16.06.20, Langeslag, Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North

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Jennifer Neville

The Medieval Review 16.06.20

Langeslag, Paul S. Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. pp. 250. ISBN: 9781843844259 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jennifer Neville
Royal Holloway, University of London

The introduction sets the interdisciplinary agenda for the book. Drawing together an impressive number of disciplines, including those associated with timekeeping, psychology, climate history, agricultural history, and military history, Langeslag sketches out the physical and mental contexts that surround medieval literatures' presentation of the seasons.

Chapter 1 ("Myth and Ritual") then goes on to explore the relationship between the reality of living at a northern latitude and the Christian and non-Christian creation and origin myths of England and Scandinavia. Langeslag argues that Christian and Scandinavian rituals and myths demonstrate different relationships to the seasons. For Christianity, seasons are a punishment for the fall, and extremes of temperature (here equated with the seasons) represent exile from paradise and the punishment of hell, while heaven is marked by stasis and the absence of seasonal variation. Although this position is not unique to Anglo-Saxon England (indeed, most of the texts illustrating it in this discussion are not Anglo-Saxon), Langeslag suggests that it is "a popular motif in Anglo-Saxon tradition" (35), although it is only illustrated in detail here by discussion of Genesis B. In contrast, Scandinavian myths link winter to the origins of mankind and to particular dynasties. Langeslag provides a bewildering range of references to seasonal rituals and concludes rather tentatively that "Rather than implying that the Icelanders looked especially kindly on the winter season, this theme may be indicative of Scandinavians' attempts to reconcile themselves with the realities of the harsh climate of their habitat by taking pride in their hardiness and recognizing the challenges of daily life as part of their identity" (47). The chapter then outlines Anglo-Saxon Christian rituals associated with the seasons and the little we know about the Anglo-Saxons' pre-Christian calendar and rituals. Turning to Scandinavian seasonal rituals, both Christian and pre-conversion, Langeslag posits autumn and winter as times for feasting, while spring and summer are depicted as the seasons for political activity (57). He explores the hypothesis that, since winter was "the social domain of women" (59), winter might also be a time of intensified rivalry, because of female goading, but concludes that the initiation of conflicts is not gendered but seasonal (61). The chapter ends with the assertion that "reference to four seasons...invites their use in images of progress and development, while the bipartite calendar is more suitable for the expression of contrasts"; the literature discussed in this book primarily exploits the latter "because [reference to the seasons] enhances, even enables, the otherness of the scene" (62). Why the seasons, a phenomenon with which all would be familiar, should contribute to a sense of otherness is not explained.

Chapter 2 ("Winter Mindscapes") begins with a useful overview of past research on the seasons in each of the three literary traditions discussed in this book (Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English) and then introduces the idea of winter as an "unchanging environment" (as opposed to a stage in a cycle) that is "evoked for reasons of contrast with society" (67). Langeslag briefly introduces theoretical ideas from psychogeography, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Bakhtin to posit a "detheorized, seasonal application of chronotopicity" which is "reduced to the identification of the landscape and season of narrative action," even though "landscapes connotative of particular seasons may be found in isolation from, or even in conflict with, the narrative time of year" (69). There are so many disparate abstractions here, alongside denials of use of them, that it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what is being argued. The rest of the chapter is divided up into discussions of the Old English elegies, Beowulf, and giants and magic in Old Norse literature which, thankfully, do not require those abstractions to be understood. The reading of the elegies (alongside a selection of other Old English texts that refer to "cold water") for the most part supports traditional readings: exposure to the hostile natural world in winter ("hibernal unease" [75]) leads the Wanderer and the Seafarer, like Edwin's advisor in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, to seek security and certainty from God. Some of the readings, however, seem unhelpfully novel; for example, the cave-setting of The Wife's Lament is unique to that poem, not "typical" of elegies. It is also disappointing to see the one explicit seasonal reference in that poem, to the sumerlang day, dismissed as not really seasonal (70) and the incongruous embrace of the winter seascape by the Seafarer reduced to "accentuating the fragility of the strawman of earthly joys" (80). The analysis of Beowulf offers some solid readings, but there is also a tendency to assert equivalences that are not entirely convincing. That is, no one would dispute that cold is associated with winter, but cold is not quite equivalent to winter; in the same way, cold is not equivalent to water, even if they often appear together, and water is not necessarily evil, even if monsters live in it. In the discussion here, night, cold, the natural world, marine animals, the supernatural, metal, treachery, death, terror, and mourning are all asserted to be aspects of winter, because "winter is a universal trigger, hardwired into our associative taxonomy because its survival require vigilance" (100). This is questionable (can associative taxonomies be hardwired?). We may concur that "winter and water landscapes must have had potential for horror," but mourning (as at Scyld Scefing's funeral) is not the same as terror, even if ice appears in scenes associated with both of them. In the discussion of Norse literature, giants and the Sami are both plausibly linked with winter, but the conclusion that winter is thus inevitably linked with magic is less convincing; the same path of logic might lead us to see skiing as evil. The chapter concludes that "geographical features peripheral to social space become distrusted in consequence of their unfamiliarity" (111), again equating what might be considered a related but separate thing (an alien landscape) with winter. The associations between these ideas are real, but I am not convinced that Beowulf's swimming in a winter sea by night in a storm accompanied by monsters renders all of these concepts into aspects of winter.

Chapter 3 ("Winter Institutions") moves on to address winter as a cyclical event, starting with the hypothesis that winter narratives feature a higher concentration of themes of supernatural threats and solitary affliction. As Langeslag notes, Old Icelandic prose supports this hypothesis well, while Old English verse tends to associate these themes with night rather than with winter. The first section of the chapter, "Hauntings," is further divided into subsections on "Revenants," "Christmas Visitors," and "Accounting for Winter Hauntings" and focuses especially on Grettis saga. It is suggested that the difficulty in complying with Christian burial rites in subarctic climates "gave a considerable boost to revenant traditions and strengthened any association they may already have had with the winter season" (128). The second section, "The Grendel Season," is subdivided into "The Cave Episode," "The Defence of the Hall," and "Keeping Quiet." Langeslag reviews the debate over the relationship between Beowulf and Scandinavian analogues, arguing first that "the underlying narrative of the cave episode was better preserved in Scandinavia than in England" (131), second that Beowulf shows more similarity with the Irish folktale of The Hand and the Child than with the Scandinavian motif of the hall haunted in winter, and third that Grendel's motivation is modelled on diabolical envy rather than, as in the Irish folktale, on the capture of a child, but without the seasonal elements common in the sagas. The third section, "Seasonal Progression in Beowulf," discusses the restrictions on travelling imposed by winter described in the Finnsburh episode. The fourth section, "The Bonds of Winter," returns to the elegies, along with Beowulf, Andreas, and Maxims I; Langeslag argues that winter in these texts brings restriction and affliction. The fifth section, "Winter Conflict," considers the martial hostilities undertaken both in real life and in medieval Scandinavian literature; "winter landscapes and winter weather...signal violence and danger" (154). The final section, "Prognostication and Prophecy," refers to the Christmas season as "a time for resolutions in Old Norse Culture" (154) and suggests a link between winter and prophecy shared by both Latinate prognostics and "the literary motif of the travelling prophetess," who arrives in winter (156). Although there are some valuable insights into Beowulf in this chapter, it is not entirely clear what is meant by the "institutions" of its title or what the "Grendel season" might be, given that it is argued that Beowulf is not seasonal. The chapter is useful mostly for showing the variety of associations that winter might have as a "time of intense activity in the periphery of the human domain" (157).

Chapter 4 ("Summer Adventure") turns (mostly) to Middle English literature and to the other half of the year, to the spring and summer seasons underrepresented in Old English and Old Norse texts. Langeslag provides good summaries of the accepted views of seasonal imagery in Middle English texts, starting with the connection between spring and love. However, love proves less important than adventure, and so the more clement weather provides opportunities for romance heroes and others to leave familiar, indoor spaces and thus encounter new experiences. Interestingly, this situation seems to be the reverse of the one described in previous chapters, in which it was the constriction caused by winter that created the opportunity for conflict and encounters with the natural and supernatural. The chapter begins with a section called "Vision and Debates," which ranges across the eighth-century Latin poem, Conflictus veris et hiemis, The Owl and the Nightingale, Piers Plowman, Death and Liffe, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, Wynnere and Wastoure, The Parlement of the Thre Ages, Destruction of Troy, Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, The Legend of Good Women, Pearl, and Als I lay in a winteris nyt. Covering thirteen texts in ten pages, this section provides a brief overview of the presentation of seasonal imagery in the related genres of dream vision and debate. Typically, the warm weather associated with summer provides a context in which a dream might be had; winter dream visions are very rare. A much longer section, "The Forest of Romance," starts with the different histories of the transformation of the primeval forest in Britain and on the mainland and then is further divided into subsections. The first, "Summer Forests, Summer Fairies," ranges over Guy of Warwick, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Sir Degaré, Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal, and Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, concluding that the forest is the "undisputed romance landscape for contact with fairies and the superhuman" and that "the forest is also overwhelmingly a summer environment" (183). The next subsection, "Adventures in Old Norse Prose," argues that the motifs of journeying in the sagas "seem to have arisen independently of European influence" (185) and that the time of expeditions in these texts are "relative to the seafaring season" (186). The subsection on "Exile" acknowledges that forests are not always summer environments; when they appear in winter, they share "associations of exilic deprivation comparable to those of Old English lyric" (190). Nevertheless, the various versions of the story of Tristrem and Ysonde present the forest to which the couple are exiled as a locus amoenus, regardless of the season, because "afflictions in the narrative are eclipsed by the joy of the lovers' union" (192). The next subsection, "Winter Romance: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," convincingly demonstrates how the expectations associated with the dangerous, wintry outside are inverted to show that it is the familiar, comfortable, inside that poses the greatest danger: "In the hierarchy of dangers in [Gawain's] path, it turns out, winter is more daunting than knights and superhuman enemies, but moral lapse is the greatest danger of all" (199). The chapter concludes that, on the basis of their use of seasonal imagery, Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English literature are legitimately seen as distinct: "there is some validity in the degree to which some of these vernaculars tend to be studied in isolation from their neighbours" (206). Langeslag notes in particular "how strong a tradition of its own each of the corpora has" and that "the relative uniformity among members of each of these traditions speaks to the strength of each" (206).

The book overall is carefully presented, with an impressively full, up-to-date bibliography and brief index, and there is certainly a wealth of useful material for anyone thinking about any aspect of the seasons in the literatures of the medieval North. However, despite the scholarly breadth and great interest of the material, I felt oddly disappointed upon reaching the end of this book. It was as if all the resources were assembled to construct a ground-breaking new argument about Old English, Scandinavian, and Middle English literary traditions, or about the meaning of the seasons, but nothing much new emerged from the comparison. Perhaps the great interdisciplinary range dissipated the literary ideas; perhaps, as Langeslag suggests, these three traditions simply do not have much to say to each other.

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