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19.11.20 Davies, Visions and Ruins

19.11.20 Davies, Visions and Ruins

In her poem "Denigration," Harryette Mullen poses the question "Though slaves, who were wealth, survived on niggardly provisions, should inheritors of wealth fault the poor enigma for lacking a dictionary?" [1] In this, she invokes issues of cultural, educational, linguistic, literary, and economic inheritance in relation to how Black Americans are framed through language and the consequences of that on how they live in the world. Joshua Davies's Visions and Ruins: Cultural Memory and the Untimely Middle Ages takes up similar issues of cultural inheritance and consequences for those who have access to that inheritance. Focusing on the British Middle Ages, Davies explores how engagements with medieval artifacts offer "resources, templates and means of excavating our own and others' places in the world, and the workable memory trails that constitute those places" (201–2). Davies is interested in how his objects of study make meaning, how they not only speak of the past but how they inspire audiences to envision the present and to shape the future. As such, these objects are "untimely."

Davies describes his methodology as associative, but this only partly captures the ambition of his project. He grounds his discussions in the artifacts he examines and their historical origin, but he then pursues how they have been used in "cultural production and subject formation" (1). His book ranges widely across medieval texts, memorials, and monuments, and responses to them from contemporary and later sources; he crosses historical, linguistic, and cultural divides to put his texts and objects in dialogue; he weaves together scholarship from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, and juxtaposes their concerns with those of medieval and early modern authors. He discusses political invocations of the medieval as well as artistic responses and repurposing. However, Davies's goal is not to show through-lines and to elaborate intellectual genealogies, but to show, like Mullen, how cultural inheritance is used to make claims on who belongs and who is excluded. Davies performs the cultural memory that he is unpacking in this book. Excellent, attentive, nuanced close readings show how the texts and objects themselves invoke and perform the temporal ideas that Davies wants to discuss. Rather than merely imposing readings drawn from scholarship, he shows how the interests of the texts and objects align with those of current scholars, whether scholars of the Middle Ages (like Tricia Dailey, Jonathan Hsy, and Bernard Muir) or theorists (like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, Bruno Latour, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

Chapter 1 focuses on the Old English poem The Ruin to explore how texts exist both in and across time, and how they speak to various historical moments, not just the ones in which they were produced. He asks how medieval texts were received in particular historical contexts and how they drive "ways of knowing" (19) in those contexts. Beginning his reading of The Ruin by discussing the Exeter Book (the manuscript containing the poem), its (likely) appearance in Exeter as a gift from Leofric, its treatment (or abuse) at Exeter, and its discussion by scholars from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, Davies draws his reader into the poem through careful discussion grounded in its poetic craft, exploitation of ambiguous vocabulary, and strategic shifting of tense. However, Davies's concern is not merely with the developing scholarly discussion of the poem, but with The Ruin as an example of how texts resonate with audiences of various times who use them to produce meaning.

Following the parallel tracks of criticism on the Old English Ruin and creative translations and transformations, ranging from those by John Josias Conybeare and his brother, William, to that of the Scottish Edwin Morgan to that of Jacob Polley that was used in an immersive art installation in Bath in 2011 that Polley put together with Imogen Cloët, among others. Davies just touches on each of these translations, highlighting an overarching theme or approach and moving on. I found the readings of these translations and adaptations disappointing, not because they were wanting in quality but because they felt like they were curtailed. Davies demonstrates such skill in his readings of Old English verse that I wanted more and comparable treatments of each of the translations he includes. However, Davies's point is not to give us a full reading of these translations but to provide insight into howThe Ruin, and other Old English poetry, still has critical and creative power for us, and he certainly demonstrates that this is the case. Nonetheless, Davies also observes that the majority of those who engage with the poetry are male and that matters of ethnicity, race, class, and gender affect who has "access to and engagement with the past" (53).

Chapter 2 focuses on memorials that drew on Anglo-Saxon devotion to the cross as a means of revising the past and imagining a nation unified in race. Davies begins with the Eleanor Crosses, a series of monuments Edward I had erected along the route followed by the funeral cortège of his deceased wife, Eleanor. As with his discussion of The Ruin, Davies is interested in the cultural associations the Crosses have suggested to their commentators, although he acknowledges that, from the beginning, they were less a remembrance of a beloved queen than an assertion of royal authority. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of devotion to the cross, through text and monument, crosses were invitations to a community unified by faith. Davies pursues connections between the Eleanor Crosses and illustrations in the Luttrell Psalter to show how Edward I manipulated the history of the royal house's connection with the Jews in England, a population that he expelled in 1275, not least because he was deeply in debt to Jewish money-lenders. The series of cross monuments, which memorialized Eleanor as an ideal Christian queen and dissociated her from her foreign origins and the royal house from the Jews, also created a pilgrimage trail that provided a geographical narrative associating royal authority and spirituality, and recreating a memory of an individual that could be mapped onto a collective identity. Davies then traces responses to the Eleanor Crosses through the early modern and into the Victorian period. He shows how they were used during the Reformation, a period of collective trauma, and that they were especially meaningful during Victoria's reign when the Cross at Charing Cross was rebuilt in the Gothic style after the death of her consort, Albert. In both cases, the medieval was invoked, even copied, but the original meaning was supplanted to support a new collective, national identity.

In Chapter 3, Davies adapts W. E. B. DuBois's idea of "double consciousness," positing that in cultural memory there is a doubleness to the Middle Ages, at once present and absent. This "medievalist double consciousness is...a projection, a means of identifying a problem, undermining or bolstering a social identity" (120). He takes as his starting point Thomas Gray's poem, "The Bard," which claims to be based on a Welsh tradition that Edward I, after he had conquered Wales, had executed as many of the bards as he could. By calling on the "tradition," Davies argues, Gray presents the colonial history between England and Wales, locates England in the present and Wales in the past, and justifies the subjugation of Wales by England. Shifting to recent events, he turns to Prime Minister David Cameron invoking Magna Carta. For Cameron, Davies suggests, Magna Carta defined the modern state, which present-day Britain has inherited, but it is also valuable specifically because it is past. Davies sees these uses of the medieval as ways to justify the hegemony of the present through the absence of the past, including those who were subjugated. Davies then ties this in to nineteenth-century nationalism and fantasies of origin that were used to create collective identities defined by race and ethnicity. He closes this chapter by drawing connections between far-right invocations of the bards mentioned in Gray's poem in Hungary and renewed uses of medieval culture for claims of racial and ethnic nationhood today.

In his final chapter, Davies considers the language of gesture, looking variously at late medieval effigies, the film The Woolworths Choir of 1979, the late medieval poem St Erkenwald, and sculptures from Michael Landy's 2013 exhibition, Saints Alive. Through this chapter, Davies considers the importance of gesture in communicating with an audience, and of bodies remaining animated through time for each of these backward-looking texts. Not only does the gesture suggest that a body, even a stone representation of a body, might spring into action (and Landy's sculptures do just that), but they invite a reader or a viewer to interact with them, to participate in the language of gesture, which makes these texts and objects communicate across time and create meaning-making in various times.

One great strength of Davies's book is that he continually refers to the question of what is at stake. He lays out a theoretical approach, a way of reading temporally, and he applies that approach to great effect. Thus, he demonstrates that his approach is valid for the texts he examines; but he then goes on, time and again, to ask, in some form, 'What is at stake--politically and culturally--in these encounters? How do encounters with the past open up possible futures?' (35). Davies's book takes up the medieval and medievalism to demonstrate the ways that the medieval presented itself and how imagined medieval pasts have been used to present hierarchical, gendered, national identities to audiences from the early modern era up to our own time. For those interested in the relevance of the medieval past on the present and in the often-problematic invocations of fantasies of Middle Ages that never existed, this is a thoughtful and engaging text that has a great deal to offer. It is also a demanding book, one that might be daunting for an undergraduate who has not yet read widely enough to follow Davies's logical connections or to grasp the significance of them--and this review cannot do justice to all of the associations that Davies draws and that unify his book. Nonetheless, taking my lead from the question posed by Harryette Mullen that I opened with, I look forward to trying out individual chapters with my own students and seeing what they take from them and what medievalist connections they come up with on their own. After all, they should be able to claim the medieval as a part of their own cultural inheritance. In short, this is an engaging book written by a scholar who is immersed in the languages of his texts, the history of his monuments, the scholarship on them, and has managed to produce a book that offers something new to Medieval Studies while also being accessible to a range of audiences, if they are up to the task.



1. Harryette Mullen, "Denigration," Sleeping with the Dictionary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 19.