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13.09.04, Stodnick & Trilling, eds., A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies

13.09.04, Stodnick & Trilling, eds., A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies

So many Companions, Guides, Introductions, Histories, and other ancillaries to literature have been published recently that readers--and perhaps especially teachers--faced with choosing amongst the crowd can quickly begin feeling like beleaguered tourists in Times Square. However, A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies is different from other guides to the period, and from reference works like Allen Frantzen's recent Anglo-Saxon Keywords. Instead of chronological or generic overviews, it presents a set of eighteen essays on keywords in contemporary critical writing. Because these essays tend to exemplify how these key terms might be used to understand Anglo-Saxon literature or culture, the Handbook functions less as a glossary or all-purpose introduction than as a sort of critical pattern book. As such, it will be invaluable to graduate students and those teaching seminars in Anglo-Saxon literature, as well as to professional scholars curious about what one might see through an unfamiliar critical lens.

In the volume, the keywords are presented in alphabetical order, though together they form constellations representing many of the larger shapes of contemporary scholarly concerns. The most substantial such grouping in the Handbook has to do with the gendered body: "Gender," by Stacy S. Klein; "Masculinity," by D. M. Hadley; "Sex and Sexuality," by Carol Braun Pasternack; "Violence," by Mary Louise Fellows; and "Women," by Helene Scheck and Virginia Blanton. The interrelations of this set of topics highlight one of the most useful features of the Handbook: the wide range of materials and methods the contributors have employed. Through a close reading of the Old English Judith, Klein shows how the poem's emphasis on the heroine's female body, and the bodies of her male antagonists, is essential to its spiritual meaning. Corporal form, human and otherwise, is often gendered and always significant: "if the body in Judith insistently points away from itself, functioning as a kind of barometer of communal, military, or spiritual fortune, so, too, do these externals point back, asking readers to recognize the body as both signified and constructed through the things that surround it" (46). Close-reading not a poem, but the "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" episode in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pasternack seeks to show how the Chronicler depicted or suppressed the gendered politics of succession in early Wessex. Fellows' essay, which focuses exclusively on sexual violence against women, also draws on histories and law-codes, while Scheck and Blanton's "Women," perhaps the most purely historical piece in the Handbook, draws extensively on letters and hagiography to show how sparse material can still yield insights into a vanished culture--in their case, Latin-literate women in the seventh and eighth centuries. For literary scholars--probably this volume's largest audience--Hadley's piece on "Masculinity" is likely to present the least familiar approach, since she uses archaeological evidence to understand how swords related to Anglo-Saxon male identity. Combining data from gravesites with pictorial sculpture, place-names, and written histories, she shows how swords were used to create--and destroy--men's public status; she describes bodies broken by swords, as well as those honored with them.

Continuing the emphasis on embodied experience, in "Disability" Christina Lee also draws on reports of cemetery excavations to consider how and whether modern theoretical approaches to disability can be applied to the Anglo-Saxon period. Her approach, which also extensively considers hagiographical texts, stresses the difficulty of deciding whether physical difference constituted disability, as well as the complexities of medieval beliefs about what impairment was and what it signified: this essay would therefore be useful in broad-ranging Disability Studies courses, as well to medievalists. Benjamin C. Withers' essay on "Visual Culture" also focuses on the embodied subject, the "perception, reception, and processing of information by the beholder" (252); Withers argues for the recognition that Anglo-Saxon culture was not purely textual, and that the processing, creation, and control of images--mental and physical--was a central concern.

Withers' framework for visual studies thus forms a point of intersection between the group of essays on embodied subjects and that on mediation. Martin K. Foys contributes a chapter on "Media" which, inspired by Marshall McLuhan, uses a series of "Definitions Disguised as Maxims" (133) to prod an expanded view of what we understand as Anglo-Saxon media. Foys examines riddles and The Husband's Message, Roman and runic letters, bells, books, metal and sticks in a drive to show how broad and complex the early English ecology of information really was. In "Literacy," R.M. Liuzza presents a lucid and evenhanded survey of a vast swathe of scholarly literature, tracing the path of multiple scholarly subdisciplines (the history and anthropology of reading; oral-formulaic theory; paleography) that have led to our current understanding of how written material was produced and used in Anglo-Saxon England. (His essay also shows how "Orality," which fifteen or twenty years ago would certainly have received separate treatment, seems to have been wholly absorbed by allied topics.) Like Foys, E.J. Christie seeks to expand our understanding of what his term "Writing" could encompass; he uses Derrida's definition of it as the "tracing of a difference" (286) to show how uses of Old English words like swæð ('trail') and lastas ('tracks') make manifest Anglo-Saxon ideologies of writing. Christie's essay overlaps substantially with Kathleen Davis's piece on "Time," which explores Anglo-Saxon strategies and technologies for dealing with human thought's natural impermanence. In a set of Alfredian texts, Davis locates a cluster of metaphors that promote self-construction through reading; the pooling of thoughts behind the mind's weir; and writing as the fiduciary of thought.

Elaine Treharne's "Borders" also touches briefly on writing (19) in her survey of the complex resonance of borders and borderlands in Anglo-Saxon culture: as she points out, the mearc was not just a boundary, but also a middle realm habitable by men as well as monsters (14-15), a productive space of thought for Anglo-Saxons as well as modern scholars. Treharne's essay pairs well with several of the other pieces in the Handbook, particularly Andrew Scheil's "Space and Place." Taking Andreas as a case study, Scheil shows how the Old English poet redraws the thematized tripartite space of the early Christian romance--in which the human world is bracket by upper and lower spiritual realms--and in so doing creates a kind of map or itinerary of literary subjectivity. With "Race and Ethnicity," Stephen Harris presents perhaps the most provocative take on his keyword, showing how essentialist views of race--and the belief that race and language were inextricably, organically connected--have historically motivated the study of Anglo-Saxon England, and continue to shape many basic scholarly assumptions.

Besides important critical leitmotivs, the Handbook covers several approaches that near the status of subdisciplines. The articles by Lee and Withers discussed above have reciprocal methods for dealing with disciplinary intersections: Lee tends to focus on the Anglo-Saxon period's relevance for Disability Studies, while Withers argues for Visual Studies' relevance for Anglo-Saxonists. Both Catherine E. Karkov, in "Postcolonial," and Scott Thompson Smith, in "Historicism," assume an audience of Anglo-Saxonists, and outline the historical contours of scholarly engagement with their respective methods. Karkov has the more complicated story to tell in terms of medievalists' absorption, response to, and sometimes rejection of a theoretical approach that is still often conceived of as a response to nineteenth- through twenty-first-century material (one response being a tendency to hypostasize the Middle Ages as a colonized territory: 151). But as she shows by analyzing the many chronological layers of the Nunburnholme Cross, attending to the conflicted, conflicting responses of Britain's successive invaders to their predecessors' works reveals a great deal about the dynamics of early medieval culture. Smith, in contrast, hardly needs to convert anyone, but his essay will be immensely useful as an exemplar of the reigning paradigm of Anglo-Saxon literary scholarship. With a reading of the Old English poem Fortunes of Men in conjunction with a charter of King Edgar, he elegantly demonstrates how even largely undatable material like Fortunes can be understood as revelatory of Anglo-Saxons' view of history, and thus as part of the "larger cultural field" (81) whose discovery is the goal of historicist criticism.

Though many essays here incorporate non- or less-literary material, two in particular show how critical theory can help us understand corpora that might otherwise seem opaque. Robin Norris's "Hegemony" uses Ernesto Laclau's schema of hegemony's "articulating logics" (56) to map the internal dynamics of Anglo-Saxon litanies of the saints, showing how the decisions made by the writers of these list-prayers reveal changing, sometimes conflicted notions of sainthood. By choosing for themselves the universal representative of certain categories of saints, litanists both reflected, and shaped, what those categories were; as Norris states, "Laclau's theory of hegemony helps us to better understand how the litany negotiates the relationship between universal and particular" (65), and thus how particular litanists, or those who prayed the litanies, related to Christian universals like confessors or apostles. In "Law and Justice," Andrew Rabin shows how modern legal theory can reveal the inner logic of the Anglo-Saxons' decidedly unmodern views of law. Through readings of the "Wynflæd Charter" and of a tenth-century land deal involving an execution for witchcraft, Rabin demonstrates how legal texts both reveal and strive to construct the Anglo-Saxons' relations to power and authority, and how powerful a weapon narrative could be in the hands of a legal writer. One would hope that these articles will not only show literary scholars some practical ways of engaging with litanies or charters, but more generally inspire creative, theoretically-informed approaches to difficult material like prognostics, chronological notes, and lists.

As a portrait of contemporary Anglo-Saxon studies, the Handbook seems fairly accurate. The dominance of historicizing approaches is perhaps the most obvious feature: even Scheil's quasi-structuralist account of space in Andreas takes care to situate this work within a historicized view of the poem's genre. The near-absence of purely comparative analysis, again, seems an accurate gauge of modern tendencies; Rabin's use of a parable from Kafka's The Trial to illuminate the Anglo-Saxon experience of standing "Before the Law" is an honorable exception, showing that such approaches can be genuinely enlightening. As for the critical futures market, it's clear that studies of embodied perception, and of various forms of mediation, are secure bets for the time being. The long-term is naturally hazier, but from my point of view the most genuinely radical moment in the volume was Harris's brief reflection (171-172) on the philosophically and psychologically questionable underpinnings of word studies. As the editors point out in the Introduction, semantic-field analyses are very much "the disciplinary "comfort zone" for Anglo-Saxon studies" (3), the rock on which many of us build our scholarly houses. But Anglo-Saxonists are not unique in this respect: it is not too much to say that without word studies, and etymology in particular, there would be no deconstruction. Subjecting such approaches to the scrutiny that any foundational assumption requires might indeed result in the sort of "transformative tool of intellectual discourse" (4) needed when there is no longer much consensus as to what ought to constitute critical theory. Not to dismay the editors--who deserve congratulation for assembling such a large number of excellent pieces into a working whole--but in the event of a second edition, an essay on word studies would be a valuable addition.

This is the sort of book one would expect to be simultaneously released in paperback, so that it could be assigned as a textbook or otherwise purchased by students. Given its pricing, however, one has to assume that Wiley-Blackwell expect the Handbook to be consumed piecemeal, either via coursepacks or a site-licensed electronic version. The ebook presents the chapters as separate PDF files: this is industry standard, but it does mean that readers are more likely to choose only those keywords they believe are most immediately relevant, and to overlook essays whose relevance they had not suspected. I would never question Wiley-Blackwell's methods; indeed, if I ever become a legitimate businesswoman I mean to study them closely. But given the evident care the editors have put into ensuring a wide diversity of materials and methods beyond the list of key terms, it seems a shame that it should be made difficult for the Handbook's most important constituency to consider the volume as a whole, and to discover the kinds of unexpected intersections and conjunctions that make the Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies such an exciting arena for thought.