17.10.30 , Discenza, Inhabited Spaces

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Emily Thornbury

The Medieval Review 17.10.30

Discenza, Nicole Guenther. Inhabited Spaces: Anglo-Saxon Constructions of Place. Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series . Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2017. pp. xii, 261. ISBN: 978-1-4875-0065-8. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Emily Thornbury
thornbury@berkeley.edu
thornbury@berkeley.edu

Standing at the intersection of anthropology and literature, the study of early mentalities offers new perspectives on others' thoughts and on our own. With a better knowledge of the worldviews held by the creators of ancient and medieval texts, we can understand and appreciate much that might otherwise have seemed simply alien; at the same time, by showing that our own views are not the only ones possible, we can approach our own assumptions with a new clarity. This double perspective is the goal of Inhabited Spaces, Nicole Guenther Discenza's new book on conceptions of space and place in early medieval England. While primarily concerned with explicating the Anglo-Saxons' views, her regular comparisons to contemporary ideas--from cosmological research to internet culture--makes clear that our own notions are neither as alien from nor as similar to the medieval as we might sometimes like to think.

Discenza's definitions of space and place are derived from contemporary theories of human geography. While places are known, bounded, and usually named, "space" describes more open, less defined and controlled regions. The two are in continual dialogue, however; and Discenza's analysis shows a drive in Anglo-Saxon literature to convert spaces into places via a series of methods--above all, through narrative. At the same time, even in its forms least accessible to humans, space for the Anglo-Saxons was never wholly chaotic. Discenza identifies a dynamic of "order and plenitude" in early English writings, in which rational, often divinely-constituted systems controlled the proliferation of life that suffused the Anglo-Saxons' universe. Drawing on a range of modern works of philosophy and anthropology (most crucial of which are Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, and Yi-Fu Tuan), Inhabited Spaces provides an interesting and engaging tour of the world as the Anglo-Saxons imagined it, and offers a plausible account of the concerns that lay behind their writings on space and place.

The book is arranged in three main sections, each focused on a different way of orienting people within their world. The first, a single chapter on "Earth's Place in the Cosmos," considers the Anglo-Saxons' views on the configuration of the universe, and about interactions between heavenly bodies and the earth. While she presents evidence that the early English knew the earth was round and that Bede, at least, used direct observation to understand the tides, Discenza's purpose is not to illustrate the (un)modernity of the Anglo-Saxons' scientific thought, but rather to show how their writings about the cosmos fit into their larger ideological commitments. For instance, varying explanations for the light that appears to emanate from the stars and planets tend to correspond to the purpose of the writings in which such explanations appear: "When a model of the divine is at stake, the idea of the sun as the central source of all light dominates. When more pedestrian or secular concerns appear, the idea of the sun and stars as separate fires can come to the fore" (48). Consistently, though, the Anglo-Saxons imagined the world beyond the human realm as full of life, often dangerously so. In the sphere of air surrounding the earth, for example, the plenitude of birds serves as the sign of a greater and more troubling plenitude of unseen spirits: in one homily, "Ælfric uses the visible birds of the air to make his audience aware of the invisible inhabitants and the threat they pose [...] The air is full of life both visible and invisible, and the invisible can harm human beings" (25). The knowledge of such dangers is made bearable, however, by an understanding of the cosmos as a "legible space" (22) whose message is, ultimately, that of divinely-constructed order.

Learning how to make sense of one's own, sometimes humbling, place in a larger order is the thread connecting the next section, a pair of chapters that takes up the question of England's relationship to the human world. In "England, the Mediterranean, and Beyond," we see Anglo-Saxon authors coming to terms with a world centered culturally and (in almost all contemporary maps) physically on Rome and Jerusalem, and in which Britain was peripheral, clinging to the edge of the known world. Through study of a wide range of texts--most but not all translations from imported Latin books--Discenza outlines the Anglo-Saxons' strategies for coping with their marginality. With the Old English Orosius as her foundational example, she identifies four major rhetorical techniques for adapting foreign histories and geographies to Anglo-Saxon audiences: while these include the omission of some information, Old English authors also gave their readers intellectual sway over foreign parts by repeating names, connecting them to histories on large and small scales, and describing the nature and ways of their inhabitants (71). Narrative and description thus prove to be essential to comprehension of the world's true nature; and in the following chapter, "Recentring: The North and England's Place," we see these adapted to reassert England's importance in the world. By inserting familiar names amid foreign ones, zooming out to consider a cosmic perspective in which the English were no less (in)significant than any other people in time, or simply through the act of translating major Latin works into English, the Anglo-Saxons, Discenza argues, worked to establish their own place in the world's written history.

The final section of the book moves from named geographical regions to a more general consideration of human habitation. The first chapter, "Fruitful Wastes in Beowulf, Guthlac A, and Andreas," investigates Anglo-Saxon views of the uninhabited regions of land and water bordering human settlements. These prove to have much in common with the invisibly populated zones of air explored in Chapter 1: "For Anglo-Saxons, waste and water offered perilous, disorderly fullnesses that could threaten more proper places; at the same time, these spaces were not distant or rare but close and common. [...] The variety and chaos of the cosmos impinge on the world in these places, threatening the more unified hearth that may lie quite close to the waste or the water" (141). Unlike the air, though, wastelands offered the possibility of transformation through human effort. Guthlac's conversion of the fenlands offers one example; Andreas' Mermedonia, an even more striking and unexpected one. As Discenza shows, this exotic country is described as mearcland ("borderland") and waste country even though its inhabitants live in massive, elaborate stone-built cities. In the poem, civilization is a matter not of technical accomplishment, but of spiritual orientation, and Mermedonia becomes fruitful only once the apostle converts its people from heathen cannibals to Christians (157-61). The "wasteland" of Mermedonia's great city thus foreshadows some of the ambivalence toward habitation itself explored in the final chapter, "Halls and Cities as Locuses of Civilization and Sin." Through a number of texts, especially Beowulf and Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the hall is presented as the paradigm of the "hearth," the organizing principle of human community; and yet this source of security is shown to be fragile, threatened: a site of transient joy. This double perspective is magnified in the case of cities, a perhaps somewhat exotic source of fascination to Anglo-Saxon authors like the poet of Genesis A: "Even while they paint cities as desirable conjunctions of art and human joys, Anglo-Saxon poets connect them to fall and death" (208). Paradoxically and fittingly, then, halls and cities are imagined as models for both heaven and hell, such that, ultimately, "reflection redirects the audiences of these texts to the heavens" (219).

Inhabited Spaces thus reveals the range and complexity of Anglo-Saxons' attitudes toward space and of the strategies they used to control it rhetorically--to transform spaces into places. At the same time, certain attitudes are consistent, including the religious conviction of a divinely-ordered cosmos, and a belief that the inhabitants of a place are the key to understanding it. These views, Discenza argues, often guided the Anglo-Saxons' adaptations of imported texts, and perhaps also motivated their choice of texts: Inhabited Spaces is thus likely to interest scholars of translation, since one of its most important themes is how mindset affected the adaptation of texts into an Anglo-Saxon context. This focus is clarified by the choice of texts for study, which is limited to works produced by Anglo-Saxons, rather than all those known or copied in Anglo-Saxon England. While this decision necessarily excludes some material that may well have been widely known, it provides Inhabited Spaces with a strong consistency and coherence. This will no doubt render it valuable to scholars of thought on space in all eras, and to those interested in the worldviews--sometimes familiar, and sometimes very foreign--that shaped the literature of early England.

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