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19.09.05 Wallace, Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418

19.09.05 Wallace, Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418

A long-time advocate for understanding the active and widespread literary currents of medieval Europe, David Wallace provides us the opportunity to see those currents in motion with his two-volume compendium of commissioned essays examining a seventy-year period in the literary history of European cities and regions stretching from Iceland to the Balkans. Comprising 82 essays, as well as Wallace's comprehensive general introduction and generous section introductions, the two volumes narrow the time frame under inspection to that lifespan marked on one end by the great pandemic of 1348 and on the other end by the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The first event depopulated Europe by 30%; the other worked to reestablish a Europe unified by a single papal authority. The volumes' narrow timeframe allows the essays to provide more of an historical snapshot than an historical narrative of any particular literary tradition's development.

In contrast to the collection's clear chronological termini, the volumes' definition of "Europe" is expansive, forgoing the usual classifications by national or linguistic boundaries that reflect modern concerns more than medieval ones. The essays, instead, are organized into nine itineraries that frequently (but don't always) cross modern linguistic and national boundaries. At times, for instance, volume 1's five itineraries superficially reinforce those boundaries. Generally, though, they illustrate the ways literary cultures mixed and mingled. Itinerary 1, Paris to Béarn, remains within modern France; Itinerary 2, Calais to London, is an English itinerary, with an initial nod to Calais's status as an English colony during the fourteenth century; Itinerary 3, St Andrews to Finistère, comprises the rest of the British Isles, plus reaching up to Iceland and over to Brittany; Itinerary 4, Basel to Danzig, crosses many national borders but, except for Danzig, they share a Germanic linguistic heritage; Itinerary 5, Avignon to Naples, starts in modern France with a city that during this period made rival claims to Rome as the seat of the papacy, but otherwise the itinerary is Italian. In volume 2, the itineraries cross more borders, including those marking continental Europe: Itinerary 6, Palermo to Tunis, encompasses the western Mediterranean while also circling the Iberian peninsula and taking in the Canary Islands off the Atlantic coast of Northern Africa; Itinerary 7, Cairo to Constantinople, skirts the eastern Mediterranean, with Sis in Armenia as the most inland location; Itinerary 8, Mount Athos to Muscovy, is unified by Eastern Orthodoxy, moving northward from the Aegean Sea to the Baltic Sea before a eastward turn to Moscow; and, Itinerary 9, Venice to Prague, traces the western Adriatic seaboard, before heading north across eastern Europe and spiraling west through central Europe's great river cities. A tenth itinerary consists only of Constance, the mid-European city that became the destination for churchmen and princes, authors and opportunists, who travelled there for the great Council that attracted individuals from Christendom and beyond. In both volumes, the itineraries transgress standard literary histories by (most modestly) highlighting networks of affiliation or (more boldly) taking the reader beyond the boundaries normally associated with Europe, with a drop into northern Africa, a long lingering in western Asia Minor, and a reach into western Russia, thereby arguing not that these are European regions, but that European literary history must account for European intercourse with these fertile, adjacent regions. Europe shows that any literary history remaining cloistered within the national and linguistic boundaries imposed well after the medieval period tells only a partial story.

At the same time, the collection asks us to reimage the shape of literary and cultural transmissions. The essays identify the particular literary identity of each location, explaining how it championed literature or literary exchange in some way. Each place is associated with a combination of aristocratic patronage, mercantile exchange, and monastic and clerical production. Sometimes these literary associations are evoked by the static evidence of libraries and book collections; sometimes by the roaming literati who frequented the place. Taken together, the essays attached to each itinerary also illustrate the mingling that occurs as literature moves along the circuits over which medieval men and women travelled. Generally overlapping the thoroughfares travelled by princes and diplomats, monks and pilgrims, soldiers and armies, and merchants and marauders, each itinerary reveals networks of regional identities that question nineteenth-century concepts of nation states and national literary histories.

Europe: A Literary History thus becomes a guidebook encouraging us to see the diversity of local particularities and the interconnections of regional affiliations, a significant contrast to the underpinning role of Latin civilization that animated Ernst Robert Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953). Similar to Curtius's efforts to restore Europe's sense of unity after it was torn apart by nationalist aggressions in the mid-20th century, Wallace's volumes work to undermine the premises justifying the retreats to nationalist isolation threatening to tear Europe apart today. Undergirding Wallace's vision, however, is the distinct contribution of each locale. Consequently, the volumes are not written in a single, dominant style. Like the areas they illuminate, each essay has its own personality and literary focus.

This review, rather than attempting to provide summaries of the two volumes' 82 chapters, will activate the premise underlying the collection by following another itinerary, a network stretching across and intersecting with Wallace's organizing itineraries. My excursion takes advantage of the volumes' extensive indexing and cross-referencing, which help identify new networks, a step further encouraged by the maps on the endpapers that show Europe's major cities but not the organizing itineraries. To go off-trail, I traced Anne of Bohemia's 1381 trip from Prague to Westminster, a journey that falls midway through the period examined in Europe and took her from near the territorial center of Europe to an island off the continent's western mainland.

From her brother Wenceslas's court in Prague, Anne's entourage would likely have crossed the Ore Mountains and followed the Main River to the Rhine River before turning east toward Brussels, where they spent a month with the duchess of Brabant, Anne's aunt. From Brussels they went to Bruges, and then to Calais, a rough and ready frontier town "where England begins"--and Anne's first taste of England (Wallace, 1.188). Handed over to English attendants, she and her retinue were conducted across the channel, disembarked at Dover, escorted to Leeds Castle for Christmas (with an intriguingly possible stop in Canterbury), and then taken on to London and Westminster for her marriage and coronation. The trip takes us from what was the cultural center of fourteenth-century Europe to its marginal western frontier. If we take this royal itinerary and overlay it on Europe, important literary networks light up, helping us map the cross-cultural encounter that encompasses the entire span from Prague to London.

The chapters tracing Anne's westward passage (Lenka Jirouškova's "Prague," Horst Brunner's "Würzburg," Manfred Groten's "Cologne," Remco Sleiderink's "Brussels," Frank Willaert's "Bruges," David Wallace's "Calais," Peter Brown's "Canterbury," and Andrew Galloway's "London, Southwark, Westminister") span three of the Europe's nine itineraries. For all their efforts to illustrate the singularity of their literary nexus, many of the essays feature similar topics and texts, such as chronicles, lay piety, aristocratic patronage, political literature, Arthurian and Trojan themes, and the promotion of Biblical translation into local vernaculars. Particularly suggestive are the repeated appearances of two authors--Jean Froissart and Guillaume de Machaut--naturally found in Itinerary I's discussion of each of their cities, Valenciennes (Hainault) and Reims, respectively--as well as in other French regions where their influences were manifest. Their other appearances in the volumes, however, figure predominately along this Prague-to-London axis. Tracing the appearances of these literary figures shows how routes well-worn by the nobility, merchants, diplomats, and literati correspond to complex zones of linguistic, literary, and theological exchange. In the case of Anne's travels, she was following a route mapped by a series of fourteenth-century marriages among Plantagenet, Luxembourgian, and Bohemian family networks (Wallace, "Introduction" 1.6-7). These affiliations encouraged literary and other cultural exchanges between "the German Empire and the French-speaking aristocratic world," which included Brussels and London (Sleiderink, 1.534). The literary residuum of these exchanges can be detected in the chapters dedicated to the cities along the route, leavings that illustrate the fundamental claim of Europe: people and texts were constantly mingling, moving along routes, and appropriating in ways that early medieval studies and its nationalist claims ignored.

So we can trace how this east-west route records the peregrinations of Guillaume de Machaut (the poet and musician) and Jean Froissart (the historian). The chapters are less about their work being transmitted along these pathways and more about their own travels in search of sponsorships. Though linked to Reims (Jane H. M. Taylor, 1.70-85), Machaut began his career as secretary and court poet to John of Luxembourg (known as King John the Blind), whose marriage to Elizabeth of Bohemia in 1310 connected the two noble houses, as well as eastern and western Europe. Thus employed, Machaut travelled with John, back and forth along the Prague to the Low Countries corridor. His Judgment of the King of Bohemia sets his patron as the model for aristocratic elegance (1.75). With John's death (fighting the English at the Battle of Crécy) and Machaut's return to Reims (where his "A toy Henri" records his miseries as Edward III of England lay siege to the city), Machaut completes his account of the Prague-London axis (1.78). Jean Froissart, on the other hand, began his affiliations with this network by serving Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault, until her death (Jane Gilbert, 1.59-65). He continued along the network by next serving Joanna and Wenceslas (half-brother of Charles IV, King of Bohemia), duchess and duke of Brabant, whose ducal palace as the center of the city's literary life welcomed poets and performers in German, French, and Dutch--and their young niece's Bohemian entourage in 1381 (Sleiderink, 1.532-4). Froissart's Méliador began as an Arthurian text promoting "English territorial interests" before being transformed into a framework for the duke's lyrics (Gilbert 1.16-62; Wallace 1.6).

Through cross-referencing, we can also see how ideas about Biblical translation into local vernaculars spread along this route. We know that members of the Plantagenet, Brabant, and Luxembourg families initially supported Biblical translation into the vernacular. Anne's future husband's uncle, John of Gaunt, was a reputed supporter of John Wyclif, whose followers were among the earliest translators of the Bible into English (see, for example, Barr, 1.290). And we know that Wyclif's writings were taught at the university in Prague. In Prague, Anne's brother Wenceslas owned a German translation (Jirouškova, 2.637), and Anne brought to England her "Evangeliary written in Czech, German, and Latin" (2.643). By the time the Council of Constance met, though, Wyclif's teachings were formally condemned, and his Czech disciple Jan Hus was declared a heretic and executed (Wallace, 2.662). In the span of time covered byEurope, Wyclif's ideas had been formulated, promulgated, acted upon, discredited, and condemned from England to Prague.

With these brief observations, I am not arguing that Wallace's volumes allowed me to see something absolutely novel or hitherto invisible. I am saying, though, that this compilation holds the promise of identifying underappreciated, understudied literary networks that merit deeper and more exhaustive study--even if that means some of the noted patterns tell us less about fourteenth-century Europe and more about the interests of twenty-first literary scholars of those regions.

Europe: A Literary History is best approached as a medieval compendium posing as a travel guide. Clocking in at nearly 1700 pages and weighing over eight pounds, it is reminiscent of outsized medieval codices too large for dipping into while traveling or reading straight through while curled up in a favorite reading chair. It deserves one of those reading desks that medieval scholars are depicted using, where they can have multiple volumes open simultaneously. I read the volumes at my desk, with my computer's internet browser open so I could search maps and images, taking each side trip that this literary Baedeker encourages us to take. As with any Baedeker, the use and value of Europe depends on the user. I found most useful the chapters on cities (and their literature) with which I was more familiar. The deluge of information neatly fit into my mental frameworks, even as it disrupted some of my previous knowledge. For those cities (and their literatures) most unknown to me, the rush of information packed into a short essay felt like a deluge. I advise readers--just as I'd advise travelers--to guide your perusals by selecting a topic--such as "vernacular fictions," "Latin verse," "women's writing," or "Biblical translation." I also recommend tracing other routes that intersect with the organizing itineraries. For instance, choose the travels of a person. I chose Anne of Bohemia, but many other figures would serve: Mauchaut, Froissart, Chaucer, Petrarch, Margery Kempe, Hildegard of Bingen, Henry Bolingbroke, Ibn al-Khatib, or Gregory Tsamblak. Or choose the journeys of a text: Mandeville's Travels not only depicts travels but travelled itself throughout Europe and Europe's two volumes. Each chapter is an excellent starting point for considering these European literary itineraries. By then connecting a chapter thematically to other chapters in Europe, the reader will find new vistas for exploration.

My major desiderata: I wish Europe came with--or linked to--a detailed map that, in addition to identifying each of the 82 places with a chapter, noted the roads and waterways linking the cities on each circuit. As much as I appreciated how the endpapers' unbordered maps encouraged me to create new itineraries, I frequently wished for carefully plotted maps that would provide initial orientation.