It may not be a good idea for a review of a book exploring regional identities in Malory's reworking of the Arthurian tales to be placed in the hands of an old-style empirical historian who has relatively little grasp of modern literary criticism. Understanding the geographical world envisaged by Malory is clearly worthwhile. As the authors establish, it was extensive, incorporating Britain, Ireland and much of France, with links stretching to Rome and the Middle East. A past world is envisaged in which a king of Britain ruled and then lost control of many diverse territories that were familiar to Malory's contemporaries in the mid-fifteenth century. What this meant to Malory and how his readers might have understood the complex relationship between regions and centre, often as personified by various characters and the unfurling narratives in the poem, is the nub of the work.
It must be left to others, who understand such matters as Wallace's reworking of Barthe's idea of the punctum, to comment on what seems to be the central thesis of the book: that the category of the geographic in the Morte Darthur is vexed and fraught, but in highly productive ways and difficult to pin down (at least as summed up in the last paragraph). This review will concentrate on the authors' perception of the fifteenth-century historical context which informs the work.
Let us start with the wider conceptual basis of the study. Arthur, we are told, rules over multiple kingdoms. His was a composite monarchy, in the dynamic of which knights sometimes act as a members of an emerging nation and at other as post-colonial subjects negotiating their roles in empire. Moreover, the collapse of the Arthurian world at the climax of the poem points to the birth of the modern English nation. The authors are obsessed with the birth of the nation, especially a nation defined in Benedict Anderson's terms of an imagined community. Surely this is anachronistic. Arthur's realm was feudal; it was made up of many liberties, ruled by different lords with different privileges, some as if they were kings in their own lands (as for instance the "regality" of Durham), others with severely restricted independent powers but all owing allegiance to the king. There is no need to posit a "post-colonial narrative"; there is an existing pre-nation-state narrative, as Rees Davies, Steve Ellis and Keith Skinner have illuminated. The welter of loyalties the authors discern are not competing nationalisms, but overlapping feudal relationships. It is a fractious world that more resembles the polity ruled over by Henry II and Richard I in the second half of the twelfth century than Malory's own times three hundred years later.
The consequence of this focus on nationalism is most marked in dealing with nationalism in Guyenne (or Gascony). This seems to be based on the misconception that Gascony was English, which leads them to write: "to assume that because Guyene ended up in France it somehow imagined its medieval identity as French is a teleological fallacy" (138). It is not a fallacy. Indeed as they seem to acknowledge in the introduction, Guyenne was French, a liberty within the greater kingdom of France whose language was French and legal and administrative system French, but whose duke happened also for three hundred years to be king of England. It was not part of England (142); it was a territory ruled by the king of England who in that capacity (however vainly he tried to escape it by seeking either the crown of France or to hold it in full sovereignty) was a subject of the king of France. Scotland was a mirror image, an independent kingdom over which the kings of England tried unsuccessfully to assert their own overlordship.
English nationalism was indeed emerging as a defining feature of the kingdom of England. This perhaps explains why Caxton described Arthur as ruling an England which included Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. While Arthur originally was British, by Malory's time he had become English to the English and stood for long-standing English imperialist claims within the island of Britain, which, with varying degrees of success the Scots, Welsh, and Cornish did (and indeed still do) contest. There is therefore a tension between the imagined feudal, British world of the past in which the poem is set and the experienced present in which Malory and his first readers lived. It is with the regional identities and national geographies of the experienced present of the mid fifteenth century, rather than with more deep-rooted historic identities such as shaped the Angevin world that the authors are primarily concerned.
Unfortunately they seem as uncertain about fifteenth-century English history as this reviewer is unfamiliar with fifteenth-century English literary criticism. Statements such as "Cornwall's lack of engagement with what was going on politically for most of the fifteenth century," made "starkly clear" by "a great blank spot in the southwest" in military engagements during the Wars of the Roses (34), reveal a sketchy understanding of politics, time and place. On the one hand the southwest is more than Cornwall: In the 1450s, Devon was much involved (the Bonville/Courteney feud and its ramifications) and troops from the southwest were frequently engaged in campaigns between 1460 and 1471. Cornwall too saw conflict in the 1460s as Edward IV sought to enforce his rule as well as military operations around St Michael's Mount in 1472-3, let alone the rising of 1497 that nearly toppled Henry VII. The authors might counter that these later events are irrelevant because they occurred after the composition of the Morte. However, Henry VII's parentage is considered significant in the discussion of Wales.
One might have thought, in fact, that Edward IV's parentage was rather more relevant than Henry VII's. Edward's claim to the throne and the association made by him with Arthur would have been well known to Malory. Edward was earl of March, the descendant of the Mortimer family through his grandmother, before he was briefly duke of York and then king. He and his father claimed the throne through her line. He, or his servants on his behalf, also called upon a long-established body of arcane prophetic literature, ultimately set out in elaborately decorated pedigrees, to buttress his title and represent him as the promised saviour of Britain. These purported to demonstrate that he was descended through the Mortimers from the ancient Welsh princes and ultimately the legendary rulers of Britain, who, it had been foretold, would one day rule the land again. Thus he was sometimes represented as wearing three crowns, as king of England, king of France, and king of Britain (Wales). Malory would have been fully aware of all this. Surely, if we are seeking the reflection of Welsh identities in the Morte Darthur, Edward's descent, his Welsh connections and the association already established with the matter of Britain should be explored.
No doubt the authors are right to insist that one should not read the Morte Darthur in terms of direct political commentary on Malory's own times. However, in his description of the collapse of Arthur's rule and the rebellion of Mordred he invited the reader to consider the comparison. Armstrong and Hodges draw attention to the manner in which this rebellion is characterised as regional in character: the south and east, metropolitan England, against the peripheries, especially the north. They explore the suggestion that Mordred represents Richard, duke of York, who did indeed gain significant support in the south and east and was welcomed by Londoners. In focussing on London as the symbol of a new non-chivalric culture they lead the reader to consider that Mordred's rebellion represents a turning away from the chivalric to a new kind of society and new national identity. This may be so, but in stressing this they miss again an opportunity further to illuminate the way contemporary regional identities are exemplified in the text. In 1460-1 England was divided briefly between forces gathered by Queen Margaret in the north, including contingents that had arrived from Wales and the south-west, in alliance with the Scots: and those who adhered to the Yorkists in this crisis were largely from just those counties (Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk) who "held the most party with Sir Morded" (95). The passage condemning the rebelliousness of Malory's contemporaries draws attention to the popular support in that region that Sir Morded/the Yorkists cultivated and which proved so significant in the overthrow of Henry VI.
Contemporary regional identities and geographies reflected in Malory's work, derived from deep-rooted and long-established historical processes as well as current circumstances. It is no doubt helpful to an understanding of Malory's poem to see how he might have drawn upon these both as a shared knowledge of the past and as contemporary political forces. The map is indeed difficult to pin down. It is a shame, however, that the one provided seems to have significant spaces of terra incognita.