15.01.23, Faletra, Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination

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Linda E. Mitchell

The Medieval Review 15.01.23

Faletra, Michael A.. Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. xv, 243. ISBN: 9781137391025 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Linda E. Mitchell
University of Missouri--Kansas City

In this ambitious and interesting New Historicist study of a number of "hybrid" authors of the twelfth century, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth and ending with Gerald of Wales, Faletra (Reed College) posits that Geoffrey established a kind of tradition of historical or pseudo-historical writing about Wales that presented it as monstrous, wild, and ultimately colonizable by the Norman conquerors whose incursions into Wales from the late eleventh century had been met with only partial success. Geoffrey, for Faletra, became a model for writing about Wales and the Welsh even when his position was denigrated and denied: a kind of lodestone upon which all subsequent authors had to ponder their own incursions into the Welsh countryside and psyche.

It is necessary here to define the many ways in which Faletra uses the word "hybrid." Firstly, he describes authors whose own heritage renders them in some form Welsh or of Marcher status as hybrids: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Walter Map (who came from Herefordshire), and, of course, Gerald of Wales (the grandson of Nest of Deheubarth). Secondly, he considers authors who apparently spent some time in the western counties, the March of Wales or Wales itself to have become hybridized in some form: John of Salisbury, Marie de France, and Chrétien de Troyes are all considered in this light. Indeed, he makes a convincing argument for Marie's significant knowledge of the Welsh and borderland countryside. Thirdly, he considered the Welsh "indigene" to have become hybridized in the depictions of them by these authors. These six authors form the center of his study, but Faletra also inserts discussions of others who were obviously influenced--for good or ill--by Geoffrey's magisterial work, such as numerous chroniclers and annalists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The bibliography is impressive and the approach engaging and worth describing at some length.

Faletra begins with Geoffrey of Monmouth and discusses the trajectory of the History of the Kings of Britain as one in which, adopting the eschatology of the Late Antique historian Orosius, and following the conclusions of both Gildas and Bede, the Britons descend from a state of civilization to one of barbarism in part because of their failure to adhere to an orthodox Christian unity. He describes Geoffrey's work as focused thematically on "the transferal of dominion, the passage of a series of peoples across the face of the island of Britain" (41) from the original Trojan refugees led by Brutus, to the Saxons, to the Normans, embodied in the figure of King Arthur himself. The Welsh--called thusly by Geoffrey despite his obvious knowledge that their name for themselves was and is the Cymry--are the brutish remnants of a decadent people, one whose subjection by a prince associated in Geoffrey's genealogy more with Cornwall and Brittany than with Wales is logical and expected.

From this foundation, Faletra then unpacks the remainder of his literary subjects both distinguished and undistinguished (such as the Description of England, which he describes as "about 260 lines of very unremarkable Old French" [55]). He spends a chapter comparing the work of John of Salisbury, Gerald of Wales, Walter Map, and Marie de France "and how they colluded with, amplified, and sometimes even subverted the Galfridian tropes in their individual explorations of courtly identity" (59). Although both John of Salisbury and Gerald of Wales both stated publically that they disliked the presentation of history in Geoffrey's work, they both utilized views of the preeminence of England/"Logres" and the inferiority of the Welsh largely borrowed from (or influenced by) him. Walter Map's satire De Nugis Curialium skewers not just the Angevin court, in part by subjecting it to a Welsh "gaze" that is itself a skewering of that people, albeit in a different register than Geoffrey's and John of Salisbury's claims of Welsh barbarity. Marie de France, whose subversions of standard tropes can be understood in many different contexts, uses similar themes of fairy lovers and wilderness encounters to those of her male colleagues but does so not to depict the Welsh as barbaric but to "open up imaginative universes that refuse total assimilation to courtly norms" (85).

Chapter 3 is devoted to Chrétien de Troyes and his reinterpretation of the "Matter of Britain" in the process of inventing the courtly Arthurian romance. Although Faletra focuses intently on several of Chrétien's romances, especially those presumed to have been composed for an Angevin audience, his intention with respect to the idea of Welsh colonialization is stated very early: the depiction of Perceval in the later romance Le Conte del Graal presents him as a Welsh boy who "needs to have his Welshness educated out of him in order to fully participate in the life of the Arthurian court or, perhaps also, in the larger world of Christian chivalry beyond." (99) This notion of Welshness as ignorance that must be eradicated in order for the character to attain true courtesy, according to Faletra, has its origins in the early romances Erec et Enide and Cligés, the former of which "speaks specifically both to the concerns of an Anglo-Norman polity dedicated to territorial expansion into Wales and elsewhere and also to integrating non-English and non-Francophone indigenes into its political structure" (101). In other words, Chrétien is focused on promoting and underscoring both the Orosian eschatology of Geoffrey of Monmouth and colonial program of the Anglo-Norman and Angevin court.

The final chapter, focusing on that preeminent self-styled (grand)son of Wales, Giraldis Cambrensis, presents Gerald as profoundly conflicted. On the one hand, he rhapsodizes over the accomplishments of his de Barri kin in their conquests of south Wales and Ireland over the barbaric native chieftains. On the other hand, he rhapsodizes almost as enthusiastically over his (in)famous grandmother, Nest of Deheubarth, and presents his kinship to Rhys ap Tewdwr and his progeny with pride. Nevertheless, Gerald is ultimately pro-Norman, as his presentation of bestiality and Otherness--especially among the indigenes of Ireland--demonstrates. That he is also conflicted about the Henrician court to which he is connected is, in many ways, secondary to this essential presentation of Us and Them. Faletra is able to capitalize on the notion of hybridity--including invoking Homi Bhabha's postcolonial presentation of the concept--most effectively in this chapter. Indeed, the whole idea of hybridity really has its most obvious expression in Gerald, whose stated admiration for the Welsh and Irish--especially their piety and their singing voices--contrasts with his much stronger aversion to them and his interest in seeing them conquered successfully by an orthodox Angevin polity.

Gerald is usually considered more "historical" than Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History is largely invented, but he is also an unreliable reporter, something of which most historians are well aware. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Faletra brackets his discussion of literary and philosophical authors with two putative historians whose work reflects directly on the activities and anxieties of their contemporary royal courts. In Gerald he has a rather easy mark, as his prejudices are so legion and his enthusiasm for conquest so apparent. Nevertheless, Gerald of Wales neatly ties up Faletra's arguments in a tidy package.

All told, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking study of the ways in which a colonial identity was inscribed upon the Welsh and an imperialist mode inscribed upon the twelfth-century Angevin court. However, this reviewer (admittedly an historian and not a literature specialist) was disappointed that Faletra did not mention a salient point about his texts until the brief epilogue: that his examples are far from parallel, both in their subject matter and in their readership. Geoffrey of Monmouth and John of Salisbury, for example, were among the most frequently read (albeit by different audiences) authors of the Middle Ages; Walter Map's text survives in one manuscript. Marie de France's works are now revered, but their manuscript survival is slim; Chrétien was a lion of French romance writing. Gerald of Wales was an industry unto himself and even if his work might have been under-consumed in the medieval period, it formed a significant part of the justification for further oppressions of the Irish and Welsh as late as the seventeenth century. All of these authors might have absorbed similar notions of Welsh Otherness and colonial hybridity, but the intentions behind their texts, their audiences, and their influence are not parallel. It might have been useful to see Faletra tackle this issue in a final chapter, to explore both the immediate and long-term implications of this variety of audience, influence, and purpose. For example, Walter Map seems to fall more into the niche of Procopian Anecdota than into a comparison with John of Salisbury; his text is more Secret History than Wars. If Map was writing for his own amusement--and for that of the gossipmongers of the court--then his outrageous misogyny (mentioned in passing by Faletra) and other Juvenalian elements are just as relevant to his intention as is his presentation of the Welsh as bestial and hybridized.

This is, however, a relatively small concern, and probably one that evokes more of an historical perspective than a literary one. In many other ways, this is an eminently useful book and one that should be explored in all its complexity by anyone interested in the authors, postcolonial studies of the middle ages, or British literary culture in the twelfth century.

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Linda E. Mitchell

University of Missouri--Kansas City