15.02.17, Frantzen, Anglo-Saxon Keywords

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Corey Zwikstra

The Medieval Review 15.02.17

Frantzen, Allen J.. Anglo-Saxon Keywords. Keywords in Literature and Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. xviii, 333. ISBN: 9780470657621 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Corey Zwikstra
Washburn University

Words are windows through which broad vistas can be surveyed. Academics and publishers have long recognized this fact, and accordingly a tradition exists of books that use alphabetical arrangement to broach larger concerns about such subjects as literature, history, and culture.

The present book belongs to the Wiley-Blackwell series Keywords in Literature and Culture, whose volumes are determined by traditional literary periods. Other publishers have similar book series or books devoted to literary and cultural keywords, for example, the varied and productive Palgrave Key Concepts series, which most germanely includes Key Concepts in Medieval Literature. [1] Notable similar books include New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society and Keywords for American Cultural Studies, both models for Frantzen's book. [2] All such books, however, most obviously model themselves on Raymond Williams's influential and durable Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. [3] Not surprisingly, several keywords find a place in all such books--e.g., "aesthetics," "environment," "race," "sex"--while other terms appear idiosyncratically. The breadth of Frantzen's previous publications equips him to write a book covering a sizable portion of Anglo-Saxon culture. Recently retired Professor of English at Loyola University, Chicago, Frantzen has published books on a variety of Anglo-Saxon topics including penitentials, the history of Anglo-Saxon studies, early medieval food and identity, and King Alfred. [4]

The book seeks three broad audiences: students, generalists, and Anglo-Saxon specialists. Not primarily lexicographical or lexicological, the book is a work of cultural studies. Keywords derive from three places: important terms in Old English, critical vocabulary in Anglo-Saxon studies, and keywords found in Williams and similar books. There are 75 entries (all given in Modern English forms) plus an introduction, works cited, and index. Entries are not mere dictionary entries but short essays consistently of about four pages. The book is current in its scholarship and concerns, yet also historically grounded. Entries provide concise, up-to-date surveys of scholarly opinion on subjects as well as descriptions of the subjects themselves, e.g. "settlement." Where appropriate, Frantzen champions the findings of archaeology, e.g., how they have advanced studies of medieval "technology." Readers will find plenty of entries to suit popular preoccupations: for example, animal studies folks will find "animals" and related entries useful, while book history devotees will profit from reading "book" and those interested in medieval psychology will enjoy "mind." There are also entries on more traditional subjects such as "aesthetics," which appears to be making a welcome comeback in Anglo-Saxon studies, as well as more surprising entries such as "drama." In supporting his views, Frantzen quotes from relevant Anglo-Saxon texts and uses standard lexicographical resources such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Old English. Content within entries is always clearly structured and often conveyed with a stylish turn of phrase which helps make this a book to read not just to reference. Extensive cross-referencing appears within and at the end of entries.

Many subjects receive better treatment in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, a standard reference work in Anglo-Saxon studies to which Frantzen refers liberally. [5] Still, this book is readable, as well as consultable, whereas the Wiley Encyclopedia will not likely be read through. Different registers and target audiences make the books complementary rather than rendering Frantzen's superfluous.

Frantzen evidently writes from a post-structuralist and post-modern critical perspective. This perspective manifests itself in expressions of dissatisfaction with "unitary constructs" and "binaries." One can look past such things, as they do not dominate the book. This perspective also lies behind his claim that classic narrative-driven books such as Dorothy Whitelock's The Beginnings of English Society have been superseded. [6] Perhaps they have been, but not for the reasons he implies. (In this context, one wonders about the narrative of Frantzen's Desire for Origins and Frantzen's choice of "unitary" authorship for this book, rather than collaboration.) Frantzen also at times shows allegiance to revisionist historiography, yet he rightly also quotes from Stenton and conveys how historical perspectives can differ on the "same" issue, e.g., "slavery." Thus, he is "speaking two languages," traditional and theoretical. [7] In its critical perspective and ideological concerns, Anglo-Saxon Keywords sits well with another recent Wiley-Blackwell title, A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, whose theoretical approaches to topics such as "disability" and the "postcolonial" Frantzen would no doubt endorse. [8] Neither Anglo-Saxon Keywords nor A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies has an entry for "poetry."

Inevitably with a book arranged topically, certain entries might have been combined, e.g., "aesthetics" and "art." But given his controversial position on art (the Anglo-Saxons might not have had it), maybe Frantzen was smart to separate them. "Identity" and "individuality" could share an entry, as could "gender," "femininity," "masculinity," and perhaps "sex," though separating them has political ramifications, might help people remember "gender studies" does not mean "women's studies," and the "masculinity" entry is quite strong on its own. "Orality" and "literacy" should have been one entry because to separate them seems to reinforce the kind of "binary" Frantzen scorns, similarly "peace" (which might have subsumed "peace-weaver") and "war." But no scholar, or reader, would compile the same list of entries, and no book can include everything or have an arrangement to please everyone.

Other criticisms of the book are few. I would have liked to see systematic inclusion of Old English words for these keywords, say, in parentheses after the headword or otherwise underneath it. Still, Frantzen does refer frequently within and across entries to the Old English vocabulary for items under discussion. Quotation marks might more often have been used to distinguish word meanings and definitions from words that convey content. In the cross-referencing of entries, some connections strike me as distant or oblique, e.g., "vikings" under "environment" or "thegn" under "author." While most entries refer to relevant scholarship, concluding bibliographies with at least some of the entries, rather than a monolithic works cited at the end of the book, would have made the book more useful. Though detailed, the book's index is incomplete, omitting topics mentioned in entries as well as scholars whose work is discussed, e.g. William A. Kretzschmar in "Scandinavia." Listed at $124.95 ($109.99 for the e-book), the book is ridiculously expensive, though it appears the price has come down substantially and the book is also available electronically with a subscription to the Wiley Online Library. No paperback seems forthcoming.

I spotted a few errors, especially in dates and names, so readers should be cautious. Cnut became king of England late in 1016, not in 1023 (196). The Battle of Maldon should have been given the consistent date of 991 (p. 257 has 992, while p. 279 has 991). Katherine not "Kathleen" (199) O'Brien O'Keeffe is a respected Anglo-Saxonist. Other names are incorrect: Franz "Baüml" (201x2, 285) should be Bäuml, and Walter "Goffert" (222, 325) should be "Goffart." It is sometimes hard to distinguish errors from typos, such as when Frantzen gives the date of composition for Ælfric's homily on Maccabees as "922-1002" (271) rather than as "992-1002." Certain typos include: "we are must" (7) for "we must"; "to comment scriptural passages" (136) for "to comment on scriptural passages"; "relationship" (206) for "relationships." Frantzen also misspells Blackwell Encyclopaedia as Blackwell Encyclopedia (93, 241), though in its second edition the book now drops the from the title. Probably further errors went unnoticed.

At first I was skeptical of John Hines's back-cover blurb about the book's being "compellingly readable." But it is. The content is well chosen, clearly presented, and not infrequently stylishly written, and though diverse in content the book possesses an evenness of quality rare in books of this type. It is to Frantzen's credit, and the field's benefit, that he has written such an informative, readable book. Medievalists with an interest in cultural studies or an investment in identity politics will find the book especially agreeable.



1. Elizabeth Solopova and Stuart D. Lee, Key Concepts in Medieval Literature, Palgrave Key Concepts: Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

2. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris (eds.), New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); and Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

3. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

4. Allen J. Frantzen, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983); idem, Desire for Origins: Old English, New Language, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990); idem, Food, Eating and Identity in Early Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2014); and idem, King Alfred (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986).

5. Michael Lapidge et al. (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

6. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1972).

7. Here I allude to a book edited by Frantzen: Allen J. Frantzen (ed.), Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991).

8. Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling (eds.), A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies (Wiley-Blackwell Critical Theory Handbooks; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

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Author Biography

Corey Zwikstra

Washburn University