14.04.11, Lees, ed., The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature

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Tiffany Beechy

The Medieval Review 14.04.11

Lees, Clare A.. The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. The New Cambridge History of Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 789. ISBN: 9780521190589.

Reviewed by:
Tiffany Beechy
University of Colorado Boulder

The new Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, edited by Clare Lees, is a breakthrough in this genre. Most anthologies treating the increasingly nebulous entity known as "English literature" devote meager space to the medieval period, and that means vanishingly minuscule space to the early medieval period. Cambridge has gone in the other direction entirely, devoting an 800-page volume to early medieval literature alone. In addition, and more importantly, Lees has chosen to define English broadly, allowing the volume to represent not only material written in English, but the complex interweaving of languages and cultures that characterized early medieval Britain, which was of course a dynamic zone of crosscurrents and hybridity; this volume is the first literary history I know of to take that fact as its fundamental organizing principle, and the result is a fresh and often revelatory perspective on literature and culture that makes the volume an important resource for students of the early medieval period at every level, including professional scholars.

Lees signals the cultural-studies affiliation of the book with the opening anecdote of her Introduction, the entries for the year 891 in the Parker Chronicle, which highlight the eclecticism of medieval knowledge production. In that year, the arrival of three Irish pilgrims in a boat with no sails, the death of a prominent teacher of the Scots (Suibhne), Viking activity on the continent, and the appearance of a comet are all noted. For Lees:

it is because of its evidence for the writing and composition of the past as historical annal, its interest in pilgrimage as well as the nitty-gritty of Irish boat construction and travel, its terse account of the trajectory of Viking raids on the continent, its casual references to Irish, English, and Latin learning, its recording of time by liturgical season as well as chronological year and its emphasis on the science of observed phenomena that the Parker Chronicle entry for 891 serves so well as an introduction to the multicultural, multidisciplinary, trans-temporal perspectives which inform The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature (2).

In keeping with the book's broad cultural and linguistic perspective is its expansion beyond the temporal boundaries of 449 and 1066. Instead of those nationalistic dates, the Cambridge History beings and ends more fluidly, in the prehistory of writing in the British Isles on the front end and the mid-twelfth century, with the florescence of international Anglo-Norman literature, on the back. Further, Lees notes that:

the culture of the Anglo-Saxons is deeply connected to that of other early medieval kingdoms, near and far . . . This volume attempts to include something of the many literary stories of the two islands of Britain and Ireland in this early period. Something, in other words, of the five languages and four nations or peoples that Bede described in the first chapter of the first book of his Historia (7).

Thus, the temporal fluidity and geographic and cultural multiplicity of the book's approach derive not from an anachronistic imposition of current scholarly trends, but reflect the perspectives of early medieval texts, including that of the first cultural historian of Anglo-Saxon England--Bede himself. This is what makes the book so exciting for this reader, its taking up of important cultural strands that have long lain in full view awaiting an adequate account.

As already mentioned, the book is not restricted to literature in English, as is, for instance, the recently published Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, which is in some ways a foil for the present volume. [1] Instead, it places a section on Anglo-Saxon literature between two sections that treat more diverse cultural archives. In this way, a reader encounters in the book's first section, "Word, Script, and Image," writing and art in Britain from the end of Roman occupation until 900 (roughly the end of Alfred's reign), and is thus prepared by the diversity of the material to appreciate the context within which the Anglo-Saxon texts of the tenth century emerged. Section II, "Early English Literature," feels to an Anglo-Saxonist the most like already trodden ground, since it treats the materials familiar to the field. The essays are excellent and informative, however, and I will treat them in more detail below. The book's last section is titled "Latin Learning and the Literary Vernaculars" and takes the reader out of the familiar Anglo-Saxon context into the wider North Atlantic milieu, with an eye both for international discourses and national literatures in the face of historical change. As Lees explains, the book "can be read sequentially in terms of chronology and date (from earlier to later), but [the chapters] can also be grouped differently, with reference to place and region, or to thematic, cultural and literary import" (3). And it really can, with no loss of coherence. This is due in part to the strong preparation for interrelatedness and complexity provided by the Introduction, but it is also due to the quality of the individual essays, to which I now turn.

The first section of the book, again, covers the earliest period to c. 900, and treats writing, visual art, and book production, as well as the emergence of centers of Latin learning before the first wave of Viking raids. Julia M. H. Smith's chapter, "Writing in Britain and Ireland, c. 400 to c. 800," argues that synthesis rather than supplantation characterizes the advent of Latinity and its interactions with existing vernacular writing and culture. According to Smith, national literatures are a myth and a misleading notion in this early period, and "it is . . . as a multilingual world that early medieval Britain and Ireland can best be understood" (49). Writing on the topic of scripts, Julia Crick argues that although both vernacular and Latin writing in Anglo-Saxon England show influence from Rome, the Celtic world, and Francia, the Insular locale provides the most pervasive influence. Catherine E. Karkov contributes an exquisite chapter on the integrated nature of writing and visual art in Anglo-Saxon England. She highlights the complexity and interpenetration of Anglo-Saxon signification, among linguistic traditions, scripts, visual representation, and religious and cultural traditions. Her account of the Franks Casket as well as the Ruthwell Cross are the clearest and most illuminating I have seen. Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, considering the writing of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, concludes that there is evidence of writing in all areas of early Britain, including Wales and Scotland/Pictland. That Irish evidence is many times more abundant is perhaps due to the penchant of the Irish for travel, depositing manuscripts on the continent where they escaped destruction and were copied. Rosalind Love contributes a thorough and eloquent chapter on Insular Latin literature to c. 900, and covers the usual suspects such as Aldhelm, Alcuin, and Bede, but also the wilder material represented by such writers as Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, which reveals a "learned culture that was ambitious to emulate the classical era, and did not feel obliged to be functional or overtly religious" (129). This aspect of Insular learned culture is one of the more exciting avenues of current research, especially given the recent publication of new editions of such texts as the Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister and the Old English Solomon and Saturn dialogues. [2] The last chapter in the first section, "Bede and the Northern Kingdoms" (by S. M. Rowley), concludes that in the northern centers, "we see the extent to which the Anglo-Saxons engaged with, became a part of, and influenced the broad, international Christian œcumen of the seventh and eighth centuries" (182).

The second section begins with an essay by Rolf Bremmer, Jr., defending the integrity of the notion of Germanicness and Germanic origins while acknowledging the hybridity and cross-pollination involved in northern culture at every stage of early history. Bremmer surveys some of the most clearly "Germanic" of the poetry, including "Widsið" and "Waldere," and emphasizes the Anglo-Saxons' interest in and awareness of their Germanic origins. Susan Irvine's chapter on "English Literature in the Ninth Century" offers an overview of the Alfredian translations, noting that the ninth century was the century of the authorizing of the vernacular. She stresses the predominance of prose during this phase, but like everyone else, hedges with the observation that much of it was highly poetic. Renée Trilling contributes a chapter on the complex history of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, concluding that the historiography of early medieval England is fundamentally multivocal. Joshua Davies' chapter treats diction and style, concluding that "the style of traditional Old English poetic language invites a certain reading, a reading that emphasizes the long traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture, the centrality of the warrior ethos to that culture, and the sophistication of the vernacular literary tradition" (277). Davies' treatment seemed to me somewhat hollow--the readings do not always live up to the claims. Haruko Momma provides a workmanlike overview of "Old English Poetic Form: Genre, Style, Prosody," that summarizes the conventional wisdom regarding these topics as well as key debates, such as the relation of Old English poetics to orality and the possibility of more diverse verse forms in the later period. One baffling moment in Momma's chapter is the likening of "an Old English poem to medieval architecture whose material was taken from diverse locations in place and time, and whose construct has been repeatedly altered by renovations, additions and demolitions" with no credit to the famous and influential suggestion of exactly this analogy in J.R.R. Tolkien's 1936 "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." [3] The contrast of Momma's essay with the very next chapter, Gillian Overing's "Beowulf: A Poem in Our Time," illustrates an unevenness in conception that characterizes this second, and (paradoxically) most traditional, section of the book. Where Momma's account reads like a textbook overview, Overing's chapter offers an argument. It seems a bit of a stretch to read this diversity of form or genre as belonging to the book's pluralistic conception. Rather, it seems more of a symptom of a lack of clarity about what this section of the book should do and how it should relate, exactly, to the extremely innovative other two sections. In any case, Overing's essay offers an extremely cogent reading of Beowulf that does justice to its essential mode--its polyvalence and ambiguity, its structural principle of paradox. Overing reads the poem as multi-temporal, moving back and forth in its own narrative time, and also back and forth between "us" (as reader) and "it" (as text) in poetic time as well. Similarly, the poem is famously multi-spatial, existing as bridge between England and Scandinavia, as well as moving among Scandinavian locales. Moments in the poem always recall other, similar or contrasting moments, things and places other things and places in an endless series of echoes. Thus, in Overing's hands, the poem becomes an emblem for The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Kathleen Davis' chapter on what have become known as elegies in Old English argues that they are better termed lyrics, that they are not backward-looking so much as innovative and experiential. Davis' chapter seems redundant with Davies' (on poetic diction), especially since both end with a discussion of the poem "The Ruin." Patricia Dailey's chapter later on in this section, on wonder and responsiveness in Old English riddles, also covers similar conceptual ground. All three see the prominence of an affective and intellective wonder in Old English poetic texts, and this commonality could perhaps have been integrated. Diane Watt's chapter on female sanctity is concerned with the recovery of women's writing and the evidence of male overwriting in the period. She argues strongly for a methodology that would:

create a 'tradition' of women writers that included medieval women, 'albeit not along continuous vertical masculinist lines of influence and anxiety of influence, but along broken and sometimes horizontal lines of congruence and commonality in relation to production and reception.' (362)

Her chapter is a cogent example of such a methodology, and carefully establishes the often indirect evidence that shows women's foundations in the Anglo-Saxon period to have been actively and creatively involved in literary culture. L.M.C. Weston contributes a chapter on saints' lives that provides a fascinating overview of the discursive gender and sexual dynamics underwriting these texts in Anglo-Saxon England. One bizarre aspect of this chapter is a reading of the apostate pagan priest Coifi (from the famous scene of Edwin of Northumbria's conversion in Bede's Historia) as a failed saint. Andrew Scheil's chapter on Old English religious poetry is theoretically informed, broadly engaged with the wider scholarship in literary studies, and generally excellent. Christopher A. Jones, finally, contributes a chapter concerning liturgical and devotional writing, noting that distinctions between public and private devotion in the written record are often impossible to observe.

The book's third section takes us out again among neighbors and broader trends. R. M. Liuzza contributes a chapter on science in the early medieval period, which seeks to understand knowledge structures that perhaps do not participate in a teleological progression towards modern science but may be understood as semiotic or textually based. Lisi Oliver treats legal writing across the period and considers its many affinities with vernacular literature. David Townsend considers Insular "Latinities, 893-1143," defining Latinity as cultural capital, tracing the ways in which it was wielded across the period in relation to shifting relationships among vernaculars and cultural groups. Elaine Treharne's chapter on "The Authority of English" crisply recounts the many ways that "English texts assumed a national significance from the ninth century onwards that permitted a variety of major roles for the vernacular, unmatched by any other European vernacular of this early era" (577). Russell Poole offers an invaluable chapter on Anglo-Scandinavian contact that reminds Anglo-Saxon scholars of the extensiveness of that contact and provides a corrective to the Us/Them attitudes evidenced in the Chronicle and other texts. A revisionist chapter by Thomas O'Donnell, Matthew Townend, and Elizabeth M. Tyler argues that while seen from nationalist perspectives the eleventh century would appear literarily bleak, "within the greater story of European literature, England was a meeting place for Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Scandinavian, Imperial, Flemish, and French traditions; not only were the country's courts fully embedded within European culture, but they were among that culture's most important engines of change" (636). Thomas Owen Clancy has a fascinating chapter on "Gaelic Literature in Ireland and Scotland, 900-1150," and Sioned Davies' chapter on Welsh articulates the way that the late-emerging Welsh literary record looked back to its past while forging identities to carry forward, particularly in the form of fallen or receded heroes like Arthur who would someday, in an always anticipated future, come again.



1. Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2. Michael W. Herren, ed. and trans., The Cosmography of Aethicus Ister: Edition, Translation, and Commentary (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Daniel Anlezark, ed. and trans., The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2009).

3. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-295.

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Tiffany Beechy

University of Colorado Boulder