The Medieval Review 14.02.06


Treharne, Elaine. Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220. Oxford Textual Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 218. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-958526-7.



Reviewed by:


Christopher A. Jones
Ohio State University
jones.1849@osu.edu

The fortunes of English between the later eleventh and early thirteenth centuries have enjoyed increased attention in recent decades, and no one has done more to energize this important area of research than Elaine Treharne. Many scholars of Old and earlier Middle English will be aware of her and others' pioneering work on the topic, but its rewards and future promise still remain too little appreciated. The reason, in part, is that studies of English through the long twelfth century have often been highly specialized, with emphasis on linguistic and codicological detail. But other barriers, Treharne asserts, are institutional. The record of "late" and "transitional" Old English consists largely (but by no means exclusively) of anonymous adaptations of earlier homiletic prose by the likes of Aelfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, and these materials, usually perceived as derivative, tend to fall through the cracks of modern scholarship and curricula. Literary histories have therefore often dismissed as unoriginal and backward-looking a substantial body of English vernacular writing extant from the Norman Conquest down to the reigns of Henry II and his sons.

The counter-narrative that Treharne and others have been advancing urges a different perspective on the value of "late Old English" texts, both for their own sake and for their broader implications. The book here under review can be taken as Treharne's effort to spell out some of those implications in large letters, to make them unavoidably clear to a wider audience of medievalists and linguists. Balancing close readings with insights drawn from an impressive familiarity with the range of twelfth- and thirteenth-century English manuscripts, Living through Conquest makes a provocative argument that will challenge readers in the fields of Old and Middle English alike. Indeed, one important objective of the book is to destabilize the Old/Middle divide by suggesting alternative histories of continuity and rupture in early English.

In an innovative move, Treharne begins by examining the use of Old English not after "The Conquest" that first comes to mind, namely William of Normandy's in 1066, but rather after the Danish invasion that led to Cnut's seizure of the crown in 1016. The first half of the book challenges the claim by modern historians that a documentary lull under Cnut bespeaks a comparatively peaceful transition and harmonious reign. Chapters 1 and 2 scrutinize representations of royal power in Cnut's Letter to the English of 1020 (in Old English) and in a second letter to his subjects in 1027 (surviving only in Latin). Treharne sees the emphases on royal justice, concord, and piety in these texts as an attempt to overwrite--partially in the language of the conquered--a coexistence with the invaders that was in reality more troubled. This reading of the official Cnut resonates, Treharne notes, with hints from other sources, such as Anglo-Latin chroniclers' anecdotes about the king's impiety, or skaldic praise- poems that revel in Cnut's violent defeat of his English foes. Turning away from sources that speak for the Danish conquerors, Chapters 3 and 4 listen to vernacular texts for voices articulating Anglo-Saxon experiences of the reign as violent trauma. One such voice turns out to be that of the probable author of the aforementioned Cnut's Letter to the English of 1020, Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Treharne argues that a series of vernacular items adjacent to that letter among additions to the York Gospels may constitute Wulfstan's "last public works" (58) and a coherent sequence of compositions revised to address contemporary ills. The other major expressions of English reaction to a traumatizing Cnut are then identified in Old English homilies written by Aelfric but sometimes adapted by compilers of manuscripts in the 1020s. Treharne suggests that the preoccupation of many of these homilies with the violent upheavals that characterized the latter part of Aethelred's reign resonated with those who perceived Scandinavian rule as oppressive. Chapter 4 closes by examining as another possible symptom of trauma the sparseness of annals for Cnut's reign in the Parker Chronicle until a twelfth-century forger, with sufficient distance on the events, attempted to supply them.

So often assumed not to exist, then, some potent testimonies to English suffering under Danish rule turn out, on this view, to have been hiding in plain sight. And if this is true for English vernacular writing under Cnut, it is even more so for what was produced under Norman rule from the later eleventh to early thirteenth centuries. It is to this larger, more diverse body of materials that the second half of Living through Conquest turns. Here some of the evidence is already familiar (e.g., St. Wulfstan's homiliaries, the "Worcester Fragments" etc.), as are the attitudes that Treharne argues so vigorously against--the assertion, for instance, that English "declined" under the Normans, or that its use continued only in isolation, as a symptom of nostalgia or backwardness. In a tone that does not always conceal exasperation, Treharne's Chapter 5 addresses these and similar commonplaces, which, she duly points out, have been repeated not just by authors of popular histories and textbooks but by reputable scholars. While acknowledging that the production and range of English writing do appear to contract in the twelfth century, Chapter 6 reviews the evidence that its quantity is far greater than often recognized today. But quantity is not the sole point; as in the earlier chapters on English under Cnut, Chapters 6 and 7 take up once more the argument that late copies or rewritings of Old English homilies offer crucial insight into the Anglo-Saxons' experience of subjugation. For Treharne, the adaptation of earlier homilies should normally be thought of not as copying but updating; far from being merely derivative, these "recontextualized products" (149) or "contemporary texts" (see 139-146) should be closely attended for what they reveal about the preoccupations of a conquered people. If the evidence they provide is, in many of Treharne's readings, subtle and indirect more than overt, such obliquity is chalked up to the status of the English as a "subordinated nation" (136). Chapter 8, the concluding one, offers a new, holistic reading of the mid- twelfth-century trilingual Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College R.17.1) as another instance of an engaged, "contemporary text." Among its features that many modern scholars have considered retrograde, Treharne sees "a cultural and perhaps political statement about the wealth of the [Christ Church] community and the resources at its disposal, both in terms of its ecclesiastical and monastic eliteness and its intellectual superiority" (172).

The conciseness and energy of this short book are strengths, and Treharne's advocacy for the materials at issue never fails to engage. Oxford University Press has allowed the inclusion of numerous images of manuscripts that, even reduced in black and white, are sharp and adequate to the purpose. The small paperback format and low cost of the book are especially to be welcomed, since they make its adoption in graduate courses a real possibility. And graduate students in particular may benefit from Treharne's frequent gestures towards fascinating new avenues for research, not just among little-studied twelfth-century texts but among topics of broader disciplinary concern (see, e.g., 34-36 on the methodological challenges of establishing that vernacular originals underlie documents extant only in Latin; or 142-144 on the precariousness of long-held views about the language of the Life of St. Chad, a cornerstone of Old English dialectology).

If one were using this book in a seminar, some of its readings could also usefully serve to focus discussion on issues of methodology. Politicized readings of some twelfth-century vernacular texts are certainly easy to credit (see, e.g., 159-164 on the homily for St. Neot). But when the claimed articulations of trauma or resistance are at best indirect, or inferred largely from the absence of topical reference (see comments on, e.g., 68, 136, and 149), what safeguards against overreading are left to us? It is true that anonymous homilists' appropriations of earlier texts condemning vice and disorder may have had contemporary political resonance for some readers/listeners. But for others in the same audience, might not the relevance have lain in the capacity of jeremiads to level historical differences or subsume the local into a moralized universal history? For that matter, the very same reader/listener may have received such preaching as simultaneously topical and timeless--a polyvalence inherent, after all, in much medieval Christian teaching on morals and eschatology. To put it another way, seeking to overturn old prejudices against twelfth-century homilies by arguing forcefully for their contemporary (medieval) relevance is a productive mission, but some controls would be reassuring, as would a greater sensitivity to the content of religious teaching as religion rather than just veiled politics. Looking always for the political in eleventh- or twelfth-century English runs the risk that conflict and oppression are all that one will be able to see. Against such a tendency, perhaps the most useful and memorable passages of Living through Conquest are those that consider early English as a medium for complicating the conqueror/conquered binary. Especially relevant are the nuanced discussions of the Worcester confraternity document (113- 121), the homily on St. Chad (141-145), and the Eadwine Psalter (180- 186), all of which imply divides being bridged or new community identities being formed.

Few errors or oversights in the book came to my attention: the wording on page 70 makes it sound as if Aelfric of Eynsham were the translator of the Old English Life of Mary of Egypt; on page 31, the concession regarding the pallium in Cnut's Latin Letter to the English of 1027 probably involved a promise to discontinue only the extortionary payments imposed on new archbishops, not (as implied on 41-42) the journey to Rome itself. The argument that the English gloss to the Eadwine Psalter was part of a program for "maximizing [...] intelligibility" (184) is undercut somewhat by the glossator's undiscussed howler in the passage from the Canticum Moysi quoted just before (184), in which Lat. equitatus "cavalry" (from Ex. [Vet. lat.] 15: 19) was mistaken for a form of aequitas and so glossed "emlicnesse."

Such things do not detract from the larger accomplishments of Living through Conquest, chief among them that, unlike many books in Anglo-Saxon studies, this one does have real potential to open up a rather specialized topic to a wider readership interested in the history of English language and medieval manuscripts. And, since this is the inaugural title in Oxford's new "Textual Perspectives" series (of which Treharne is also one of the general editors), we can hope that future volumes will achieve similar outreach.



Copyright (c) 2014 Christopher A. Jones



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