in his monograph, filling in gaps and offering a fuller argument with this as a case of a much more general phenomenon. Britain was defined by the sea, as understood among some medieval writers, is the conclusion to be drawn. The essays do not necessarily all fully support the overall contention and find themselves, in some cases, getting off the planned course of demonstrating that water created English or British identity. The task is a difficult one, of course, since the target is malleable.

In the last of the essays Joanne Parker takes up nineteenth-century lionization of King Alfred as the founder of the British navy, elaborating on a topic she explored in her 2007 monograph on the Victorian cult of the most famous of Anglo-Saxon kings. She and Chris Jones in his contribution on the obscure literary scholar Stopford Brooke, concern themselves rather with the uses of the Middle Ages to create nationalist sentiment rather than the emergence of such thinking before the Tudors. Brooke, who like many other Victorians refracted Old English through Romanticism, proved highly influential in establishing the canon of pre-Conquest poetry. In doing that he gave importance to works related to the sea, making them part of an unbroken lineage of nationalist language. The inclusion in this volume of the nineteenth century resonates with defining an essentialist quality of literary Englishness, Brooke's goal but contrary to more recent understandings of writing over time.

Mapping underlies the discussion of all the authors while Alfred Hiatt goes further and explores maps of England in the Middle Ages. While many of the people who lived on the islands of the British archipelago, given the scope of travel in the early and high Middle Ages, may not have had visual confirmation of the encompassing sea the few surviving maps made the fact indisputable. His principal argument is with historians of cartography who have long argued that sea charts, portolans, did not come to England until the Renaissance. He offers evidence suggesting they were in use by the thirteenth century, an idea gaining increasing currency. On the other hand the contention that such charts, like the more grand and scholarly mappae mundi, influenced the spatial conception of those involved in English literature is a considerably greater leap than he would like to allow. His notes often prove more valuable than the text.

Jonathan Hsy and Kathy Lavezzo take on better known works, the former The Book of Margery Kempe and the latter the alliterative Morte Arthure. Lavezzo sees in the late fourteenth-century version of the story of the ill-fated king a condemnation of imperial ambition with the central character only landing in trouble when he leaves England, crosses the sea and makes for Rome. She takes this as probable commentary on the forays to France of kings in the Hundred Years War. The sea for the poet, even if it is just the English Channel, defines Englishness and that is an extension of the more general conception of England as marginal, on the edge of a land mass surrounded by an encircling sea. Margery was a traveler and as with other figures in medieval literature the voyages were simultaneously spiritual. Hsy is more concerned with the polyglot milieu of ethnic and linguistic interaction that recurs in the description of Margery's adventures. While her Englishness is palatable, he notes her linguistic belonging is both grounded and fluid. He does concede, however, that in the practical world of commercial contact moving among languages was the norm. Fabienne Michelet also directs interest to travel, that of the Angles and Saxons from the European mainland to settle in Britain. She looks for the foundation myth lurking in two Old English works, relying on Nicholas Howes discussion of the general topic, hoping to find connections between memory and space. The Old English Exodus does use nautical imagery of Israelites crossing the desert and Andreas has an extended sea voyage. Though the essay is admittedly speculative she can conclude that it was not so much the physical voyage over the seas that marked English self-identification as the migration itself, the leaving of one land for another. Judith Weiss offers some remarks on two works from East Anglia, the Vie de St Edmund and Waldef. Both are from the decades around 1200 and both include sea voyages but no conception of the sea is discernible in the two works. In the rather little space she uses Weiss has little chance to develop what, if any, the two works have to contribute to the general goal of the collection.

Winifried Rudolf and Catherine Clarke, on the other hand, are able to unveil tropes that are much more suggestive of a role for the sea in the thinking of writers in early medieval Britain. Rudolf is aware of the rather different nature of island societies, a phenomenon noticed over time and space, and argues that some of the sense of feeling alone, surrounded by the sea can be found in the frequency of maritime motifs in Old English homiletic literature. There is "a spiritual islescape" shaped by the surrounding sea with extensive influence from Irish literature, the product of people also on an island. The conclusion is guarded with warnings not to overextend claims for the impact of the homilies she discusses on the formation of an Anglo- Saxon identity. The warning is well advised since connections among works are often strained and speculation is at times reported in an extremely positive vein. The influence of the Church Fathers on the monkish authors, as Rudolf acknowledges, may well offer alternate explanations for at least some of the watery tropes. The interface of sea and land, the liminal and constantly inconstant tidal spaces as explored in selected texts offer Clarke a chance to suggest a range of issues for further exploration. After mentioning the story of King Cnut failing to hold back the tide as signifier not only of the nature of humanity but also of the limitations of royal authority, she passes quickly over tides and great waves as they appeared in works by Bede and Symeon of Durham. She goes on to the parting of the Red Sea in the Old English Exodus, covering ground already examined by Michelet. Clarke devotes much of the discussion to a late twelfth- century De Laude Cestrie whose author, in celebrating the history of Chester, makes much of the Dee and the prosperity which its tides carry. She understands the city as a salient in the English imperialist program of the colonization of Wales. As an example of what can be learned from examining tides and tidal spaces in medieval English works she offers the Rood of Chester. Made of up of pieces of the True Cross and washing up on shore, brought on the tides, it was a gift from God and a sign of their deliverance from English domination. By extension the Welsh could be seen as the new Israelites. The works Clarke includes are disparate though suggestive of some possible aspects of an English emerging understanding of themselves.

The value of the papers to an understanding of literature is marred both by their brevity and tendency to avoid deep readings, a logical result of the roots of many of the contributions in Leeds conference sessions. The willingness to draw together disparate threads of criticism and to link unlikely literary bedfellows as well as to point to the less obvious both in better and less well known texts offer a counterweight. For maritime history redeeming grace is more difficult to identify. Errors of translation of technical terms to do with the sea are commonplace but the claims, for example, that the esneke was a light craft used by the Vikings even while such vessels were among the ships that carried Richard I's expedition to the Holy Land or that a product of eighteenth-century innovation, studding sails, were in use in high medieval England, suggest serious shortcomings in understanding sea travel and the vessels used. The bibliography of works cited is by definition varied and therefore valuable. The range guarantees omissions. The connection between a Genoese master of St. Michel that the British king has to defeat in the alliterative Morte Arthure and the presence, all but contemporaneous with the writing of the poem, of ships of France's Genoese allies in the Channel contesting the passage of English vessels is not given consideration. In gaps such as that, though, lies a considerable advantage of the collection. The papers together are a foray into somewhat unknown, though increasingly better known thanks to the editor, territory. At times provocative, at times frustrating there are possibilities alongside the problems. The notion that there was a national identity in England emerging in the Middle Ages and expressed in different ways in literature, requires a rather loose understanding of the concept of nation. Yet in exploring the ambiguities of England as part of an island surrounded by the sea and in an archipelago, the precise imprecision of the idea of Englishness becomes even more obvious.

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Richard W. Unger

University of British Columbia