16.11.35, Treharne, Medieval Literature

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Clare Lees

The Medieval Review 16.11.35

Treharne, Elaine. Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xvii, 141. ISBN: 978-0-19-966849-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Clare Lees
King's College London
clare.lees@kcl.ac.uk

How would you pique the curiosity of the general reader regarding the first thousand years of writing in Britain and Ireland? Elaine Treharne's contribution to the Oxford University Press series of Very Short Introductions, Medieval Literature, more than rises to the challenge. A medievalist known for her ability to work across the entire period, Treharne has demonstrated in a series of publications--companions, introductions, anthologies and monographs included--her commitment to writing for a wide readership within the academy. She is an excellent choice to write this new Introduction, a series that is itself one of the most successful products of Oxford University Press. There are well over 400 volumes of Very Short Introductions, attractively priced, handy (in every sense of the word, including being pocket-sized), and with a reach into multiple markets. Treharne's is not the only medieval volume in the Series--John Blair, Miri Rubin and John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths have all offered very short histories of the earlier and later Middle Ages--but hers is the first to engage with the literary history of Britain and Ireland. And engage with the whole of the period, she does.

There is a temptation when putting together such a brief introduction to medieval British literature to draw on long established narratives, repeating and rehearsing those familiar parameters, authors and works still to be had in many an anthology or history. What is particularly successful about Treharne's approach, however, is its use of up-to-date research that reframes such a narrative, ceding to English medieval literature neither chronological nor literary dominance of the field. To be sure Medieval Literature begins with the emergence of textual cultures in the islands of Britain and Ireland, after Rome, and the arrival of those peoples in the fifth and sixth centuries who would eventually call themselves English in the ninth and tenth. But what follows is not structured by the narrative logic of periodization (whereby the early medieval, or Anglo-Saxon period, gives way to the high and late medieval periods) or by that of chronological event (1066 or the Reformation, for example). Its final chapter or Coda does indeed comment on the emergence of print culture and Caxton in the fifteenth century, which is a conventional enough ending for the medieval period, but its three short paragraphs focus the reader more on the resilience of medieval literature than the emergence of early modern literary culture. Using Caxton as her inspiration, the real story of Medieval Literature for Treharne is the matter of Britain. Her approach is accordingly spatial, drawing on the literatures of Wales, Ireland and Scotland as well as England, and thematic, drawing on structuring concepts such as textual production and performance (chapter 2) or death and judgement (chapter 7), rather than chronological and periodic.

The approach offers Treharne the opportunity to map out the multi-lingual, multi-cultural and trans-chronological character of this long literary period; the newer narrative of literary history in the islands of Britain and Ireland. It is also a fine solution to the difficulties of dating medieval, especially early medieval, literature. And the result is a narrative evidently relished by Treharne. At every turn, the once dominant national narrative of English literature history with its emphasis on the high Middle Ages finds itself reframed. Nennius and Gildas are given as much attention as Bede and William of Malmesbury; Arthurian literature, threaded throughout the book, is introduced with reference to the fifteenth-century Welsh poet Siôn Cent (in chapter 1) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in chapter 4) as well as Caxton in the Coda (chapter 9). There are useful text boxes on Welsh, Anglo-Latin, French, Irish, Cornish and Scottish literature as well as Old English and Middle English literature. While each chapter does maintain a semblance of chronological sequence within its thematic narrative, it is a pleasure to see how balanced is Treharne's offer of medieval literature. To take just a couple of other examples, Beowulf and the tenth-century Battle of Brunanburh find their place alongside the Táin, Gerald of Wales, the fifteenth-century Athelston, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Piers Plowman in chapter 3; and elegies of loss, love and longing are illustrated by the Welsh ninth-century Heledd cycle as well as by the Old English elegies and the Harley lyrics in chapter 6. As these examples also suggest, the earlier medieval centuries are as fully integrated into Medieval Literature as are later ones. Women's literary history is similarly integral to Treharne's narrative, whether she is examining the importance of women's patronage of the writing of history in the twelfth century (in chapter 2), the Katherine group of saints' lives (in chapter 4) or of the works of Marie de France (in chapter 5).

Refreshing as it is to read an account of medieval literature that gives as much (and sometimes rather more) pride of place to Welsh literature as it does to English or French, other emphases are also welcome. As we might also expect from Treharne's scholarly interests, the materiality of medieval textual production is of much concern as the subject of its texts. The eighth-century Franks Casket is used to illustrate the multiple scripts and stories of the early Middle Ages in chapter 1, for example, while chapter 2 is devoted to production as well as performance. Runic and Ogham scripts are introduced as well as high prestige gospel books. The tenth-century 'Cotton' map (London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B v) illustrates the world of early Britain in chapter 1 while the Hereford Map is discussed in chapter 5. Treharne has ensured that her readers see different examples of medieval scripts and styles throughout (although the quality of these images of medieval manuscripts is inevitably not high, given the production values and price of this book).

Overall, Treharne's take on the literary history of the medieval period is descriptive as well as thematic; multi-lingual as well as trans-temporal. Her characterisation of its literature is appreciative and celebratory. For her very short introduction to the long medieval period, Treharne offers that oldest of literary genres--praise.

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