The Medieval Review 17.06.17

Cavell, Megan. Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature. Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2016. pp. xi, 343. $70.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-4426-3722-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Renee Trilling
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Metaphors of weaving and binding have long been recognized as central to the artistry of Anglo-Saxon England in its literary and material culture. Megan Cavell's book sets out to provide an exhaustive survey of references to weaving and binding throughout the extended poetic corpus, both material and metaphorical, seeking to rescue these images from the designation of "cliché" and examine, instead, what they can tell us about "Anglo-Saxon poetic constructions of reality" (10). The book is divided into three parts with ten chapters total: Part I focuses on material descriptions of weaving and binding in textiles, metalwork, building, and other objects; Part II explores metaphorical uses of weaving and binding in references to slavery and servitude; and Part III moves to the most abstract level, as metaphors of weaving and binding express the nature of the created world. Due in part to its organization, Weaving Words and Binding Bodies builds a methodical case for the centrality of these metaphors to Anglo-Saxon ways of understanding human existence. Throughout, Cavell plays artfully with the tension encoded in the opposing practices of construction and constriction that weaving and binding entail.

Cavell begins her exploration at the most concrete level of historical analysis. The three chapters of Part I examine the material elements of weaving and binding in textiles, in armor and metalwork, and in building techniques, respectively. Far from being emblematic of the female realm, textiles represent status in the world of Old English poetry, and Cavell also draws out their connections to the heroic register. In her reading, for example, Riddle 56 ("loom") draws "parallels between the common domestic task of weaving and imagery of violence through battle, torture, and execution," linking daily domestic practice (gendered feminine) with the heroic masculine realm (43). The following chapter takes up this link in Riddle 35 ("mail coat"), as the "flip side" of the loom riddle, illustrating the violence at the heart of the constructive process. The binding terminology highlighted in these two chapters then informs Cavell's discussion of building metaphors, where halls and ships from Beowulf to the riddles illustrate that "the violence inherent in so many of these depictions emphasizes the importance of craft and creation as useful tools in the human war against instability and change" (91). Weaving and binding, then, are ways for humans to assert control over an often-chaotic world.

Part II also contains three chapters that explore the theme of bondage. Cavell first treats imagery of the natural world as bound object, particularly in metaphors of the icy bonds of winter in wisdom poetry and elegies. These metaphors, she suggests, "provide an image of the world as one in which humans simply have to make do with what they get," as opposed to the control they exert over material objects in Part I (119). In religious contexts, however, God gives heroes like Christ, Andreas, and Juliana power over binding, both to overcome bonds placed upon them and to bind their enemies. The final chapter in this section explores metaphors of binding in relation to slavery and servitude, from the fetters that bind actual slaves to the bonds of servitude that link lord and retainer in the hall.

Finally, Part III takes on metaphors of binding and weaving at the most abstract level, to describe internal states of being and abstract concepts such as magic, fate, and peace. "Binding" here signifies any kind of connection that holds things together: the inner workings of the body, the weaving of words in language, and the construction of the created world. The book concludes with what many readers may have expected it to engage up front: a chapter on peace-weaving, perhaps the most familiar weaving metaphor in Old English criticism. Here, Cavell makes the claim that weaving is not a gender-specific activity per se, and that our understanding of "peace-weaving" as a feminine task does not account for what Cavell demonstrated in Part I about weaving as a constructive activity closely associated with a violence of its own, as well as the status of its created objects. Cavell concludes that the prevalence of weaving and binding metaphors in Old English poetry is linked explicitly to implications of power, control, and creation, arguing that "what ultimately unites both the acts of weaving and binding cross-culturally is the power that such construction and constriction bestow upon humanity and personified entities" (296).

The greatest strength of this volume is its massive scope; Cavell really does seem to account for every possible instance of binding or weaving imagery throughout the Old English poetic canon. Her attention to detail in each of these instances is exemplary; she takes the time to place each one in a critical context and to unpack its varying potential implications for our understanding of the metaphor. The book accumulates an immense amount of information about references to weaving/binding and its various linguistic and imagistic spinoffs, and it covers a tremendous range of the poetic canon. As a reader, however, I would have been happy to forego this level of detail in favor of a more streamlined and focused analysis. I finished the book thoroughly impressed with the breadth and flexibility of weaving/binding metaphors in Old English poetry, but I did not have a clear sense of their particular significance as a whole, apart from their prevalence. And perhaps that is significance enough. To her credit, Cavell gestures frequently toward potential implications for her analysis, but those implications vary from chapter to chapter and do not cohere into a particular thesis or argument about what these metaphors mean. This is, perhaps, simply the nature of a survey, and Cavell has certainly provided a detailed map to terrain that will continue to be rich for future exploration.

Copyright (c) 2017 Renée Trilling

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