12.06.42, Schiff, Revivalist Fantasy

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Jake Walsh Morrissey

The Medieval Review 12.06.42

Schiff, Randy P.. Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus, OH:The Ohio State University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 276. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1152-6 (hb).
ISBN: 978-0-8142-9251-8 (cd).

Reviewed by:

Jake Walsh Morrissey
Concordia University, Montreal

The later-medieval vogue in Middle English poems that depend organizationally on alliteration has traditionally been characterized as a "revival" of the apparently kindred Anglo-Saxon poetic practice. A largely outdated but (as Randy P. Schiff reveals) enduring account of this phenomenon is that, at about the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries in the South were writing verse that was in line with the evolution of English prosody toward French syllabic and end-rhymed forms, a dissenting school of provincial (mainly Northern and West Midland) poets was producing metrically, dialectically, lexically, and stylistically distinct poems based on native models. Thus the Anglo-Saxon form--in which the verse line is divided by a medial caesura, with two stressed syllables in each half, the first three alliterating--had been revived with various modifications after a puzzling absence from the manuscript record for roughly a hundred years. [1] Writing in the early years of the twentieth century, the literary historian George Saintsbury dismissively characterized this supposed neo-Saxon return to native forms as a "protest" of a "retrograde" nature, and he concluded that, "had it triumphed, it would have been a disaster." [2] But of course the apparently hybrid (Norman/Saxon) Chaucerian tradition triumphed in the end: of the Middle English texts usually associated with the "Alliterative Revival" only Piers Plowman survives in a large number of manuscripts, and William Caxton denied alliterative verse entry into print. The Anglo-Saxon verse form had been "revived" only to die again.

Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History is an important contribution to the ongoing critical dismantling of this narrative. It merits high praise as a theoretically alert disciplinary history framing illuminating analyses of individual poems. In arguing that "the Alliterative Revival is a medievalist rather than a medieval phenomenon" (2), Schiff builds substantially on the diversely oriented revisionist work of scholars such as Elizabeth Salter, N. F. Blake, Derek Pearsall, David Lawton, Ralph Hanna, and Christine Chism [3]. Revivalist Fantasy also resonates well with Patricia Clare Ingham's Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), as both engage productively with theories of postcolonialism (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen) and nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner). Moreover, Schiff's monograph appears at an opportune time, as it serves as a theoretical and historicist counterpart to recent technical work on the meter of alliterative verse [4].

Schiff's provocative central claim is that the very notion of an Alliterative Revival "originates from, and continues to sustain, Western nationalist interests linking British, American, and Continental scholars" (2). In Chapter 1, Schiff offers a thorough and persuasive account of how this happened, tracing the origins of approaches which "project modern racialism into the Middle Ages, using the fantasy of an atavistic alliterative movement to narrate the rise of Chaucerian proto-modernity" (2). Schiff chronicles how the "fantasy" of a prosodic battle between native (neo-Saxon, alliterative) and alien (Norman French, syllabic) forms germinated in eighteenth-century antiquarianism and flourished in a nineteenth- century professional literary-critical discourse steeped in contemporary ideas about nation and race. Proponents of this "ethno- historicizing fantasy" sought continuity with "an idealized Germanic past by narrating the meteoric rise and collapse of native alliterative poetics" (19). For these "Alliterative Revivalists," there emerges out of the racialist native-alien dialectic "a medieval modernity... as a dying neo-Saxon poetic school gives way to Chaucer's triumphal blending of Norman wit with Germanic Vigor" (19). While Schiff argues that the political unit of the nation is a post-medieval concept, and frequently emphasizes "discontinuities in medieval and modern modes of ethnic identification," he also joins postcolonial critics in rejecting a wholly alterist position, emphasizing the "medieval-modern continuity" of empire (102). (Schiff traces Britain's imperialist history to Edward I.) Thus Schiff examines local and contemporary as well as "transnational" themes and subjects (e.g. class, gender, religion, imperial aggression) that were apparently of concern to the authors and audiences of his chosen texts. For example, Schiff reveals how Wynnere and Wastoure (c. 1352) registers anxieties about manuscript publication and the socioeconomic impact of warfare and the Black Death that have been overlooked by "Revivalists" who search single-mindedly for stereotypically neo-Saxon themes.

To be sure, others have critiqued analogous racialist assumptions inherent in earlier criticism on alliterative poetry. Derek Pearsall, for one, has observed in passing that the "patriotic tone" of W. P. Ker's and R. W. Chambers' influential writings on the alliterative revival "now [seem] to belong to an older era of English history," and elsewhere he has argued that the older view of the Alliterative Revival fails because of its "dynamic, evolutionary, and essentially xenophobic character, the way it conceives of the development of poetic form as a battle between native and alien elements." [5] Yet Schiff demonstrates how these and other views of "an older era" continue to influence present-day scholarship in wide-reaching and insidious ways. Schiff is an incisive historian of literary criticism, rooting out traces of "Alliterative Revivalist" practice in unlikely seeming quarters. In rejecting the notion that a school of medieval poets intentionally participated in an Alliterative Revival, Schiff posits a (de facto) school of modern critics and editors who participate in a common critical practice. Not only does this school include obvious candidates like Ker and Chambers, it also attracts at its magnetic margins critics like Hanna and Chism.

This monograph develops numerous fruitful (and often quite densely argued) areas of inquiry, each rewarding in its own way, and only an admittedly small sample can be addressed in this brief review. In Chapter 2, Schiff makes the case that William of Palerne resists "Revivalist" interpretations founded on post-medieval definitions of nation which themselves rely on similarly anachronistic views of ethnic and linguistic identity. The poem is sometimes read as a patriotic and populist Englishing of a French romance. For Schiff, however, both the English translation and its French source participate in the same transnational "project of class consolidation" motivated by anxieties about the preservation of an exclusive and impenetrable aristocratic class (49). Reading the narrative's animal transformations (both lycanthropic and disguise) as processes through which "aristocratic youths mark their social power" (14), Schiff shows that the English translator amplifies elements of this shared ideological project. Both translation and original also participate in another kind of "consolidation," as they shore up "Western solidarity"--which apparently trumps class affiliations and supposed national allegiance--against the Eastern Other represented by a Greek prince (71). The focus and methodology of the chapter is in places consonant with (but not derivative of) recent scholarship in animality studies, and future work could more explicitly connect this chapter's arguments with that discourse [6].

Schiff's abiding interest is in how later-medieval alliterative poems, rather than looking backwards to an imagined Saxon past, speak instead to a range of local, contemporary, and transnational "anxieties." While Schiff detects anxieties having to do with the preservation of class distinctions and Western consolidation in William of Palerne, he turns to gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the focus of Chapter 3). Schiff argues that "Revivalist" critics have minimized the importance of "female agency driving the romance" (72) by misreading its two most important female characters. Morgan le Fay and Lady Bertilak are suggestive of different kinds of women (widows and wives respectively) who were economically powerful in the Northwest Midlands, which was in a "militarized, transnational zone" (75) that was "teeming with the wealth of English empire" (99). Both women would have been recognizable as "realistic, regionally inflected figures" (77) to audiences in a region where careerist military men were often absent (85). The supernaturally (and symbolically) aged Morgan, not the Green Knight, is Arthur's actual rival: she is the one who "possesses region-wide authority"; hers is an "imperial influence" which counters the British king's, reaching "from somewhere in the Northwest Midlands, through wild liminal spaces, to southerly Camelot" (93). Readers may wonder whether the "all-male editorial title" of the poem is in fact another instance of the "occlusion of female agency" that Schiff so ably detects elsewhere in scholarship (74; cf. 50, 61).

Chapter 4 analyzes two Arthurian narratives written in thirteen-line stanzas: the Middle English Awntyrs off Arthure and the Middle Scots Golagros and Gawane. Schiff explores both poems in the context of the Anglo-Scottish marches, a region caught between imperial states. Schiff asserts that both Awntyrs and Golagros are "grounded in a brutal, fluid world of border warfare," and that "each romance manages a critique of imperialist expansionism" (105). Schiff examines "the ethnic ambiguities of Galeron, Gawain, and Galloway" in Awntyrs in the fluid context of "borderland sensibilities produced by the collision of Scottish and English empires" (15). Just as Awntyrs is shown not to be unproblematically pro-English, Golagros, which is written in Middle Scots and seems to thematize Scottish freedom, is also shown to benefit from being conceptually located in the militarized borderlands where "arbitrary dispossession" was a persistent anxiety (127).

Chapter 5 turns to the Piers Plowman tradition for evidence of a closer cultural relationship between the Southwest Midlands and London than is acknowledged in "Revivalist" narratives that oppose regional alliterative minstrels with urban and textual sophisticates. The two regions were linked by the "nexus" of a two-way book trade and shared bureaucratic culture (130). Piers Plowman is informed by "[c]omplex concepts of authorship, audience, and communications media" (129), and these elements are re-configured in Langlandian works such as Pierce the Ploughman's Crede, Richard the Redeless, and Mum and the Sothsegger. The latter two works (which were formerly conceived of as a single work), for example, employ "invitations to collaborative writing and multiplication of authorities to destabilize textual unity" as part of a larger, sophisticated (so, not "retrograde" or provincial) strategy aimed at "negotiating the volatile discursive environment of early Lancastrian England" (156). Schiff's very brief but tantalizing gestures toward the similarities between manuscript and digital cultures in this chapter--along with his similarly concise comparison of medieval and American imperialisms in Chapter 4--reveal his interest in exploring "current energies" (162) through medieval texts. (Indeed, this methodology is fundamental to the "Interventions" series in which the monograph appears, as it aims to publish "both studies of medieval culture and ... work on the continuing importance of medieval tropes and topics in contemporary intellectual life.")

The frequent repetition of the phrase "as we shall see" (used over two dozen times, six times between pp. 46-54 alone), although not necessarily worthy of note on its own, illustrates Schiff's tendency to be overly conscientious in introducing (and re-introducing) his complex arguments. Some readers might want the main course to be served a little earlier. In the final reckoning, however, the quality of Schiff's critical interventions more than compensates for this minor reservation. Schiff's self-aware hermeneutic, which places the critical perspective of the scholar in interpretive play, is also refreshing.

Perhaps some critics will heed Schiff's suggestion to experiment with "acting as if there were no such thing as alliterative verse," in order to avoid the "fixation on prosodic identity" that is characteristic of "Revivalism" (162). In any event, scholarship on Middle English poetry in general will benefit from engaging with Revivalist Fantasy.


1. For expressions of this traditional view, see George Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, vol. 1 (London: MacMillan, 1906), II. 2; W. P. Ker, English Literature: Medieval (London: Williams and Norgate; New York: Henry Holt and Company; 1912), Chapter 2; and J. P. Oakden, Alliterative Poetry in Middle English (1930-1935; repr. Manchester: Achon Books, 1968).

2. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 110.

3. Elizabeth Salter, "The Alliterative Revival I," Modern Philology 64 (1966): 146-50; N. F. Blake, "Middle English Alliterative Revivals," Review 1 (1979): 205-14; Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982); Derek Pearsall, "The Alliterative Revival: Origins and Social Backgrounds," in Lawton, ed.; Id., "The Origins of the Alliterative Revival," The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach (Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1981), 1-24; Ralph Hanna III, "Defining Middle English Alliterative Poetry," The Endless Knot: Essays on Old and Middle English in Honor of Marie Borroff, ed. M. Teresa Tavormina and R.F. Yeager (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1995), 43-64; Id., "Alliterative Poetry," The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 488-512; and Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

4. See, e.g., Kristin Lynn Cole, "The Destruction of Troy's Different Rules: The Alliterative Revival and the Alliterative Tradition," JEGP 109 (2010): 162-76.

5. Pearsall, "Alliterative Revival," 41; Id., "Origins," 2.

6. For animal and animality studies, see the "theories and methodologies" section in PMLA 124 (2009): 472-563; and Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages, Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011).

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Author Biography

Jake Walsh Morrissey

Concordia University, Montreal