17.02.06, Schiff and Taylor, eds., The Politics of Ecology

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Jill Rudd

The Medieval Review 17.02.06

Schiff, Randy P. and Joseph Taylor, eds. The Politics of Ecology: Land, Life, and Law in Medieval Britain. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016. pp. ix, 302. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1295-0 (hardback) 978-0-8142-7422-4 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Jill Rudd
University of Liverpool

Ecocriticism, ecotheory, is, at root, always tangled up in questions of value: are entities beyond the human to be valued and if so (ecotheory naturally assumes they are) in what terms, to what extent and, thorniest of all, how? Any question of value soon turns into a matter of law and politics, even as it is also a matter of ethics, for it seems that we humans mainly value things in terms of rights which may be broadly summarized as rules dictating who is allowed to do what to whom (or what) when and where. All of which may lead a reader to expect that the contents of a volume entitled The Politics of Ecology: Land, Life, and Law in Medieval Britain would have the comforting feel of a set of chapters that operate on recognisable premises and rehearse arguments whose outlines are familiar, even if we have not encountered them worked through in precise detail before. It is therefore greatly to the credit of both editors and contributors that reading this collection does not give rise to ennui or déjà vu. There are indeed familiar topics and threads--forest law, deer, poaching and the fact that many humans were regarded as worth less in monetary term than many animals--but the constraint of viewing such topics through the law also liberates much of the discussion, as this pre-defined focus allows for depth of analysis and unapologetic concentration on what might otherwise be deemed an insignificant element within a larger argument. The result is an engaging book which offers many insights and several surprises.

Jeanne Provost's contribution is a case in point. It discusses the trope of the Hunter King in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle--not exactly new ground, one might think, given how much critical attention has been bestowed upon this particular poem and on forests in medieval romance in general. Yet Provost's early focus on the parallels between the royal figure of the king, alone, and the sole deer he stalks and then slays (royal prey in both senses), sets the tone for an attentive unpacking of not just the interchangeability of king and stag as potential prey, but also of this poem's troubling of romance orthodoxy. With the entrance on the scene of the disaffected and displaced Gromer Somer Joure, Provost demonstrates how this poem exploits the connection between king and deer in a way that becomes increasingly unsettling as her essay progresses. An indication of what is to come is given early in this essay as the assertion that "human sovereignty was mediated by venison" is soon followed by the more disconcerting and intriguing "venison's role...reminds the audience that kings are made of meat, in more ways than one" (59). Thus kings become venison and we readers are reminded of something that may not have crossed our conscious minds before.

Provost's essay is readable and lively as well as disconcerting and thought-provoking, and in this it is typical of the collection as a whole. Even readers who are not familiar with the texts or laws treated by the various contributors will be able to garner much of interest as they work through these essays. Although the editors have grouped the contributions into three sections (Biopolitics and Forest Law; Objects, Networks, and Land; Politics, Affect, and Life) it soon becomes apparent that there are themes that connect essays in different sections as well as some threads that seem to run throughout, even if they are not the focus of attention for a particular piece. On the one hand, this endorses the editors' assertion that the collection as a whole focuses on the "critical zone" where "land, life and law thoroughly interanimate one another" (19). On the other, it serves as a reminder of ecocriticism's, or, more precisely, medieval ecocriticism's, ongoing preoccupation with a fairly small cluster of concerns: hunting; forest law; human/animal divides; consumption of animals as food, parchment or clothing. More broadly ecocritical attention has also been bestowed on landscape and the sea in medieval literature, but the complexity of responses, ideas and codes of behaviour, surrounding the forest both in literature and in life, continue to exert their appeal. As this volume shows, such continued fascination is no bad thing, as there are still riches to be found there.

A case in point is the question of place which, like the forest, is a recurring motif in this collection. Place, it is revealed, is a key issue when it comes to matters of legislation, because laws so often govern particular areas or define an area in which certain rules, or rulers, hold sway. Change place and quite often one also changes jurisdiction. However, it is less the question of where one might find life most genial as the matter of how one responds to the laws governing one's existence that are of interest to the editors here. Calculating risks or taking them, challenging laws or upholding or imposing them are thus part and parcel of life for king and for the commoner. Rivalry thus becomes a constant force, and power is found to be less interesting than the various elements that participate, consciously or otherwise, in power-play. Such power-play is as evident in Karl Steel's discussion, "Biopolitics in the Forest," as it is in Michelle Warren's tracking of furs in the lives of the London skinners, in Stephanie Batkie's essay on medieval political complaint or in Kathleen Coyne Kelly's detailed tracing of the fortunes of Inglewood and Tarn Waddling in an essay which brings the collection to an imaginative and emotive close.

Kelly's essay also focuses on another common object of attention in this collection: forests. Again, forests are a familiar focus of medieval literary discussion, ecocritical or not, but again this volume offers new ways of thinking of and with them. Appropriately enough, given the theme of negotiating legal bounds, trees refuse to be contained within their designated first part of the collection ("Biopolitics and Forest Law") and are to be found in six of the nine chapters in one guise or another. From the areas in which kings hunt and others poach, to the tree of life and Ruthwell Cross and the lost forests of Cumbria, trees actual or symbolic are a repeating motif. Quite what it is that makes trees so resonant for us humans is not a matter addressed directly by any of the essays in this collection, but it is one readers may be prompted to consider as they pass from considerations of forest law offered by Karl Steel and Randy P. Schiff, through King Arthur sitting at his "trestylle-tree" hunting station at the opening of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle in Jeanne Provost's essay, to the cross as a tree that may be cut but is not sacrificed in Kathleen Biddick's discussion of sovereignty, through the New Forest in which William II (Rufus) meets his death at the start of Joseph Kelly's wonderfully detailed consideration of the significance and signification of the king's corpse, to finish in Kelly's lost Inglewood Forest. One might even speculate that the cross Oswald causes to be raised as mentioned in Hurley's essay may have been of wood, although the reference to the moss upon it indicates it was more likely stone.

Tracing trees aside, there is much to be found of interest in this collection. Joseph Taylor (on the mortal remains of kings and royal princes) and Stephanie Batkie (on medieval complaints) serve to broaden our understanding of not just particular historical and literary practices and tropes, but also our habitual readings of them. These are engaging, historically informed, literary essays in which Batkie attends to allegory, while Taylor focuses on the material remains of kings and how they are treated. Taylor ends his discussion with the wry observation that by dwelling on the fate and misfortunes that attended the physical bodies of William Rufus, William Adelin and Henry I, William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis and Henry Huntingdon (respectively) prove not just that these royals were made of the same flesh as the rest of us, but that that flesh was not, in the end, very English--a worrying conclusion for those whose task was to help re-present Norman conquerors as divinely appointed English royals.

That slightly quirky tone is a marker of this volume as a whole. The reader feels the sense of fun contributors brought to the project as well as their intellectual rigour and theoretical engagement and this makes the book as a whole a pleasure to read. Such fun is not something commonly associated with the law and indeed the Introduction is rather less playful than some of the individual contributions, most notably Hurley's and Taylor's, but it is the duty of an Introduction to explain and defend the rationale of what follows, and Schiff and Taylor do that perfectly well. It is here we are introduced to the ways land, life and law are seen to interconnect under the aegis of biopolitics, and also to specific aspects of Giorgio Agamben's work. For those new to Agamben, who is very much the presiding spirit of the collection, the Introduction is in fact a rather good way to make a first acquaintance, with subsequent essays offering ways of building on or responding to Agamben that do not require detailed prior knowledge of his arguments. Foucault and Latour are likewise evident in both the general Introduction and some of the essays that follow, but in each case the strength of the argument is the application to the texts, artefacts or historical cases discussed and it is this persistent attention to example that makes the collection as a whole both highly readable and continually engaging.

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