12.05.20, Glenn, The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture

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Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 12.05.20

Glenn, Jason. The Middle Ages in Text and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Pp. 358. ISBN: 978-1-4426-0490-2.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
State University of New York, Stony Brook

Robert Brentano (1926-2002) was a medievalist of considerable distinction. His Rome before Avignon (1974) and his Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century (1988) continue to hold their own as important and innovative monographs. In addition, and among other honors, he served a term as president of the Medieval Academy. But beyond these milestones of extra-murals recognition, he was a dedicated and charismatic teacher of medieval history, for over four decades drawing students at the University of California at Berkeley into the intriguing mysteries and challenges of that seemingly so-distant world, the European Middle Ages. And in keeping with this aspect of his memorable classroom persona, twenty- three of his former graduate students have offered this volume in his memory. It is a much expanded follow-up to some sessions that former students and colleagues held in Brentano's honor at the 2002 International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan (though not all of this volume's contributors read papers on that occasion). What Jason Glenn and his colleagues have given us is not a scholarly festschrift of the familiar sort but rather a volume consisting of a series of short chapters, each explicating a particular text or two, looking at material that is quite familiar to those who teach (and enroll in) the medieval survey course. Think of being the instructor for the year-long undergraduate survey and of inviting a series of friends to give guest lectures, each lecture centering around an assigned source and now being delivered with a degree of polish that we are more likely to devote to a one-off and flattering guest appearance than to the regular Tuesday-Thursday stand up performance.

A volume of twenty-six chapters (plus Thomas Bisson's affectionate foreword) cannot usefully be reviewed chapter by chapter; I apologize to those whose excellent presentations will not be singled out below. The chapters move forward in the volume in keeping with "real time," beginning with a look at Augustine's Confessions (William North), and concluding with a discussion of Margery Kempe (Clementine Oliver). In between, dipping into the riches of 1000+ years, there are guest lectures on many of the usual suspects: Gregory of Tours (Sam Collins), Gregory's Life of Benedict (Carole Straw), Bede (Jay Rubenstein), Einhard (Jason Glenn), The Cid (Helen Nader), Walter Daniel's Life of Aelred (Katherine Christensen), William of Rubruck (Adnan Husain), Joinville on Louis IX (John Tuthill), Chr├ętien de Troyes (Amy G. Remensnyder), and Christine de Pizan (Dallas G. Denery II), for a partial listing. Though the chapters' authors are historians in the disciplinary sense, they do touch on "literature," even if no one has tried to tackle head-on the likes of Dante or Petrarch or Chaucer. However, topics not covered can always to run to legion and we are well informed by and certainly pleased with the many user-friendly insights in this volume. It seems ungracious to belabor the team about the neglect of Isidore of Seville or the Icelandic sagas, and we do learn about Usamah ibn Munqidh for a little touch of Islam (Adnan Husain) in a collection that offers about an even mix of ecclesiastical and secular texts. Each contributor includes a student-friendly bibliographical pointer, steering us to accessible translations along with some pertinent and recent scholarship.

To think of the chapters as a series of guest lectures in a medieval history survey seems a fair way to assess them. They are, as I said above, very good guest lectures. The authors were at some pains to tweak the familiar text--looking for its texture, in and beyond the words or the surface of the narrative--and many of the explications and analyses have a touch that the instructor who invited this string of guest speakers, if not necessarily those in the classroom seats, will appreciate. If it is unlikely that a lot of bold new wine will be poured into such well-used bottles, the extent to which the message of Augustine's Confessions rests on aurality, or the way in which individual identity and the definitions of the virtuous life are turned from heroic to Christian in Willibald's Life of St. Boniface do serve to remind us that we are never likely to have wrung all the juice from such ripe fruit.

These interesting takes on the familiar are a characteristic of virtually every chapter, every text that is being held up to the light. It can be Gregory of Tours, working manfully (or episcopally) to create a text that might help impose order upon a disordered world, or the in-house gossip of Richard of Devizes (Nancy Partner), writing about kings and would-be kings for those already in the know, or a look at how many of his relatives Salumbine could actually tally within the Franciscan ranks while seeking to leave all that behind (Victoria M. Morse). Whether we think of our students or of those who teach them in the survey, we have models of how to explicate the obvious and, simultaneously, to delve below the surface: Wiliiam of Poitiers as a propagandist (Jay Rubenstein), or Odo of Deuil with but a limited understanding of what made Louis VII tick (Rudi Paul Lindner), or Alfonso the Wise yoking the macho of monarchy to the cult of the Virgin (Amy Remensnyder), or a Margery Kempe jumping the gun in a kind of anticipation of what the printing press would soon be doing for autobiography and individualized expression (Clementine Olvier). All in all, a useful and thought-provoking tribute to Brentano, with its unbroken succession of insight-rich lectures. That five of them are concerned with women, including one on Christine de Pizan as an author (Dallas G. Denery II), and that we pause to examine Anglo-Saxon law codes (Kathleen Casey), various writers at and of various courts, different roads taken in the search for spirituality, the specific setting on more than one chronicled instance of urban convulsion and violence, multiple approaches to hagiography, and a long and rather tiring walk to Mongolia, among other topics, makes this a volume to fit many tastes, many uses.

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Joel Rosenthal

State University of New York, Stony Brook