18.05.17, Classen, Water in Medieval Literature

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James Smith

The Medieval Review 18.05.17

Classen, Albrecht. Water in Medieval Literature: An Ecocritical Reading. Ecocritical Theory and Practice. Lanham, MD:Lexington, 2018. pp. 358. ISBN: 978-1-4985-3984-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

James Smith
Trinity College Dublin

Albrecht Classen has developed a distinct brand through the publication of a variety of erudite, rigorous, and wide-ranging monographs, taking stock of themes and disciplines while expanding them. From Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to The Forest in Medieval German Literature, Classen is skilled at setting the tone for a debate. [1] His edited volumes are equally constructive, drawing in an astonishing range of scholars and perspectives. His De Gruyter handbooks--for example, the Handbook of Medieval Studies or the Handbook of Medieval Culture--attest to a career-long dedication to publications that are both broadly useful to scholars from across the disciplines of the humanities, and committed to original and novel primary source studies and literary readings. [2]

Water in Medieval Literature continues this mission into the study of water, highlighting its exciting diversity with confidence and nuance. It brings medieval and modern water(s) into direct and productive contact. In Classen's own words, "we are invited...to draw from insights developed [in pre-modern literature] as to the ethical, moral, religious, and philosophical meaning of water to further the present discourse on the great necessity to appreciate and respect water as the foundation of all human existence" (259). The book presents a collection of literary worlds in which water "mattered fundamentally in a myriad of manifestations, symbols, motifs and themes" (xxxv). The footnotes are copious and a mine of useful references, and the bibliography is an impressive compendium.

There is something for everyone, and no medievalist will go away disappointed. Each chapter functions well when taken on its own, controlled and to the point and yet rich. The book has particular strengths: its robust and multi-textual structure, and its selection of literature with a pan-European breadth of linguistic diversity, generic variation, thematic resonances and presentations of water.

The introduction (vii-xlvi) provides a welcome and thoughtful reflection on the myriad of methodological and disciplinary challenges arising from the study of water. It acknowledges the usefulness of medieval perspectives in contemporary environmental debates (vii) and the crucial role of a capacious environmental humanities approach in addressing the study of water. (viii) It also provides a survey of the tropes that characterize hydro-social interactions with water in the Middle Ages (xiv-xxxi). The chapter is sub-divided by thematic sub-sections of varying length, allowing a quick engagement with sources. It would be impossible to survey the full breadth of scholarship in a short introduction, and Classen has wisely focused on teasing out the themes relevant to his readings rather than aiming for a comprehensive review. The reader comes away from the chapter with an impassioned sense of relevance, purpose, and possibility.

Chapter 1 (1-52) focuses on the epistemologies and literary symbolism(s) of water in a pan-European context. Naturally this requires painting in broad strokes, but opens up the possibility for a fertile collection of intermingled flows within the ten textual studies to follow. I was pleased to see that the contradictions and ambiguities of water in the Middle Ages were acknowledged and discussed early on, but with the notion that "we will be empowered to recognize new layers of meaning within...texts, and those then can help us move forward in our critical awareness of water as the foundation of all human life..." (36). Negotiating universality and specificity is part of a fierce problem confronted by those untangling environmental epistemes of the past: to what extent do the worldview(s) and symbolic imagination(s) of the Middle Ages inform the present without significant philosophical interpretation? This point is picked up to good effect in the epilogue, which proposes that "we cannot hope to make an intellectual leap and find confirmation for the idea behind ecocriticism already in the pre-modern age" and that "we cannot expect that people in the past viewed their natural environment the same way as we do today" (257). Presentism is a mistake in water studies, but it is also true that water symbolism has an enduring longue durée dimension.

The following ten chapters act as a unit, providing a nuanced survey of literary readings that understand water as an ecocritical force across the broad scope of medieval literatures. Each case study focuses on a particular aquatic theme or set of themes. The case studies are: the Goliardic epic poem Herzog Ernst (53-62) focusing on transformation and maturation through travel to the Orient; the Voyage of St. Brendan, exploring the spiritual epistemology of the Western Seas (63-88); the Lais of Marie de France, with an emphasis on the search for happiness in a fluid world (89-104); Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius and religious transformation through water (105-118); Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival in the context of a grail romance (119-152); Mechthild of Magdeburg's The Flowing Light of the Godhead interpreting spirituality and liquidity in medieval mysticism (153-174); Boccaccio's Decameron and tears, fountains, well, and the Mediterranean (175-198); Njáls Saga, introducing travel, war and water (199-214); the Myth of Melusine in the prose romance of Jean d'Arras, with water creatures, wells and other life (215-236); and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron following flooding, voyaging, sexual violence and refuge (237-256). Each provides both a refreshing study of a text from an ecocritical lens, and focuses on those aqueous images proper to its subject matter.

The range spans well-known classics of medieval literature taken from across the period and across the continent of Europe, coupled with texts that may be less familiar to the reader. The range of languages is refreshing, giving a rich collection of perspectives beyond more commonly covered ground. Each chapter enshrines a set of themes brought out by the affordances offered by the text in question, but the themes merge together into a complex web of commonalities and contradictions that spread across the pages of the book. Classen states that he has designed the structure so that "the individual chapters stand on their own and add facets to a kaleidoscope picture..." (258).

Predictably, a book of this size cannot cover everything. For example, there is little recourse to what we might term the ecomaterialist turn in recent medieval ecocriticism, spearheaded by a series of edited volumes and monographs by Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert. [3] More attention to this field of scholarship might have softened a somewhat anthropocentric vocabulary. I would have enjoyed a greater sense of the different intermingled ontologies, the human-non-human interconnection, the intertextuality and the entanglement of human and non-human bodies that the book so eloquently reveals. Other approaches fall outside of Classen's remit (ecofeminism, for example) that could have been productively discussed, if not incorporated (259).

A note on the latter pages of the book. There is two-and-a-half page epilogue (257-259) appended to 255 pages of content. I felt that the content deserved a fuller and more discursive conclusion, and more digestion and synthesis in order to reiterate the many impactful and thought-provoking critical points that the reader can take away. Chapters 1 to 11 provide a brisk and controlled transition through a rich array of themes, but then end without attempting to fully reconcile them. I wanted to know more about the reflections of the author at the end of such a prodigious thematic odyssey. Similarly, the index (309-310) is somewhat anemic, and references only extremely prominent texts and personalities. However, the bibliography (261-308) is truly impressive and a selling point in itself: it will be invaluable to any medievalist, and captures a wealth of multi-lingual primary and secondary material.

That aside, the reader will find great value in this structure on its own terms: it effectively highlights the prevalence, nuance, and value of water as an ecocritical theme, and uses the model developed in the introduction and chapter 1 to bring texts to life that are both familiar and less well known. Future students and scholars of medieval studies will take comfort in having this book available. It is a purposefully useful book, and this kind of authorial generosity is a service to the academic community on par with critical editions and translations. Surveying and advancing a field is a rare skill, and Classen's contribution is well-balanced and very welcome to beginners and experts alike.

Water in Medieval Literature is a versatile and thematically extensive book, a way-marker on a path easily lost. I recommend it wholeheartedly for its most salient feature: it is both a thematic handbook and a critical study rolled into one. This synthesis is no mean feat, and deserves praise in and of itself. Classen successfully surveys the flows of both the study of water in the Middle Ages and of medieval ecocriticism. This provides a vehicle for navigating the currents of extended and discerning literary scholarship. It reminds us, if we needed any reminder, of the ecological potential and diversity of medieval European literature. It also admonishes us to remember that literature and environment is with us always in our textual readings, and that water can never be ignored.



1. (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005) and (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

2. (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010) and (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2015).

3. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (ed), Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (eds) Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); and a 2013 themed issue of the journal postmedieval on the topic of ecomaterialism (vol. 4, no. 1). See also Lowell Duckert, For All Waters: Finding Ourselves in Early Modern Wetscapes (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

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