The Medieval Review 14.04.28


Battles, Dominique. Cultural Difference and Material Culture in Middle English Romance: Normans and Saxons. Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 220. $125.00. ISBN: 978-0-415-87798-5.



Reviewed by:


Siobhain Bly Calkin
Carleton University
siobhain.calkin@carleton.ca

This book aims "to sensitize readers to the many and various ways Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultural identities are expressed and differentiated in the Middle English literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries" (146). It discusses Middle English romances that depict predicaments of loss and reclamation occurring "predominantly, and in some cases solely, on English soil, not abroad" (8). Specifically, the author studies King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Gamelyn, and considers the ways in which these romances engage material forms of cultural difference by studying the "material life depicted, fictionally, within the poems" (10). Rather than treating the five romances separately in discrete chapters, Cultural Difference instead presents chapters that discuss a range of texts and focus on one particular aspect of the material culture depicted such as modes of combat, architecture, or natural landscape.

Chapter 1, "Plotting Conquest," contends that the depictions of conflict in all five romances evoke cultural differences between Anglo-Saxons and Normans. Battles argues that the modes of combat and battle tactics depicted (defensive vs. invasive, community-focussed vs. individual, on foot vs. on horseback) reflect differences between Anglo-Saxon and Norman activities as practiced historically and depicted in their literatures. She argues that the Middle English writers of these romances have crafted their heroes, battles, and enemies with specific emphases that relate the heroes to Anglo-Saxon practices and the enemies to Norman ones. The military endeavors of Horn and Havelok, for example, serve to defend their inheritances rather than expand them through invasion and conquest. These two heroes' reliance on bands of comrades in war also evokes the Anglo- Saxon ideal of troops of warriors rather than the French literary emphasis on individual feats of arms. Battles then points out that the Fairy King in Sir Orfeo is presented in ways that emphasize his Norman-like territorial power and use of horses in warfare while Orfeo relies on battle tactics and practices (scyld-truma and infantry) used by Anglo-Saxons. She notes that the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight evokes the Anglo-Saxon motif of the enemy intruder in the hall (exemplified by Grendel in Beowulf) even as he is simultaneously characterized as Norman by his hunting pursuits and by the language used of his attire and horse. Battles concludes the chapter by discussing Gamelyn's depiction of conflict between Anglo-Saxon and Norman legal practices as the hero and his father hew to Anglo-Saxon practices of land inheritance and proof of claim while Gamelyn's older brother upholds Norman legal practices of primogeniture and jury judgement.

Chapter 2, entitled "Castle Architecture and English Identity," argues that in King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight architecture is used to contrast heroes and villains. The heroes and/or their fathers are associated with dwellings evocative of the Anglo-Saxon fortified "burh" and consisting of a hall at ground level with an attached or nearby smaller chamber (called a bower) and, sometimes, a souterrain, "an underground building, an artificial structure lined with stone or timber" (64). These dwellings do not receive too much verbal elaboration in the texts. By contrast, inimical characters are associated with dwellings explicitly and fully characterized as castles, that form of architecture brought to England by the Normans that played a pivotal role in the subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons. Characteristics that identify these dwellings are towers, halls raised above ground level, numerous smaller chambers, multiple fireplaces, moats, hills, more decidedly rural and isolated settings, bridges, gatehouses and strong gates. Moreover, the villains associated with castles use these buildings "not so much as residences but as tools of conquest" (66). Battles concludes by identifying in Gamelyn a depiction of an entire Anglo-Saxon hall complex. She then traces the ways in which conflicts between older, admirable Anglo-Saxon ways and newer, nefarious Norman ways enter into, and rive, personal familial space. In all cases, these romances "attest to the memory of castle architecture in the English landscape and the cultural divisions it embodies" (83).

Chapter 3, "Forest Landscapes and Forest Exile," analyzes Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It contends that the heroes of these texts experience the natural landscapes they encounter in a manner that reflects Anglo-Saxon literary traditions of the wilderness as a place of danger, loneliness, exile, and nostalgia. By contrast, the inimical characters experience nature as a space of pleasure, courtly recreation, companionship and hunting, an experience that aligns more closely with Norman encounters with nature in post- Conquest England. In relation to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Battles further argues that Gawain's encounter at the Green Chapel recalls monster encounters in Anglo-Saxon literature involving meres and barrows while the setting, location and events at the Chapel evoke a "historical late Anglo-Saxon 'hundred' or district court" (93).

Chapter 4, entitled "The Greenwood Tradition: English Heroes and English Outlaws," explores the ways in which key plot elements found in documents of Anglo-Saxon post-Conquest resistance appear in King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Sir Orfeo, and Gamelyn. The evidence is drawn particularly from narratives of Hereward the Wake, Eadric the Wild, and Harold Godwinson. Battles argues that episodes of disguise and infiltration to rescue a princess found in the Gesta Herewardi reappear in Horn's rescues of Rymenild, where they are particularly "anglicized" as compared to other versions of the narrative by the inclusion of "details of material culture (architecture, drinking vessels, social ritual)" (120). In a particularly intriguing discussion of Havelok the Dane, Battles contends that Hugh Candidus's account of Hereward's sacking of Peterborough Abbey explains distinctive features of the English romance such as the names "Athelwold" and "Goldeboru," the "intensely pious, at times priestly, portrait of King Athelwold" (132), the nature of Havelok's birthmark, the childhood suffering experienced by Havelok, the centrality of Goldeboru's role in the text, and the positive portrait of an Anglo-Danish alliance. Battles then argues that the "constellation of plot features" (134) found in Sir Orfeo is paralleled most convincingly not by French romance analogues but by outlaw narratives such as the story of Eadric the Wild in Walter Map's De Nugis Curialium, the story of Harold Godwinson in the Vita Haroldi, and the story of Hereward in the Gesta Herewardi. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the ways in which Gamelyn's portrait of a greenwood outlaw band alludes to the "silvatici," disenfranchised Anglo-Saxons such as Hereward, Earl Morcar, Earl Edwin, and Bishop Aethelwine of Durham who "used the forest as a base of operation for [a] guerilla war...against the Normans for several years after the Conquest" (140).

Battles's book certainly succeeds in its professed aim of sensitizing readers to the expression of Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultural difference in the five romances' depictions of material culture. The book raises a number of intriguing issues to ponder, such as the parallels between monster-encounters in Beowulf and experiences in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as the ways in which depictions of castles and hunts evoke historical Norman inscriptions on an English landscape. The book's approach, however, also poses questions for the reader to ponder. For example, if fourteenth-century Middle English writers are drawing upon Anglo-Saxon elegiac depictions of wilderness and winter when they create Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, how do they know of this tradition? Battles addresses the larger issue of Anglo-Saxon literary inheritances in her introduction by referencing studies of the survival of Old English literary influence after the Conquest (Firth Green's study of truth, Amodio's study of oral tradition, Bredehoft's study of metrical survivals, Treharne's study of early English). The 2-3 paragraphs allotted to this issue in the introduction, however, do not leave the reader with a strong sense of how, for example, the elegiac tradition of wilderness and winter associations (which survives predominantly in the Exeter Book) might have been available to fourteenth-century romance writers working, in some cases, in areas of the country quite removed from Exeter. Similarly, while the ideas about Anglo-Saxon monster traditions surviving in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are intriguing, the heavy reliance on Beowulf as the evidence for this tradition seems problematic when considered in relation to questions of manuscript culture and the material circulation of Beowulf after the Conquest. Battles is at her strongest when she provides a range of textual references to support her points (as she does in the discussion of the mere and barrow issues in Sir Gawain or in the discussion of outlaw texts in Chapter 4), but sometimes the argument would be strengthened by more full exploration of the material problems of assessing Middle English cultural awareness of Anglo-Saxon literary traditions.

Battles's argument is also particularly compelling when she considers the ways in which certain texts point to the blending of Anglo-Saxon and Norman traditions, as she does when she discusses Norman appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon hunting method of the deer drive (p. 101) or the use of both Anglo-Saxon and French literary traditions of heroic testing in the depiction of Gawain's challenges. (She argues that traveling to the Green Chapel evokes an Anglo-Saxon model of testing while the bedroom scenes conform to models of temptation and testing from French romance tradition). It does seem odd, however, that a book which studies cultural differentiation between Anglo-Saxon and Norman does not explicitly discuss why this issue of cultural differentiation turns up in a hybrid genre--the Middle English romance, which blends English language and French traditions. Battles confines her study of "Middle English literature" (146) to romance alone, but does not explicitly consider why this might be the case or what it is about romance that might make it such a fruitful space for the exploration of cultural differentiation in post-Conquest England. More exploration of this issue seems warranted, and, I suspect, would only strengthen the author's claims.

These questions having been raised, it must be affirmed in concluding that this is an engaging and provocative book which will prompt scholars to reflect upon their entrenched ways of reading, and teaching, some of the most widely-studied Middle English romances.



Copyright (c) 2014 Siobhain Bly Calkin



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