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13.02.17, Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England

13.02.17, Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England

Many scholars have produced a great deal of fine work on writing and power in Anglo-Saxon England, but Catherine Clarke's new volume nevertheless manages to take a fresh look at the topic. Her approach to the subject honors the complexities of power and its textual representations; she does not identify, nor does she look for, unidirectional expressions of power in the form of either domination or resistance. Instead, she argues that the exercise of power must be understood along multiple axes. There is, of course, the familiar vertical axis of hierarchy and relations of dominance, but there is also the horizontal axis of interdependency and mutual exchange, which exists even in relationships that may be structurally hierarchical. Anglo-Saxon England offers some very familiar representational strategies for these two axes of power. Relations of mutuality and exchange appear in the well-known motif of gift exchange, while hierarchies of power and dominance underwrite the heroic ethos so popular in late Anglo-Saxon literature. Although neither of these models has suffered any lack of critical attention, Clarke's new study looks explicitly at the intersection of the two, offering a nuanced critique of the "complex interplays of hierarchy and economy in the formation and exercise of power in the period" (2). The volume's greatest strengths are its thorough grounding in the critical history of its texts; its meticulous attention to detail and close reading; and its willingness to suspend judgment and sustain ambiguity in examining complex questions. Literary criticism often finds it expedient to think in terms of either/or, but Clarke insists on maintaining a balance of both/and, to show systems of power that appear to be in competition with one another, but actually work together to sustain and prop up social organization.

In her first chapter, Clarke examines the Guthlac poems of the Exeter Book, which, she argues, show a range of shifting relationships along both axes. The poems establish a focus on vertical relations of rank and hierarchy, but also on the reciprocal exchanges of a moral economy. Guthlac's rejection of worldly ties does not, paradoxically, produce an absence of either hierarchies or exchange within the poems; these mechanisms are simply displaced from the secular realm to the spiritual one. Instead of offering allegiance to a lord, for example, Guthlac offers allegiance to God; instead of exchanging gifts and favors with other men, Guthlac provides intercession and receives prayers. The interlace motif, so familiar to students of the Anglo- Saxon period, serves here as a visual representation of reciprocity and hierarchy held in balance with one another: a strict system (hierarchy) that nevertheless gives the appearance of free-flowing design (reciprocity). This explicitly visual model is a compelling tool for imagining different formulations of power, and Clarke pays careful attention to its textual reflexes--in both poetic form and in narrative structure--in her detailed close readings of the texts under consideration.

Chapter Two takes on the poetic epitaphs of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, reading the genre through metaphors of exchange and reciprocity that point to ongoing negotiations of the relationships between individuals and communities. As Clarke demonstrates, the Chronicle's poetic epitaphs on Edward, Alfred, William, and Edgar bring the reader into a relationship with dead kings by requiring an active and engaged form of reading. She points to the ambiguity of many of the epitaphs; on the one hand, they praise the deeds of dead kings, reinforcing the sense of hierarchy that places the monarch above his subjects, while on the other hand, they frequently recount some of the dead kings' less exalted deeds, opening a space for--in fact, requiring--the reader's reflection and moral engagement and placing monarchs solidly within a system of religious and cultural values. This, Clarke argues, allows the epitaphs to help stage community: "The act of scrutinising the kings...implies a process of reckoning for the nation itself, and for the individual reader as a member of this imagined English community" (78). Once again, the fluidity of her analytic method works to avoid collapsing difference and determining ultimate categories; the active reader becomes a nexus for the shifting intersections of economies and hierarchies, and writing bridges the distances between reader and monarch, individual and community, and life and death.

Chapter Three takes on the question of distance from a different angle, examining the ways in which writing addresses the problem of the absent patron and the need to assert his ongoing authority. Byrhtferth's Vita Sancti Oswaldi, for example, uses affective language to establish an emotional bond between Oswald and his monks, demonstrating his continued concern and care for them despite his physical absence, even in death. Emotionally demonstrative behavior similarly marks Dunstan's connection to his homeland while in exile in the visions and saint messages throughout Byrhtferth's Vita. For contrast, Clarke points to Abbo's acrostics to Dunstan, which, like his poems to Otto III, emphasize gift-giving and exchange to cement the bond between author and patron. Clarke thus highlights cultural exchanges between England and the Continent, who shared ideals of patronage as encompassing friendship, affection, and gift- giving, but who emphasize different aspects of patronage as a means of negotiating absence.

Chapter Four looks at authors and patrons in a slightly different light, with a particular focus on how authors frame their role in relation to female patrons. Literary patronage, Clarke asserts, is performed through the adoption of roles that are constantly in flux: author, patron, and audience. These already complex relationships are then further complicated by the fluid expression of gender, and the author must find a way to position himself as subject to the authority of the female patron. The result can be a feminization of the author, as exemplified in Cynewulf's Elene, where distinctly Marian imagery of release from captivity and illumination code the author as feminine. But other authors found ways to frame masculinity in an almost proto-courtly fashion. In the Encomium Emmae Reginae and the Vita Aedwardi Regis, the authors position themselves as devoted servants of a model lady, using complex framing techniques that compare Emma to famous women from history and extol the maternal virtues of the childless Edith.

In the final chapter of the book, Clarke looks at uses of patronage that are filtered through historical memory and nostalgia, specifically in the 12th-century Libellus Aethelwoldi Episcopi. Here, the argument takes account of form as well as close reading. As Clarke points out, the prose and verse portions of the Libellus do very different kinds of work, and the prosimetric form emphasizes tensions between competing discourses and sustains two models of patronage. In the Libellus, Aethelwold is presented as God's chosen protector of Ely Abbey, even as he participates in the back- and-forth of political maneuvering between church and aristocracy that are part of contemporary power relations. Aethelwold is thus a patron of Ely both in the hierarchy of God's elect and in the economy of political exchange, and his patronage, further mythologized by historical distance, can be invoked along both axes at the same time. Such invocation comes into play during a 12th-century dispute over land rights among Ely Abbey, the Bishopric of Ely, and local landowners, exemplifying the powerful hold of these dual models of patronal power well beyond the lifetime of the patron.

Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a pleasure to read, and it serves as a fine model for undertaking careful and detailed close reading, thoroughly grounded in critical history, to illuminate aspects of texts that have been hitherto unappreciated (or at least underappreciated) in the scholarship. Clarke's methodology is a salutary reminder of the value of thinking dialectically and the importance of resisting the critical drive to categorization and classification. I find myself in great sympathy with her desire to read the texts of late Anglo-Saxon England not in terms of oppositional binaries, but as expressive of what she calls "a dual model of power" (171). Such attention to the complexity of any text must, I think, help us to better understand the historical complexities that underlie it; as Clarke puts it, "these texts also create sites in which authors, patrons and audiences can meet and enact, through particular dynamics of textual production and reception, the exchanges and reciprocities which characterise the broader workings of social and cultural power, authority and obligation" (171). That, after all, is our shared goal in our study of Anglo-Saxon England, and Catherine Clarke has made a strong contribution to it.